“It’s not the same train with a little more speed. Double the speed of the bullet train – don’t go ten miles an hour faster. That’s what stretch is,” explained once Jack Welch, longtime CEO of General Electric (GE).
Employees generally operate only at 60 to 65% of their potential (The Ken Blanchard Companies, 2004); a stretch assignment pushes them to unleash the creative energy within to reach an important business goal. A good stretch assignment helps employees to step out of their comfort zone, acquire new skills and learn how to cope with uncertainty and risk-taking. The ultimate goal of stretch assignments is to unleash creative energy to do things quicker, better, and cheaper.
The majority of top executives rely on stretch assignments to learn the skills of successful leadership (Wilson, Velsor, Chandrasekar, & Criswell, 2011). In a poll of 820 international executives, over 70% pinpointed stretch assignments as a turning point for uncovering their potential (Shadovitz, 2014). These assignments are so effective because they can be molded to fit any budget, timeline, or goal. However, you need to know exactly what your employee is already capable of, and what will push them to new levels of growth. There are several key aspects to keep in mind when crafting a quality stretch assignments.
What makes a good stretch assignment?
- It is Supported. A good stretch assignment is supported, which means that the employee owns the entire project but you provide on-going support. Providing support doesn’t mean that you micromanage; rather you’ll act as a consultant, asking good questions that help the employee with decision-making and reflection.
- It is Tracked. A good stretch assignment is tracked, which means that you’ll monitor its completion and clearly define what success looks like. Discuss your expectations with the employee and agree on check-in points throughout the project. When tracking the stretch assignment, remember the 2Ds – deliverables and deadlines. Discuss with the employee what the deliverables are at each stage of the project and when they should present those deliverables for your review.
- It is Realistic. Although a stretch, the employee must believe that it can be done. Craft an assignment that employees have the ability and the opportunity to successfully complete. It’s not going to be easy—after all, it’s called a stretch—but they need to believe that it can be done. If the goal is unrealistic or too difficult to achieve, research shows that your employee will quickly throw in the towel (Locke & Latham, 1990).
- It is Empowering. You should assign the entire project (with a clear beginning, middle, and end) to the employee. A set of unrelated tasks doesn’t constitute a stretch assignment. Let them make the decisions along the way.
- It is Targeted. The stretch assignment should be targeted to the employee’s current level of skill and development needs. Think about their strengths and development needs. What project would provide the most opportunities to practice the skills they are developing?
- It is CHallenging. The chosen assignment should actually stretch the employee’s skills. You can think of the assignment as a problem to solve. It will be a stretch if the employee doesn’t have a readily available solution to the problem.
Researchers found that the greater the challenge, the greater the skill development, but only to a certain degree (DeRue & Wellman, 2009). The relationship reaches a point at which skill development will level off or even decrease. The reason is obvious – when the challenge is too great, people begin to feel overwhelmed, and they give up. However, frequent feedback can offset this diminishing effect and ensure that employees learn more from the challenging assignment. Be sure to provide on-going feedback as the employee is completing the stretch assignment.
Although GE employees never doubled the speed of the bullet train, they sure learned a lot along the way. Under the leadership of Jack Welch, GE was recognized as one of the most efficient and successful companies of the 21st century (Byrne, 1998). Your organization can too provide valuable development opportunities to your employees. Give them a STRETCH assignment - an assignment that is Supported, Tracked, Realistic, Empowering, Targeted, and CHallenging.
Martin Lanik is the CEO of Pinsight®, the leader readiness platform. His leadership development solutions have helped thousands of leaders in 30 countries build stronger skills. Utilized by over 100 of the most recognizable corporations (e.g., AIG, CenturyLink), his leadership programs received awards from Chief Learning Officer and Brandon Hall. Martin is the author of THE LEADER HABIT (AMACOM, April 2018), in which he shares the surprisingly simple 5-minute exercises that can turn anyone into an effective leader. Martin holds a Ph.D. in industrial/organizational psychology from Colorado State University.
Byrne, J. A. (1998). How Jack Welch Runs GE. Business Week, 8.
DeRue, D. S., & Wellman, N. (2009). Developing leaders via experience: the role of developmental challenge, learning orientation, and feedback availability. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(4), 859.
Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting & task performance. Prentice-Hall, Inc.
Shadovitz, D. (2014). Stretching the limits. Human Resources Executive Online. LRP Publications.
Wilson, M. S., Velsor, E. V., Chandrasekar, A., & Criswell, C. (2011). Grooming top leaders: Cultural perspectives from China, India, Singapore and the United States. Center for Creative Leadership.