Women and Leadership: A checklist for when to diplomatically say no

If you’re ambitious about climbing the career ladder, you eventually will reach a point in your career where you find that you can’t advance to the next level without being able to show that you have relevant experience.

But you can’t get the experience without doing the job.

One way to demonstrate your 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 more responsible role.

Despite all the benefits of volunteering for stretch assignments, there are times when the extra workload actually can work against you. For example, 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 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 you must choose strategically if they are to work to your benefit.

One common career misstep that emerging leaders 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 checklist for when to diplomatically say no.

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 lets 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. 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.

Otherwise the only “stretching” you’ll be doing is stretching yourself too thin.

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