You Wouldn’t Stay in a Thankless Job. So Why Accept a Thankless Stretch Assignment?   

Four Rules for Accepting a Stretch Assignment

Want to connect to a bigger, bolder vision for your career? Try taking on a stretch assignment: A new project, role or task that is beyond your current expertise. Whether it’s turning around a struggling product or team, automating an inefficient process, or delivering a big presentation to a VIP client, you’ll rapidly develop new technical, business, or leadership skills.

There is towering evidence confirming the power of stretch opportunities. Just ask any experienced leader. Egon Zehnder’s survey of 823 international executives found that 71% of senior leaders said stretch assignments had the biggest impact on unleashing their potential. Also, research from Korn Ferry identifies stretch or rotational assignments as the most valuable leadership skill-building experience, ahead of action learning, mentoring, relationships, 360° assessments, exposure to more senior leaders, and formal classroom training.

Recently, my colleague Selena Rezvani and I conducted original research about stretch assignments. What we discovered after surveying 1,500 professionals is detailed in our report, Out of the Comfort Zone: How women and men size up stretch assignments — and why leaders should care. 

What makes a stretch assignment “yes”-able?

We found that women and men factor in similar motivations and roadblocks when deciding whether to accept a stretch assignment. For both genders, the top criteria for saying “Yes” to a stretch are having the personal influence to drive a successful outcome, and alignment with their career goals. Women and men agree that office politics, not lack of time, is the biggest practical challenge to taking on a stretch assignment.

There are also some differences. When deciding whether to say “yes” to a stretch assignment, women are more likely than men to prioritize exposure to key mentors and sponsors (18% vs 11%.) Meanwhile, men are 3.5 times more likely than women to cite ‘pay’ as a factor that makes a stretch assignment appealing.

Make no mistake: A stretch assignment is no small commitment. One exec jokingly referred to them as “night jobs.” You wouldn’t want to accept, or overextend your stay in, a thankless job. So why accept a thankless stretch assignment? One survey respondent, a senior manager with a cloud-based software firm said he looks for a balance of “challenge, risk, and reward” when evaluating whether to accept a stretch, and you should, too.

Ready to tackle a high-intensity, high-profile project? Go you!

Here are four rules for assessing whether an assignment is the right fit.

1. Don’t be afraid to take a risk.

Stretch assignments come with tradeoffs. It’s risky to commit to high-stakes, work that adds to your workload. But it’s a chance to develop new skills, discover new strengths, and build influential networks. “I ask myself, Am I ready for change? Am I ready to be uncomfortable? Am I ready to make a mistake and learn from it?” wrote a woman working as a senior manager in consumer goods manufacturing.

2. Define your direction.

The ideal stretch fuels your passions, plays to your strengths, and allows you to make a measurable business impact. Scan your org’s landscape for business opportunities that match the challenges you’d like to solve. I look for a complex challenge so that I can learn and grow, make impactful change, and prove my abilities,” said one survey participant with ambitions to make her mark within a multinational manufacturing conglomerate. Once you have ideas, find evidence to support why they are helpful. Show your management what’s needed and why you’re excited about the part you could play.

3. Go after a project no one wants.

Sure, everyone wants the stretch assignment associated with the cutting-edge trend or cool new client. But what about the assignment that makes people uneasy or nervous? One male senior manager at an e-commerce company said, “Thinking about it has to make me feel uncomfortable.” A person who volunteers for riskier stretches shows unique confidence in his or her abilities and commitment to the organization. Although manage­­ment may have lower expectations for these assignments, such opportunities are proving grounds for problem-solvers, change agents, and fledgling leaders.

4. Negotiate for what you need to be successful.

Gather as many details as possible about the opportunity, including compensation, recognition, and career options. In addition, prior to starting a new role or assignment, negotiate the authority, resources, and support needed for success. Then, enlist mentors and influential allies to help navigate office politics. One entry-level woman in the medical devices field weighs the following criteria: “Do I have a manager and colleagues who agree that I am ready for the next step and who are confident in my abilities?” Finally, don’t be afraid to ask, “If I do an excellent job on this project, what can I expect as a result?”

Taking on a stretch assignment is not for everyone. But if you’re ready to place a bet on yourself, a well-chosen stretch assignment can pay off, making your skills, value, and work ethic known beyond your immediate workgroup. Stretch assignments are proven shortcuts to advancement, so don’t underestimate their career-making potential.

This post first appeared at Forbes.com.

Jo Miller

Jo Miller is a globally renowned authority on women’s leadership. She’s dedicated two decades to helping women advance into positions of influence by leveraging their leadership strengths. Based on her work with hundreds of thousands of women, she developed a pragmatic and powerful roadmap that guides women to become the leaders they aspire to be. Jo shares this proven process in her book Woman of Influence: 9 Steps to Build Your Brand, Establish Your Legacy, and Thrive (McGraw Hill, 2019.)

Jo is CEO of leadership development, consulting and research firm Be Leaderly. Learn more about her speaking engagements at www.JoMiller.com and follow @Jo_Miller on Twitter.

25 Questions to Ask a Mentor

Whenever I’m asked “What are some of the best questions to ask a ...

Four Types of Questions To Ask Your Mentor

Have conversations with your mentor gotten a bit repetitive lately? Perhaps you approached ...

25 Songs For Your Leadership Playlist

What are your all-time favorite leadership songs — the ones that make you ...

How to Shut Down a Colleague Who Takes Credit for Your Work

Has this ever happened to you? You’re in a meeting and the unthinkable ...

5 Ways to be a Leader, Not a Manager

Have you ever wondered about the difference between a manager and a leader? ...

11 Leadership Lessons Learned

Here are 11 lessons I’ve learned about leadership—mostly from much-admired colleagues, and just ...

100 Leadership Qualities

What are your leadership strengths? That’s a question I ask in a survey ...

10 Killer Leadership Skills: The Great Differentiators?

Last week at Hallmark I hosted a couple gentlemen from a partner company. ...

Influencing Without Authority—Using Your Six Sources of Influence

I am in the difficult situation of being unofficial project lead, responsible for ...

9 Traits of Exceptional Leaders

Truly great leaders are hard to come by, but it seems everyone thinks ...

20 Leadership Quotes by Women to Inspire You in 2020
20 Leadership Quotes by Women to Inspire You in 2020

20 of our favorite leadership quotes by women At Be Leaderly, we’re on a mission

Happy Holidays 2019
Happy Holidays 2019

May your Holidays sparkle with moments of love, laughter, and goodwill, and may the year

5 Ways to Shift From Doing to Leading
5 Ways to Shift From Doing to Leading

To become a leader, there is a series of key shifts in mindset and behavior

You Do You: Claim Your Leadership Strengths
You Do You: Claim Your Leadership Strengths

We are often so focused on trying to fix our weaknesses that we neglect to

Leaderly Quote: We are often so focused on trying to fix our weaknesses…
Leaderly Quote: We are often so focused on trying to fix our weaknesses…

We are often so focused on trying to fix our weaknesses that we neglect to

Book Review of Woman of Influence: A Handbook for Building a Professional Brand
Book Review of Woman of Influence: A Handbook for Building a Professional Brand

The first book review of Woman of Influence is in! Here’s what Jo Miller’s hometown

Leaderly Quote: Don’t become indispensable for doing work that hides your potential
Leaderly Quote: Don’t become indispensable for doing work that hides your potential

Don’t become indispensable for doing work that… • hides your potential • sells short your

Unhappy at Work? Persuade Your Boss to Redefine Your Job.
Unhappy at Work? Persuade Your Boss to Redefine Your Job.

Every morning, Jonas backs into a parking spot at work so he can leave faster

If You’re Not Seizing Stretch Assignments at Work, You’re Doing It Wrong.
If You’re Not Seizing Stretch Assignments at Work, You’re Doing It Wrong.

These bonus opportunities have the power to boost your leadership cred and wholly transform your

The Case for Why Millennial Women Should Job-Hop
The Case for Why Millennial Women Should Job-Hop

There are strong arguments for and against the debated practice, but for millennial women, job-hopping

At Be Leaderly, our mission is a simple one: To provide proven career strategies that help you lead, climb, and thrive as a rising woman of influence. If you’re ready to lead, we’re here to support and inspire you.

Copyright 2020, Be Leaderly