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What Makes a Stretch Assignment Appealing? For Men and Women, the Answer May Differ

Topics: Growth, Retention

When her previous company formed a new business unit that needed a human resources business partner, Angie Hemmelgarn already held a demanding HR leadership role.

“We were having a global restructuring meeting and I heard about a new group that was being formed to address product quality issues. The CEO wanted to put more focus on this group,” says Hemmelgarn, who is now Chief Human Resources Officer with Claritas. “I got excited about the fact that this was new and different. I had never worked with operations, engineering or technology groups before and I wanted to help out. I pulled my manager aside and said, ‘I’m really excited about this. I want this opportunity. Do you think that this is something I could do?’”

Hemmelgarn volunteered to take on the extra workload in addition to her day-to-day role and won her manager’s approval. The new business unit got its HR partner, and Hemmelgarn built knowledge and relationships that set her up for success in subsequent roles. It was a classic example of how a great stretch assignment can bolster a career: Everybody wins.

Stretch assignments are a way for employees to gain new experience and skill up in preparation for future roles, without leaving their current positions. They offer visibility and exposure, allowing learners to shape how they are perceived. As a global talent leader, Hemmelgarn has utilized a variety of “stretch” initiatives to boost employee development and prepare future leaders. These include a rotational program for emerging leaders, innovation challenges, hackathons and encouraging employees to pitch ideas for side projects.

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It pays to stretch

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There’s towering evidence to confirm the career-transforming power of stretch assignments. When 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 names stretch or rotational assignments as the most valuable skill-building experience in the leadership development journey, ahead of action learning, mentoring, exposure to more senior leaders and formal classroom training.

New research: Do men and women get equal exposure?

Knowing that stretch assignments are a proven way to catapult a career to new heights, and that women are less likely than men to be promoted, my colleague Selena Rezvani and I found ourselves wondering: Do men and women get equal access to these career-making opportunities? Do they differ in their perceptions of the enablers, challenges and roadblocks that come with taking on a stretch? Our survey of 1,500 professionals formed the basis of our new research report, Out of the Comfort Zone: How women and men size up stretch assignments — and why leaders should care. Here are some of our key discoveries.

Women Are Less Engaged and Passionate at Work

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.) It’s a provocative statistic, though one we’re not altogether surprised by.

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.

Women See a Less Distinct Path to Advancement

Women have equal, if not slightly greater, ambition than men to move into VP- and C-level leadership roles (51 percent vs 48 percent.) But despite having similar career aspirations, women and men experience different levels of support in attaining them.

When evaluating the statement, “My company makes it easy for me to gauge my readiness to advance internally,” the largest portion of women, 45 percent, disagrees, while only 29 percent of men disagree. The largest portion of men, 40 percent, agrees with the statement, which suggests that women see a less clear, more convoluted route to advancement.

We hypothesize that companies that lay out a clear path for women to advance are more likely to have women employees who, day in and day out, feel engaged and passionate about what they do.

Men and Women Differ in Self-Perception of Readiness

Our findings support previous research that shows women are more likely than men to underestimate their abilities. We found women less likely than men to be comfortable applying for a new role that’s a stretch while meeting only the “bare minimum” requirements (55 percent vs 65 percent.)

And women are less likely than men to overestimate or “round up” their skills when assessing how ready they are for a new job. Women are more likely to underestimate or “round down” what they know and can do.

A number of workplace dynamics may contribute to these differences. For one, women receive less specific, actionable feedback in performance reviews. Also, although women ask for informal feedback as often as men, they say they receive it less often. Training managers to deliver more structured, accountable and unbiased performance feedback would support employees in objectively sizing up their readiness to tackle a challenging new assignment or job.

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 criteria for saying “yes” to a stretch are having the personal influence to drive a successful outcome and alignment with their career goals. Women and men agree that office politics, not lack of time, 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 say “yes” to a stretch assignment, women are more likely than men to prioritize exposure to key mentors and sponsors (18 percent vs 11 percent.) Meanwhile, men are 3.5 times more likely than women to cite “pay” as a factor that makes a stretch assignment appealing.

The takeaway: What your company can do

In the midst of a global employee engagement crisis, employers can’t afford to hesitate when it comes to articulating a clearer path to advancement path for women. Our research suggests that when significant milestones to career growth such as stretch assignments and promotions are unclear, unadvertised, and unevenly offered, it can cause women to hesitate to pursue them.

Could your organization benefit from offering career-transforming opportunities more uniformly? Consider creating an equitable “marketplace” — an internal gig economy — so that more employees can benefit from them. This can include standardizing the way stretch assignments are described to make it easier for employees to objectively assess their fit and readiness, and encouraging managers to post assignments and roles in a way that’s transparent and searchable.

When an organization has a well-thought-out plan for offering and overseeing stretch assignments, they are less likely to be seen as political, biased, or promoting favoritism. Becoming more purposeful about how they are offered is an important way to harness employees’ full talents.

Featured Image by Jacob Postuma on Unsplash


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