There’s towering evidence to confirm the career-transforming power of stretch assignments.
When executive search firm Egon Zehnder surveyed 823 international executives asking them to reflect on what had helped unleash their potential, no other form of career development came close — 71 percent cited stretch assignments.
And research from Korn Ferry named them as the most valuable leadership skill-building experience, ahead of mentoring, exposure to senior leaders, and formal training.
A stretch assignment is a challenging, short-term project that requires employees to step outside their comfort zone and develop new skills — without leaving their current position.
Knowing that women are less likely than men to move beyond middle management into senior leadership, my colleague Selena Rezvani and I committed to researching an unanswered question: Do men and women get equal access to these career-accelerating opportunities?
To understand what entices an individual to say yes to a stretch, we surveyed 1,500 professionals. Here are some of our key discoveries from our research report, “Out of the Comfort Zone: How women and men size up stretch assignments — and why leaders should care.”
a less distinct path to advancement
One of the most striking findings was that women feel less engaged in and passionate about their jobs — 67 percent, compared to 77 percent for men.
The survey data also reveals a strong correlation between employees who feel engaged and passionate about their work and those who perceive that their employer makes it easy to assess their own readiness to advance.
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When evaluating the statement, “My company makes it easy for me to gauge my readiness to advance internally,” 45 percent of women disagreed, compared to only 29 percent of men.
We hypothesize that companies that lay out a clear path for women to advance are more likely to have women employees who feel engaged and passionate about what they do.
What makes a stretch assignment appealing?
Women and men factor in similar motivations and roadblocks when deciding whether to accept a stretch assignment. For both genders, the top two criteria for saying “yes” are having the influence to drive a successful outcome, and alignment with their career goals.
Women and men agree that office politics is the biggest practical challenge to taking on a stretch assignment. Lack of bandwidth is a close second.
There are also some differences. When deciding whether to accept a stretch assignment, women are more likely to prioritize exposure to mentors and sponsors.
Men are 3.5 times more likely than women to cite “pay” as a factor.
What your company can do
In the midst of what Gallup calls “an employee engagement crisis,” employers can’t afford to hesitate when it comes to articulating a clearer advancement path for women.
Our recommendations include:
• Creating an equitable stretch assignments “marketplace”
• Standardizing how assignments are described to make it easier for employees to objectively assess their fit
• Encouraging managers to post assignments in a way that’s transparent and searchable.
When an organization has a well-thought-out plan for offering stretch assignments, they are less likely to be seen as biased or promoting favoritism. Becoming more purposeful about how they are offered is an important way to harness employees’ full talents.
• Jo Miller is a women’s leadership speaker and the CEO of BeLeaderly; @jo_miller.