To Shine Brightly or Fizzle Out: The Stretch Assignment Dilemma

Photo credit: Adapted from “What Is A Stretch Assignment?” by Tim Sieck.

“The stretch assignment challenges employees by placing them
into uncomfortable situations in order to learn and grow.”

— Bersin by Deloitte

I’ve been doing some research for a webinar on stretch assignments, and as I browsed some questions the audience submitted ahead of time, one in particular stood out: “How can I make sure I don’t bite off more than I can chew?”

I’m sure you’ve heard the motivational mantra, “Bite off more than you can chew, and chew like crazy.” Inspiring words, to be sure, but when it comes to taking on stretch assignments and high-profile projects at work, is chewing like crazy necessarily a smart career tactic?

According to Tim Sieck, Principal with On Target Talent, the best stretch assignments achieve a dual purpose. “They provide you with career-enhancing learning opportunities,” Sieck wrote in an article entitled What Is A Stretch Assignment?, “while at the same time completing a project or task that benefits your organization.”

So what should you do when you volunteer, or are nominated, for an assignment that’s clearly of benefit to your company, but comes your way at a time when you’re already chomping like crazy just to get your day job done?

To make a sound decision, it can help to take a closer look at what it really means to “stretch.” Here are two questions to ask yourself before committing:

1.) Will I be in the stretch zone or the burnout zone?

To identify the ideal stretch assignment, Sieck has identified a “sweet spot” between personal opportunity and organizational benefit, and named it “the stretch zone,” which lies just outside of your comfort zone.

Sieck explains that the ideal project will gently push you “… outside that comfort zone circle and into the ‘stretch zone,’ yet fall short of pushing you too far too soon, into the ‘burnout zone.’” Overcommit, and you not only risk burnout, but you’ll also risk losing credibility with influential sponsors. (Beware too, of falling into a rut and entering your “bored zone” where you risk appearing disengaged.)

So go after those high-profile projects, roles and stretch assignments that truly stretch you without overwhelming you. “This proves to be a delicate balance,” says Sieck, who recommends working closely with your manager to identify the assignments that fall within your “stretch zone”.

2. Will this assignment burnish my resume?

A well-balanced stretch assignment will catapult you forward along your career trajectory, while the wrong one might derail your well-laid plans. How to tell the difference? Here’s a quick checklist to review when taking on a new high-profile project, role, or stretch assignment to make sure it’s going to give you a chance to shine in ways that will enhance your resume.

Will the assignment:

• Allow you to build business acumen and leadership skills beyond what you’re learning in your current role?
• Reinforce the “leadership brand” you want to be known for?
• Allow you to demonstrate your ability to deliver bottom-line results to your organization?
• Make your value visible to potential sponsors?

If the assignment includes these elements, it is probably going to be a win-win for you and your company. If not, it might just stretch you thin without any actual growth.

The Takeaway

So before volunteering for or saying “yes” to the big new project, make sure it will land you right inside your stretch zone, while adding some shiny new bullet points to your resume.

Jo Miller

A leading authority on women’s leadership, Jo Miller is a sought-after, dynamic, and engaging speaker, delivering more than 70 speaking presentations annually to audiences of up to 1,200 women. Her expertise lies in helping women lead, climb, and thrive in their corporate careers. Jo has traveled widely in Europe, North America, Asia Pacific, and the Middle East to deliver keynotes and teach workshops for women’s leadership conferences, women’s professional associations, and Fortune 1000 corporate women’s initiatives. Jo is CEO of leadership development, consulting and research firm Be Leaderly. Learn more about her speaking engagements at www.JoMiller.net and follow @Jo_Miller on Twitter.

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