Cindy Pace would be the first to admit that she wasn’t always purposeful about lobbying for leadership roles. Now a global diversity and inclusion leader with one of the world’s largest insurance firms, Cindy says a career-defining defining moment arose at a previous company, when she was unexpectedly thrust into a highly visible leadership role.
When a colleague of Cindy’s became ill in the middle of planning a 200-person global conference, Cindy received an unexpected visit from her manager.
“My boss came into my office for one of those ‘put on your big girl pants’ conversations,” she recounts. “And she said, ‘Cindy, I need your help. I know that you’ve been contributing and influencing behind the scenes, but I need you to step up and lead this thing. Can you do it?’”
In that moment, though she was feeling somewhat terrified, Cindy had the self-awareness to realize, “Someone sees the leader in me. I should be seeing the leader in me.” Cindy accepted the assignment, and the experiences and exposure that came with it changed everything: “It was a turning point in my career, and a turning point in me seeing myself as a leader.”
The Right Stretch Assignment Can Be Career-MakingA stretch assignment is a challenging new project or experience that can’t be accomplished with your existing expertise—and it compels you to develop new skills while solving a critical business issue. There’s strong evidence to confirm the career-transforming properties of stretching. When Egon Zehnder asked 823 international executives what had helped them unleash their potential, 71 percent cited stretch assignments; no other form of career development came close.
Knowing that women are less likely to receive these opportunities than men, Be Leaderly launched a survey of 1,500 professionals to examine whether men and women differ in their perceptions of the enablers, challenges, and roadblocks that come with taking on a stretch. And under what conditions would they say yes to one? Our findings are published in the new research report, Out of the Comfort Zone: How women and men size up stretch assignments—and why leaders should care.
Our survey respondents agreed that it’s no small commitment, and gave us detailed insights into the criteria they consider before accepting one. If owning a high-profile assignment like Cindy’s excites you, here are three characteristics to look for in an ideal stretch opportunity, so that you can wholeheartedly go forth and crush it:
1. It Requires You to Be Bold
Stretch assignments come with trade-offs. It can be risky to commit to high-stakes, highly visible work that adds to your workload. But consider the upside: the chance to develop new skills, discover new strengths, build influential networks, and make a meaningful contribution to your organization. “I ask myself, ‘Am I ready for change? Am I ready to be uncomfortable? Am I ready to make a mistake and learn from it?’” wrote one survey respondent, a woman working as a senior manager in consumer goods manufacturing.
2. It Spotlights Your Strengths
The ideal stretch fuels your passions, plays to your strengths, and helps you make a much-needed business impact. “I look for a complex challenge so that I can learn and grow, make impactful change, and prove my abilities,” summed up one woman, an individual contributor with ambitions to make her mark within a manufacturing conglomerate. Reflect on your career goals and whether this problem or business opportunity provides the types of new challenges you’d like to tackle.
3. Your Success Is Supported
Before agreeing to or starting a challenging new assignment or role, consider the influence, resources, and support you’ll need to succeed. Don’t be afraid to negotiate the authority you’ll need. Line up influential allies to help you navigate office politics and back your decisions. One entry-level woman in the medical devices field told us she weighs the question, “Do I have a support system in place, including a manager and colleagues who agree that I am ready for the next step and who are confident in my abilities?”
Want to connect with a bigger, bolder vision for your career? A well-chosen stretch assignment can be career-making. “See yourself as a leader now,” encourages Cindy. “Leadership is an action, not only a position. Raise your hand and proactively look for opportunities to lead or create those opportunities.”