Patricia has just been designated a high-potential leadership development candidate at her company. In the next three years, she will be given a wide range of special treatments, from leadership classes to 360-degree feedback and access to senior executives as mentors/role models. Yet, the most powerful experience that can be offered to Patricia is the “stretch assignment,” one that is short-term and is for the express purpose of a high potential’s development.
Unfortunately, organizations do not use stretch assignments often or strategically in their leadership development efforts. There are definite benefits, however, to the stretch assignment:
• Self-concept as a leader. Leadership candidates report that a stretch assignment was the most powerful activity that shifted their sense of themselves as leaders. The new role is a visible message to candidates and others that they have senior leadership’s trust and focus.
• Pragmatic feedback. The feedback received in the process of a stretch assignment can be powerful and effective. Organizations can structure these assignments to allow for in-depth processing afterward.
• Focusing a career. High-potential candidates can use stretch assignments to check out different roles and sectors of the organization’s business. I know two leaders who changed their career focus as a result of a stretch assignment.
• Lower-cost development. Done correctly, the stretch assignment is quite affordable. The learner receives key development while contributing value to a project or actually filling a head-count position. Leadership candidates take stretch assignments quite seriously, and they usually work very hard and creatively in their temporary roles.
• Retention strategies. Well-executed stretch assignments deeply bond leadership candidates to the organization and often result in a higher level of employee commitment.
Despite all the positive aspects, many organizations have very restricted and ineffective stretch-assignment programs.
The reasons include:
• Stretch assignments are not scalable. It is far simpler to book a seminar for 20 leadership development candidates than create 20 stretch assignments. In many organizations, the leadership development process is either understaffed or outsourced.
• Leadership doesn’t understand or support stretch assignments. It is time to re-pitch stretch assignments’ role to senior executives. At General Electric, Jack Welch and his key advisers spent time each quarter reviewing their high-potential employees’ stretch assignments. Leaders who understand the unique power of this approach will become amazing sponsors of “stretching.”
• Templates are needed. Organizations need to develop templates and models for stretch assignments to make it easier to create, deploy and integrate high potentials into the receiving organizations.
• Coaching and processing are critical. The power of a stretch assignment is leveraged by the use of a coach and processing before, during and after the deployment. A coach can greatly increase the impact of the learning that results from both successes and challenges experienced during the process.
• Visibility and community. Build a community of practice of stretch assignment alumni. This community can be formatted as an online course, with opportunities for group interaction and support. In addition, find ways of creating visibility throughout the company for the current stretch assignments.
Stretch assignments are more complicated organizationally than merely clicking a box in an LMS, but leadership development is a process — organizations must commit the resources to provide high potentials with the hands-on experiences that will create and hone their leadership skills and self-concepts.
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