If the research is true—that most development occurs in stretch assignments—then it naturally begs the next question: What is a really good stretch assignment and what is the right amount of stretch?
Cindy McCauley and colleagues at the Center for Creative Leadership have done a lot of work to answer the first question. Some of the key elements of a really good stretch position include taking on unfamiliar responsibilities, inherited problems, influencing without authority, and working across cultures, to name a few. (See Chapter 3, “Identifying Development-in-Place Opportunities” in Experience-Driven Leader Development).
Answering the second question—what is the right amount of stretch?—is still under debate. Business leaders and leadership development professionals have wrestled with this question for a long time.
Several years ago I was excited to find a reference that said CitiCorp tried to place their high-potential leaders in positions for which they were 60-70 percent prepared. This seemed like a good guide, but the next question was: 70 percent of what? At least it was a place to start!
In working with leaders since then, I have come to rely on three rules of thumb:
(1) Pair “good enough” with “chance to excel.” Is the assignment one where the candidate has the skills to perform “good enough,” but the assignment will also require him to develop new capabilities to really excel?
(2) Push the leader to the edge of her comfort zone. If the leader is too comfortable, then she won’t need to stretch herself to grow. If the assignment has too much stretch and pushes her outside the comfort zone, learning is likely to be hit and miss. She is unlikely to process the learning very deeply—and might even take away the wrong lessons!
(3) Look for “excited and scared.” A leader that we interviewed several years ago described the right challenge this way: “The most developmental jobs I ever had were the ones where I felt excited and scared at exactly the same time.” This rings true for many leaders. In my own life, these were the times when I found myself excited to get up in the morning, where I knew I was doing something that mattered, where I was never sure what the day would bring, but I was confident that I or the people around me could figure it out.
So, what are your rules for the right amount of “stretch”? What opportunities for challenge and learning are on the horizon for you? How can you help create those kinds of experiences for others?