Is your firm using stretch assignments for leadership development and succession planning purposes? The chances are that you aren’t using them when you consider the findings of the office team survey into the types of training that employers are currently offering their employees. They found that the most common type of training offered by employers was instructor led on-site workshops (69%), books and reference materials (60%), Online courses (69%) and off-site courses (64%).
As you can see stretch assignments were not specifically mentioned, so what are stretch assignments and why should they be of such interest to employers given the fact they are hardly used. Well, ‘Stretch Assignments’ as defined by Bersin by Deloitte are ‘A project or task given to employees which is beyond their current knowledge or skills level in order to “stretch” employees developmentally. The stretch assignment challenges employees by placing them into uncomfortable situations in order to learn and grow’. Typical examples of a stretch assignment might be:
Managing a new product launch
Getting financing for a business acquisition
Leading a cross team initiative
Influencing and persuading without power, so trying to gain buy in for a new initiative.
In truth, stretch assignments are quite a niche form of training and development which are often only suited to specific situations and specific types of employees, but, in the right context, stretch assignments are one of the most powerful development tools available. And so, what are these ideal situations to deploy stretch assignments?
Typically, stretch assignments are best suited to challenging managerial situations because formulaic classroom learning is not always the best tool to prepare managers for the nuances and political complexity of managing and delivering a project in a real live situation. While of course you can teach your managers certain managerial skills in the classroom these skills will be tested, pushed and developed to a much greater extent in a real, live test situation such as a stretch assignment.
But, as with most types of training, stretch assignments suit certain types of individuals more than others and might not be suitable for all types of employee. In particular, a study by Robert H Smith Business School has shown that stretch assignments are best suited to ‘high potential’ talent who have been identified as having a strong learning learning orientation which means they actually enjoy being challenged and learning something new and are more likely to seek out critical feedback. In their study of MBA students, the researchers found that individuals with this high learning orientation benefited the most from this form of training and were able to broaden their skill set to a much greater extent.
So, make sure to target your stretch assignments and assign them to the situations, (managerial situations), and individuals (high potential learning orientated types) who are best suited to this innovative form of learning – and you will get the best return on investment possible.