Choosing a Developmental Assignment

sign-post-hard-choices-280x156What are all the factors that you should consider in matching one of your direct reports with a developmental assignment?

That’s the question I want leaders to ponder as they work in small groups to review the case of a manager who needs to decide which of three assignments would be best for developing a particular employee. The case describes the employee’s current job and responsibilities as well as her strengths and weaknesses as a leader.

Two of the potential assignments are temporary assignments (a task force assignment and a special project); the other assignment is a job move. The group has to decide which assignment they would recommend the manager choose for the employee.

Over the years I’ve used this case numerous time and have found that all three assignments are about equally likely to be recommended by a group. None of the assignments are clearly “better” than the others.  An argument can be made for choosing each one.

As groups describe how they arrived at their decision, they almost always consider three important factors:

  • In what ways would the assignment provide the opportunity to practice and improve a skill that the employee needs to develop?
  • How much of a risk would the organization be taking by putting the employee in what is clearly a stretch assignment? Risk is typically assessed in terms of how much the overall success of the endeavor (i.e., the task force, the special project, or the work responsibilities in the new job) would depend on the performance of the employee.
  • Would the assignment take advantage of some of the employee’s strengths? Individuals can be more effective in a stretch assignment if they have strengths to readily apply to the work. In fact, this can mitigate some of the risk.

And many of the groups point out two other factors that they wanted to consider in their deliberations, but about which the case provided no information:

  • How much coaching and support would the employee likely receive from the people she would be working with in the assignment?
  • Which assignment would be most motivating to the employee?

CVDL_feat_img_sub_extraLast week I discussed the case with folks who dug even deeper and offered more insights about the complexities of matching individuals and assignments for development. Students in Benedictine University’s Values-Driven Leadership doctoral program surfaced additional questions that the manager should consider:

  • If the employee takes on one of the temporary assignments or the new job, what would be the impact on others in my workgroup?
  • How much personal risk would I be taking on by giving the employee each of these assignments (or recommending her to others)?
  • How could the risk inherent in the assignment be mitigated? A number of the students were attracted to the potential pay-off of the riskiest assignment (the job move), which sparked ideas for creative ways to mitigate the downsides of this assignment, including redesigning the job and strengthening support from others during the transition.

Working with these talented students brought the case alive and reminded me that using challenging assignment for development is complicated. It also reminded me of the power of conversations with colleagues for surfacing our assumptions, getting a broader view, and finding new ways forward. Many thanks to you Cohort 3!

2 thoughts on “Choosing a Developmental Assignment”

  1. Wonderfully laid out: relevant and elegant. I was just wondering about which assignment would be strategically most beneficial for the organization. The particular employee perspective is great but must be anchored at a higher level of relevance.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Claus. I didn’t have space to share the whole case in my original post, so I should note that each of the assignments need to be filled by someone (i.e., they each represent work that is important to the organization). But it is useful to ponder as part of the decision-making whether one of the assignments is strategically more important for the organization. A manager would likely want to staff such an assignment with someone who has already proven they can handle the demands of the work; it would be riskier for the organization to use the assignment for development. On the other hand, if the employee is seen as having high potential to stretch and grow in ways that will greatly benefit the organization, the more strategic choice might be to use the assignment for development despite the short-term risks.

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