STRETCH Assignments: It’s Not the Same Train with a Little More Speed

“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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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?
  6. 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 Week8.

DeRue, D. S., & Wellman, N. (2009). Developing leaders via experience: the role of developmental challenge, learning orientation, and feedback availability. Journal of Applied Psychology94(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.

Liezel Nicholas
Diamonds in the Rough: Eliminate Bias in Talent Decisions

We all want to believe we make objective decisions, especially when it comes to talent management.

Is Andrea a high-potential employee? Is Jon ready for a leadership role? What are their individual development needs? These questions are crucial. Get the answers right, and you will cultivate the talent your organization needs to succeed. Get them wrong, and your decisions could cost millions of dollars in wasted leadership development and lost profits.

The problem is, unconscious bias affects every decision we make, including decisions about hiring, promotion, succession planning, and training. In fact, favoritism, a common result of unconscious bias, often determines talent-management decisions. As a result, the wrong people end up in leadership roles, while the true diamonds in the rough get overlooked.

The first step to overcoming this problem is understanding where unconscious bias comes from. Three common sources of bias are the above-average effect, the halo effect, and faulty memory.

The Above-Average Effect

You’re probably thinking, “Unconscious bias doesn’t apply to me. I make better decisions than most people.” Statistically speaking, this is unlikely to be true, and it perfectly illustrates the above-average effect: if people feel like they are good at something, they assume they are better than average.

A classic example is a survey in which 80% of people rated themselves as above-average drivers. Of course, this is mathematically impossible. Only 50% of people can be above average—that’s the definition of average! And yet, in any discipline or skill, it is common for large majorities of people to see themselves as above average (McCormick, Walkey, & Green, 1986).

In business, most executives and boards think they make above-average succession decisions, but research shows the opposite: 60% of new leaders fail within the first year (Ashkenas, 2015). If you don’t believe you are susceptible to unconscious bias, then you’re probably a victim of the above-average effect.

The Halo Effect

Our brains are always using shortcuts to help us make decisions quickly and easily; it’s why we’re vulnerable to unconscious bias in the first place. One powerful shortcut is the tendency to form a general impression of a person based on your first encounter with them. Once formed, your general impression colors the way you judge that person’s future actions. If your first impression is positive, you will tend to think of the person positively overall, regardless of their actual performance. This is the halo effect.

The opposite is true as well. If a colleague spills coffee on his shirt during your first interaction, you think, “What a slob,” and the judgment sticks. It doesn’t matter how polished, conscientious, and capable your colleague is after that, because your general impression is set with a simple judgment: “Once a slob, always a slob.” This is why first impressions are so powerful.

The reality is that everyone has both strengths and weaknesses that aren’t accurately reflected in a general impression. Whether you’re evaluating a new applicant, providing development feedback, or deciding which employees show leadership potential, it’s crucial to form a complete, unbiased picture of each individual that doesn’t rely on general impressions. If you find yourself rating people on overall performance and potential, rather than focusing on specific skills and abilities, then your judgments are probably being swayed by this bias.

Faulty Memory

We tend to think of memory as a video recorder, faithfully capturing and storing the details of our experiences. But in reality, memory doesn’t work like that. Instead of recording specific details, the brain stores generalities, like “Theresa interviewed well, she should get the job.” These generalities are the basis of the halo effect discussed above, and they help you reconstruct a coherent narrative of your interview with Theresa, but they don’t provide the specific information you need to make an unbiased hiring or promotion decision—for example, accurate information about Theresa’s actual strengths and weaknesses. Further complicating the issue, neuroscientists have demonstrated in numerous studies that many of our memories are simply false (Loftus & Pickrell, 1995).

No matter how confident you are in your memory, it’s not as good as you think. Relying on it to support important decisions only reinforces other unconscious biases.

Overcoming Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias is so deeply wired into our brains that it’s impossible for us to make purely objective decisions.

Fortunately, there are ways to minimize bias. In talent management, one of the most effective solutions is to use live simulation assessments to evaluate candidates’ and employees’ strengths, weaknesses, and growth potential. Live simulations aren’t constrained by faulty human memory—they record actual performance, not general impressions. Their sophisticated algorithms are built to eliminate the halo effect by measuring numerous specific skills and rating each one separately, while expert assessors provide independent analysis based on observations in standardized situations.

Next time you have to make a talent-management decision, don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re immune from unconscious bias. Instead, let your employees and candidates try the job through a virtual assessment center and demonstrate whether they have what it takes to succeed. The true diamonds in the rough will shine through.


Ashkenas, R. (2015). First-Time Managers, Don’t Do Your Team’s Work for Them. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

McCormick, I. A., Walkey, F. H., & Green, D. E. (1986). Comparative perceptions of driver ability: A confirmation and expansion. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 18 (3), 205-208.

Loftus, E. F., & Pickrell, J. E. (1995). The formation of false memories. Psychiatric Annals, 25, 720-725.



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.



Liezel Nicholas