Question: A mentor told me that volunteering for stretch assignments will help improve my career. I took on three new projects and now I am not getting any sleep. Help!
Answer: Your mentor gave you sound advice.
Two weeks ago in a webinar for women in the energy industry, I interviewed a partner in a consulting firm who stated categorically, “I wouldn’t be in the position I am if I hadn’t had the courage to step into leading activities that were not in my area of expertise.”
If you are like most women, you will reach a point in your career where you find that you can’t advance to the next without being able to show that you have relevant experience; but as everybody knows, you can’t get the experience without the job.
One ideal way to demonstrate that you have potential to grow beyond your current job is to take on “stretch” assignments. By volunteering for additional roles and responsibilities, you can learn new skills, make your talents visible to your leaders, and demonstrate your readiness to step into a role that goes beyond the one you are currently in.
One leader who has consistently taken on such assignments throughout her career is Debra Aerne, Territory Services Leader at IBM. Aerne said that there have been countless times throughout her career when she has voluntarily taken on a project that was beyond the scope of her job description.
“What I have tended to do is to volunteer for things that are of interest to me that will help me and help the organization, that I can have some fun delivering, while I get recognized for my work in the meantime.”
The projects Aerne volunteered for are too numerous to list here, but they include producing a film, coaching younger staff, managing student interns, creating new change management and product development methodologies, making annual presentations at National Manufacturing Week, and being published in numerous industry journals. “None of this was part of my formal role,” she clarified.
Aerne’s career benefited from these projects as she strengthened her grasp of new subject matter and gained visibility with her leadership team. At the same time, she personally gained a great deal of satisfaction and fulfillment. “I was having fun; I was doing something that would help me and others; and I was recognized by my leadership for taking the initiative.”
Despite all the benefits of volunteering for stretch assignments, there are times when the extra workload can work against you. How is it that women like Aerne use these opportunities to leap forward, while others just burn out? The key is to be highly selective. If you are going to take on responsibilities outside the bounds of your job description (and I hope that you do), you must choose strategically.
One common career misstep that many women make is accepting too many low-visibility assignments which require them to work long hours without gaining the benefits of recognition and skills growth that a true ‘stretch assignment’ would bring. Here’s a checklist for when to diplomatically say “no.”
When to say “no” to stretch assignments
Don’t volunteer for:
- Assignments that stretch you too thin. Look instead for projects that stretch you without overwhelming you, so that you can deliver a consistently high quality of work.
- Assignments that don’t meaningfully expand your network. Stay away from projects that are all about work and have no networking opportunities. Go after projects where you can build stronger working relationships and demonstrate your expertise to leaders, sponsors, and other stakeholders.
- Assignments that don't build your strengths. best stretch assignment is one that requires you to build business acumen, new technical skills or leadership skills. Don’t volunteer unless a project has the potential to expand your ideal skill set and lets you demonstrate your potential to go beyond the job you are currently in.
- Assignments that don’t build the reputation you want to be known for. Say no to projects that don’t align with the “brand” you are trying to build.
Be ruthless but diplomatic about turning down assignments that do not align with where you want to go next in your career.
One caveat is that there are times when it is politically wise to say “yes” to a project that you otherwise wouldn’t want to work on. In those situations it won’t do your career any favors to say no. Instead, be a team player and accept the challenge. Deliver great work, and leverage the situation to negotiate the next project that you do want to work on.
True stretch assignments are those that allow you to demonstrate a level of skill above and beyond your current job description and make your abilities and accomplishments visible to people who need to know about you. Be highly selective and take on one assignment not three. You’ll get all of the benefits and none of the burnout.
Debra Aerne was a guest speaker in the webinar about “Managing Others, With or Without Direct Authority”, part of the Emerging Women Leaders Webinar Series.
Members, log in now to view the webinar recording.
Not a member yet? Join now for immediate access to the webinar.