Stretch assignments are like the Instant Pot of career development. An intensely challenging, ambitious, go-big-or-go-home work project, they are a catalyst for rapid development of business acumen, technical expertise, and leadership skills. They’re also great for building relationships with influential stakeholders, and exposing your skills, value, and work ethic to individuals outside of your core team. Sure, the pressure will be high, but it will get your career cooking. No other form of career development comes close.
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If, like many of the women I speak to, your potential outpaces how others perceive you, a carefully chosen stretch assignment can close that gap. It’s a way to take your budding strengths and aspirations, fortify them with measurable successes that will make your organization sit up and pay attention.
To better understand what motivates people to accept or reject such an opportunity, Selena Rezvani and I surveyed 1,549 U.S.-based professionals, inquiring about their experiences with sizing up stretch assignments and higher-level roles. Our findings were published in a report titled Out of the Comfort Zone: How Women and Men Size up Stretch Assignments — and Why Leaders Should Care.
What makes a stretch assignment appealing?
Interestingly, women and men have similar criteria for saying “yes” to a stretch assignment. Top considerations were having enough personal influence and organizational support to drive the project to successful completion.
“My readiness for the next assignment depends on making sure I have a blank check to make tough decisions,” said one female leader. One early-career woman with a financial software company said having adequate support is a deciding factor. “Otherwise, I won’t take the assignment since it may not come with the resources I would need to be successful,” she wrote.
Another highly-ranked criteria was whether an assignment aligned with career goals. A woman working at the director level in a hospital asks: “Will it feel like play, feed my purpose, and allow me to grow in a meaningful way?”
What makes a stretch assignment a non-starter?
Given previous research showing that more than half of U.S. employees feel overworked or overwhelmed at least some of the time, it came as no surprise to discover that ‘threat of overwork’ ranks highly as a red flag. “It boils down whether I am able to balance my personal life with the next assignment,” one entry-level man at an internet company told us. “If it jeopardizes my personal time, then it’s not worth it.” (There’s a reason one executive I interviewed jokingly referred to stretch assignments as “night jobs.”) The next most cited misgiving was lack of guidance from insiders or mentors.
15 questions to ask before saying yes to a stretch assignment
We asked respondents how they decide if a potential stretch is a good fit. Here are some key themes that emerged, along with specific questions they ask.
• Are there clear expectations?
• Is there support from senior leaders?
• Will I have the resources and authority to succeed?
• How does this impact my work-life balance?
• Will the time commitment mesh with my family responsibilities?
• Is it worth the amount of time it will take to be successful?
• How challenging is the assignment and what will I learn?
• Is it personally challenging or “more of the same”?
• Will it require me to think on a deeper level or use my skill set in new ways?
Purpose and Passion
•Does it align with my personal mission?
• Does it truly spark my passion?
• How will it make a difference in the world?
• Does it align with my career aspirations?
• Is it going to take me where I ultimately want to go or is the detour worth it?
• How might the role open doors to other opportunities?
Stretch assignments are proven career shortcuts—a way to rapidly reshape how others view you, so that their perceptions can more closely match your potential and aspirations. By asking the right questions, you can choose your next one well.
This article originally appeared on Be Leaderly.
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