Thursday, January 30, 2014

Stretched Too Thin: A Checklist for When to Say “No” to Stretch Assignments

"Image courtesy of Rawich/".

By Jo Miller

If you are like most women, you will eventually reach a point in your career where you find that you cant advance to the next level without being able to show that you have relevant experience. But as everybody knows, you cant get the experience without first doing the job.

One ideal way to demonstrate that you have potential to grow beyond your current role 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.

Despite all the benefits of volunteering for stretch assignments, there are times when the extra workload can actually work against you. For instance, at a recent seminar, one guest told me, “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!” 

This woman’s mentor had given her good advice, but within reason. We must learn to put “guardrails” around these stretch assignments so that we are not stretched too thin while performing them! 

But how? How do we say “no” to stretch assignments without also saying “no” to furthering our careers? 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 if they are to work to your benefit.

One common career misstep that many women make is accepting too many low-visibility assignments which require them to work overtime without  gaining the benefits of recognition and skills growth that such stretch  assignments should bring. To avoid stretching yourself too thin for no visible career benefit, here is a simple checklist for when to diplomatically say  “no” to stretch assignments.

Don’t volunteer for:

1. Assignments that stretch you too thin. Instead, look for projects that stretch you without overwhelming you, so that you can deliver a consistently high quality of work. Think quality of  assignments, not quantity.

2. Assignments that don't build your strengths. The 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 let you demonstrate your potential to go beyond the job you are currently in.

3. Assignments that don't meaningfully expand your network. Stay away from projects that are all about work and have no networking opportunities, i.e. “busy” work. Go after projects where you can build stronger working relationships and demonstrate your expertise to leaders, sponsors, and other stakeholders.

4. Assignments that don’t build the reputation you want to be known for. Say no to projects that don’t align with the specific “brand” you are trying to build within the organization.

Remember, “stretch” assignments are designed to build your skill set and organizational brand, not simply add duties to your already busy schedule. Be ruthless, but diplomatic, about turning down assignments that do not align with where you want to go next in your career. Otherwise the only “stretching” you’ll be doing is stretching yourself too thin!


Jo Miller is CEO of Women’s Leadership Coaching, Inc. and a leading authority on women’s leadership.  

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