‘Stretch assignments’ are mostly bullshit, but real human growth isn’t

Real Human Growth As A Manager

I hate the term “stretch assignment” conceptually, because it’s pretty much a white whale for a lot of organizations. They talk about it, but no one is really serious about it (except in very forward-thinking organizations): business is mostly set up to achieve short-term goals and wins (think “quarters”), and if you give a high-performer a “stretch assignment,” that means you’re taking them off of their main assignment. Even if they’re ready for more, taking a high-potential guy/girl off their main area can hurt you in the short term. A lot of bosses, potentially lacking EQ and being not-great managers, don’t want to do that. In short, I think the term “stretch assignment” is bullshit; people throw it around as a “leadership development” tactic but no one really wants to actually do it when rubber hits road. However, this idea of “real human growth” — which, when said aloud, can also sound like bullshit — is actually tangible. 

It’s a pretty simple concept, showcased here by Linda Fisher Thornton. Think about it like this:

  • Business and work always has challenges emerge.
  • To deal with challenges and get better at dealing with them, you need to legitimately grow as a person.
  • One of the biggest concerns of managers, HR types, etc. is “leadership pipelines.” That’s the idea that leaders might leave or get promoted or whatever else, and there aren’t people to step up and replace them.
  • If you’re worried about leadership pipelines and people being ready to meet challenges, you need to figure out ways to encourage real human growth in them.

There are a lot of different executions to moving someone towards “real human growth,” but I’d argue the first step is probably around developing a sense of empathy. (That seems to be tied to an idea like “real human growth,” right?) Learning how to listen and think about your challenges ahead would be helpful too.

What do you think? Are “stretch assignments” BS? Can we chase real human growth for managers? And if so, how? 

Ted Bauer