Emerging Leaders: To shine brightly or fizzle out: The stretch assignment dilemma

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By Jo Miller, correspondent

“The stretch assignment challenges employees by placing them into uncomfortable situations in order to learn and grow.” — Bersin by Deloitte

I’ve been doing some research on stretch assignments, and as I browsed some questions the audience submitted ahead of time, one in particular stood out: “How can I make sure I don’t bite off more than I can chew?”

I’m sure you’ve heard the motivational mantra, “Bite off more than you can chew, and chew like crazy.” Inspiring words, to be sure, but when it comes to taking on stretch assignments and high-profile projects at work, is chewing “like crazy” necessarily a smart career tactic?

According to Tim Sieck, principal with On Target Talent, the best stretch assignments achieve a dual purpose.

“They provide you with career-enhancing learning opportunities,” Sieck wrote in a July 2014 article entitled “What Is A Stretch Assignment?,” “while at the same time completing a project or task that benefits your organization.”

So what should you do when you volunteer or are nominated for an assignment that’s clearly of benefit to your company, but comes your way at a time when you’re already chomping like crazy just to get your day job done?

To make a sound decision, it can help to take a closer look at what it really means to “stretch.” Here are two questions to ask yourself before committing:

Will I be in the stretch zone or the burnout zone?

To identify the ideal stretch assignment, Sieck has identified a sweet spot between personal opportunity and organizational benefit, and named it “the stretch zone,” which lies just outside your comfort zone.

Sieck explains that the ideal project will gently push you “outside that comfort zone circle and into the ‘stretch zone,’ yet fall short of pushing you too far too soon, into the ‘burnout zone.’” Overcommit, and you not only risk burnout, but you’ll also risk losing credibility. (Beware, too, of falling into a rut and entering your “bored zone” where you risk appearing disengaged.)

So go after those high-profile projects, roles and stretch assignments that stretch you without overwhelming you.

“This proves to be a delicate balance,” says Sieck, who recommends working closely with your manager to identify the assignments that fall within your “stretch zone.”

Will this assignment burnish my resume?

A well-balanced stretch assignment will catapult you forward along your career trajectory, while the wrong one might derail you. How to tell the difference?

Here’s a checklist to review when taking on a new high-profile project, role or stretch assignment to make sure it’s going to enhance your resume.

Will the assignment:

l Allow you to build business acumen and leadership skills beyond what you’re learning in your current role?

l Reinforce the “leadership brand” you want to be known for?

l Allow you to demonstrate your ability to deliver bottom-line results to your organization?

l Make your value visible to potential sponsors?

If the assignment includes these elements, it probably is going to be a win-win for you and your company. If not, it might just stretch you thin without any actual growth.

So before volunteering for or saying yes to the big new project, make sure it will land you right inside your stretch zone, while adding some shiny new bullet points to your resume.

l Jo Miller is founding editor of BeLeaderly.com and CEO of Women’s Leadership Coaching Inc.; @jo_miller

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