Why Companies Should Give Women More Stretch Assignments

Landing a coveted stretch assignment is a proven shortcut to a top role. Does your company offer these sweet gigs to men and women equally?

For an employee looking to snag that next promotion, the path to advancement can be downright elusive. Is a person best served honing their technical skills? Should they seek out an opportunity to manage a team? Should they finally get that MBA? What about investing in key relationships and widening their network?

While those activities may be helpful, there’s a proven vehicle for employees who want to showcase their talents and illustrate that they’re leadership material. I’m talking about stretch assignments—those temporary, internal learning gigs that simultaneously offer an employee new skills while helping a company solve a real business problem.

Stretch assignments are proven career accelerators, but do women get equal access?

Underdiscussed and underleveraged, stretch assignments can deliver big career dividends. Whether they take the form of automating a manual process, managing a VIP client account, or relaunching a failed product, these assignments can do more than “upskill”—they can be leadership proving grounds. One study of executives showed that 71 percent of senior leaders identified stretch assignments as the biggest career enabler in unleashing their potential. Other research by Korn Ferry named rotational or stretch assignments as the most valuable developmental experience—ahead of things like mentoring, classroom training, 360-degree assessments, and even exposure to more senior leaders.

And yet, women are less likely than men to receive challenging stretch assignments. Our own brand-new research at Be Leaderly fills out the picture for working women further: Women report being less engaged than men at work and give their companies a lower grade than men do at making it easy to gauge when they are ready for a promotion. Given the fact that stretch opportunities can fast-track one’s career, it’s no wonder there’s a Grand Canyon–sized gap between the many women who work in lower and middle management and the few who make it to higher leadership levels.

3 Ways to Promote Equal Access to Stretch Assignments

Our research shows that smart companies don’t treat stretch opportunities nonchalantly. If anything, they create structure, transparency, and accountability—from the perspective of both the employer and the employee.

Here are three steps your company can take to promote equal access to career-making stretch gigs:

1. Publicize stretch opportunities.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant, right? Yet only 15 percent of companies track the gender of who is given high-visibility assignments. That’s part of why taking a transparent approach to advertising stretch opportunities is especially important. People may assume that the more coveted the stretch assignment, the greater chance that the selectee is personally tapped or hand-chosen. In fact, nearly one-third of men and women in our study agreed that a lack of guidance from insiders/mentors is the biggest roadblock to taking on a stretch role. So that men and women have the chance to benefit from stretch opportunities, post open roles and stretch assignments on the company’s intranet, Slack channel, or another enterprise-wide forum and make them searchable.

2. Initiate more stretch conversations.

Institute a flagging system that alerts managers that it’s time to discuss interest in stretch assignments with a given direct report. Creating such a process could stop stretches from going only to individuals who are good self-promoters and give a boost to individuals who tend to “round down” their own readiness for a stretch—something our research shows women are more likely to do. Finally, start a system to track which employees actually take on stretch assignments so you can offer more high-potential women opportunities that put them in front of leadership.

3. Enable a growth mindset.

Stretch opportunities’ value comes less from hard outcomes and more from giving someone the chance to learn. It’s in an organization’s best interest to cultivate a culture that allows for learning and growth—complete with epic fails. This is especially important because women in our study report being less comfortable than men applying for a stretch role with the bare minimum requirements. Creating this kind of supportive coaching culture could mean alerting women when a stretch assignment comes along and sharing information about the resources, authority, and influence needed to be successful. While an employee is working on a stretch assignment, you can also reduce obstacles that could hinder their success. For example, give them access to influential supporters and mentors who can champion their decisions and help them navigate office politics.

Our research suggests that when stretch assignments are unclear, unadvertised, and unevenly offered, it makes women hesitate even more to pursue them. On the other hand, taking an open, equitable approach to stretch opportunities can create a thriving internal gig economy—one that’s accessible to all. This not only helps employees advance in the short term, it can set the course for diversifying, and therefore strengthening, your leadership ranks in the long term.

What steps is your company taking to make stretch assignments more accessible? Share in the comments!

This post first appeared at Association for Talent Development.

Selena Rezvani

Selena Rezvani is a recognized consultant, speaker and author on women and leadership.  A seasoned human capital consultant, Selena uses workplace culture assessments to help corporate clients be more inclusive and welcoming to women.  She’s also the author of two leadership books targeted at professional women – Pushback: How Smart Women Ask—and Stand Up—for What They Want (Jossey-Bass, 2012) and The Next Generation of Women Leaders (Praeger, 2009). Selena has been featured in the LA Times, Oprah.com, Todayshow.com, Forbes, and wrote an award-winning column on women for The Washington Post.

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