Short-Term Assignments, Long-Term Success

This article was originally posted on the Center for Creative Leadership’s Leading Effectively blog.

hourglassMany years ago as a young professional at CCL, I had a special six-month assignment as “assistant to the president.” I was the second person to serve in the role. The president had created the role to serve multiple purposes—to have someone dedicated to helping him with special projects, to keep him connected to those of us doing the on-the-ground work of the organization, and to provide a learning experience for the person taking on the role.

And it definitely was a learning experience. I got to see how things worked at the executive level of the organization, worked on major cross-functional projects for the first time, and learned strategies for dealing with the stress of tight deadlines and unexpected requests that would throw my plans for the day into disarray.  It was an experience whose lessons I drew on later when I took on managerial responsibilities myself.

I had not thought about that assignment in a long time. What brought it to mind was our recent efforts to learn more about what organizations are doing to better use experience to develop leadership talent.  Short-term stretch assignments are one of key development strategies that emerged. It’s simply not practical to rely on job moves to get individuals the variety of experiences they need to develop a broad repertoire of leadership skills.

Yet it was not just any type of short-term assignment that these organizations created. They targeted three types:

  • Cross-functional. Organizations need leaders who understand the whole business, the different perspectives that various functions and units bring to the work, and how to manage and integrate those differences. To develop such leaders, you have to get them out of their silos. If you are a high-potential manager at SAP, you get a notice every six months with a listing of special project assignments across the organization. If you and your manager agree that one of them is just what you need to move forward on one of your development goals, you can apply for that assignment. You may or may not get it because competition for some assignments is high. If you get the assignment, you temporarily leave your position and work fulltime for six months in some other part of the organization.
  • Strategic. Organizations also need leaders who can look to the future, dig into complex emerging issues, and see ways forward. To develop such leaders, you have to get them out of day-to-day operations. If you’ve been doing stellar work at GlaxoSmithKline, you could get the opportunity to go to corporate headquarters in London  and work with a team of 2-3 other people like yourself (but from different parts of the organization) to examine and develop recommendations for dealing with a strategic issue.
  • Global. And organizations need leaders who understand cultural differences and can work with people around the globe. To develop such leaders, you have to get them out of their country.  If you work at IBM, you can apply to participate in their Corporate Service Corps. If you are lucky enough to get a slot in the program, you’ll join a team of up to 15 IBMers from around the world and travel to a developing country where you’ll do pro bono work for a small business or a nonprofit group to improve their organization.

These examples of short-term assignments are major organizational initiatives. They are often reserved for people who are expected to move up in the organization and take on broader leadership responsibilities.

However, we also found examples of short-term assignments that were on a more local scale and open to anyone who wanted to expand their leadership capabilities. Assignments that gave individual contributors in the organization a taste for supervisory work. Opportunities to shape an assignment that allowed people to spend 10% of their time in another function. Project posting systems that helped people find assignments outside their typical work.

One thing stood out about these efforts to create more short-term developmental assignments: if you took one of these assignments, you were not going to be left on your own to make of it what you could.  Because these organizations want to maximize their investment, they surround the experience with the things needed to stimulate and focus your learning—learning goals, coaches, peer networks, formal courses, feedback, and tools for reflection.

Short-term assignments fill an important niche. They provide the opportunity to do real work outside of your current context without having to commit to a job move (and all the upheavals that entails).  Is your organization finding ways to create these types of opportunities?  What examples, experiences, and insights do you have to share?

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