Friday, August 1, 2008

Stretched To Success

Stretch assignments are the answer to effective succession planning
Key learnings:
  • Stretch assignments allow employees with leadership potential to ease into leadership roles by exposing them to an array of roles and responsibilities
  • Organisations too get to test the potential of their leadership candidates
    Stretch assignment is an effective succession planning indulgence. Yet, this initiative has not got the status it deserves.

Stretch assignments are about getting employees with leadership or learning potential to expand their competencies and skills to newer, wider levels. By definition, "a Stretch assignment is one that requires a worker to take a leap beyond his comfort zone and, in the process, pick up new skills". So, with so much good to offer, why is it that most organisations are still unenthused about 'stretching' their talent? This week's mailer looks to build a strong business case for stretch assignments in the hope that revisiting its benefits will revive this initiative.

A common opinion is that stretch assignments look good only on paper. Agreed such assignments are tedious to plan and execute. However, as a learning professional says, "Such assignments are more complicated organisationally than merely clicking a box in an LMS- but leadership development is a process". This rationale definitely justifies indulging in stretch assignments. After all, making leaders out of ordinary employees is not a day's job.
However, there is a valid concern that since stretch assignments are planned over months and sometimes even years, an employee might attrite mid-way leaving their succession planning in a limbo. Experts opine that this is a risk worth taking. They also believe that well-executed stretch assignments make employees feel valued and needed, giving them little reason to leave. A string of benefits Introspection: Leadership candidates in any case enjoy special treatment in terms of additional training, constant coaching or mentoring and regular feedback. As effective as these upskilling initiatives are, none of them truly assists an individual in believing in himself as a leader. However, sharing certain leadership responsibilities and challenging one's existing competencies and skills levels give an individual a true picture of his leadership potential. That aside, the minute leadership candidates become part of stretch assignments, they know they are in the 'leadership' limelight. This in itself can be quite a reassuring feeling.

Realistic feedback:

The feedback that is shared during stretch assignments is based on things actually said and done. This makes the feedback realistic. Additionally, an individual can relate to such feedback easily. Although training programmes do a good job in giving feedback based on role-plays and simulations, nothing can substitute feedback given on dabbling in real assignments.


Although individuals with leadership potential are the ones who qualify for stretch assignments, the extent to which they can take on leadership roles and the situations in which they can lead will surface during stretch assignments. Organisations know of leaders who have changed their career lines after stretch assignments.


When well-designed and executed stretch assignments provide a financial advantage, organisations get to use individuals in leadership roles without the associated costs of training and compensation. So while individuals benefit from their exposure to different developmental projects, the organisation benefits from their contribution. An organisation also gets to try out different individuals in different roles internally and this can lead to lesser recruiting expenditure as well.
While these benefits should help gather a momentum in favour of stretch assignments, their low popularity is a concern. This is especially so as most organisations are struggling to kick-start effective succession planning initiatives. Some genuine concerns for not being overly enthused about stretch assignments include:
The easy way out Organisations find it easier to push leadership candidates into training or mentoring programmes than to design separate stretch assignments for each one of them. Also, to run effective stretch assignments, organisations must have certain models and templates in place. This too is a deterrent in some cases. The good news is that these templates and models are easy to design and deploy. Moreover, once they are in place, subsequent stretch assignments can practically run on automation!

Creating buy-in:

Lack of senior leadership support is why most stretch assignments fail to see the light of the day. In most cases, it is the length of the initiative that scares the management from subscribing to it. However, once senior leaders see the value and implications of stretch assignments, their support will be more than willing. Sharing stretch assignment success stories and highlighting its benefits and talking about its cost-effectiveness can help create buy-in.

These concerns are definitely not unfounded, but the good news is, that neither are they overwhelming! Stretch assignments are a wonderful way of giving potential leaders a feel of what their roles and responsibilities would be; it also gives an organisation an opportunity to see whether they have chosen their potential leaders well. With so much in the offing, it is time organisations take that much - needed stretch!


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