Stretch Assignments: The Key to Developing Talent

shutterstock_238797514_Got_TalentBy Adam Simon

When I was just 9 months into my first-ever full time job, my boss tasked me with building a summer internship program at several organizations for college students from around the country. My only knowledge of recruitment, internships, program design or evaluation was what I had learned as a campus student leader. And yet here I was given carte-blanche responsibility to build a high-profile program for our organization.

I was thinking back on the profound value I gained from this experience while reading Hal Lewis’ recent article in eJewish Philanthropy that advocates for supporting formal training programs for Jewish professionals. In response to some thoughts and a question posed by my colleague Seth Cohen, Lewis names a number of arguments people offer as to why not to invest in formal training, ultimately arguing that it is, indeed, valuable.

I agree with Lewis’ premise, and actually would go one step further. In addition to formal training, we as community leaders would be wise to invest in the thousands of professionals in Jewish organizations with one of the most effective tools we can offer rising leaders: on-the-job stretch assignments – when managers give employees great opportunities to do something they have never done, pushing them just beyond their existing limits.

As I cited in a previous article on this topic, the highly regarded Bridgespan Group recently conducted research on adult learning and found that that the ideal mix of leadership development experiences is 10% formal training; 20% coaching, great supervision and mentorship; and 70% on-the-job experiences. This data is consistent with my own life story, and the stories I hear from countless others. In fact, in 2014 when we asked focus groups of professionals in Jewish organizations about the most pivotal growth experience they have had in their careers, most pointed to an opportunity they had on the job.

This is not to say we simply add more to the plates of already stretched individuals. It means that leaders and managers think critically about the work to be done and the abilities and potential of the talented individuals on their teams. It means rethinking the assumptions about who can do what, and ensuring that everyone has responsibilities that push them to grow.

Stretch assignments are particularly effective for several reasons. These kind of on-the-job growth opportunities accelerate the learning and skill building employees may otherwise receive in their role, but most importantly, individuals maintain a direct connection to the work at hand. They are still, at the end of the day, responsible for the work they do. They have the chance to see immediate results and receive feedback and support. They also gain a sense of pride that comes from playing with real stakes and executing a job well done.

There are also multiple ancillary benefits. Stretch assignments increase employee engagement, have been shown to dramatically increase retention of top talent and – notably – cost nothing. And, they actually help organizations directly reach their goals at the same time as developing talent!

The effect of these assignments is strengthened when put into the context of a multi-format leadership development journey. Coupled with great supervision by someone who is truly invested in a high potential leader’s success and boosted by formal training to round out specific competency gaps, on-the-job training, mentorship and formal training opportunities form a powerful triumvirate of experiences designed to give our rising leaders what they need to excel.

Implementing high quality formal training is not easy, and research on the impact of most programs out there (from Harvard Kennedy School’s Barbara Kellerman, for example) shows that participants love these experiences but need help to translate what they have learned into results after the fact. Pushing and supporting employees to do more than they ever thought possible is a critical piece of that translation.

So, yes, we should continue to invest in formal training. But let’s make sure it is just a piece of how the Jewish sector develops its talent. Let’s offer our employees the chance to put their training to work and give them the opportunities they need to grow, learn and succeed.

Adam Simon is the Director of Leadership Initiatives for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.