When Peter Dorsman, senior vice president of global operations at NCR Corporation, decided to bring all of the company's manufacturing operations back inside to drive timely innovation, he called on high-potential leaders from around the world. He knew that an aggressive timetable and use of "next-in-class" practices would stretch the leaders, presenting them with a steep learning curve. And when Marjorie Dorr, former CEO of Anthem East launched an integration of three disparate Blue Cross plans in New England, she, too, anticipated that she would need to rely on leaders for whom this undertaking would be a stretch.
Two different executives facing two distinct business challenges - yet, both responded with a planned course of action that enabled their developing leaders to learn, grow, and thrive. In this article, I present a design for using stretch assignments to develop next-generation leaders. Implemented well, this strategy promotes good governance by offering management a way to simultaneously increase the size of its talent pool, build organizational capability, and enhance enterprise sustainability.
The relationship between experiential learning and leader development
For years, we have known that one of the best ways to sustain and accelerate the upward trajectory of those with high potential for senior leadership is to place them, time and again, in new assignments that present ever-increasing levels of challenge. The demands of such stretch assignments require developing leaders to step out of their comfort zones, acquire new skills, and cope with the anxiety induced by uncertainty and risk-taking.
With each new experience, these leaders grow more adaptive, resourceful, and resilient. As a result, they bring even greater capacity to their next new challenge, and thus emerges the competence, confidence, and maturity of the general manager or future enterprise leader.
Of course, any company that uses stretch assignments as a development strategy must balance the risks and rewards of putting important work in the hands of people who they know are somewhat lacking in experience for the project. Given this context, it is only prudent to inquire as to how management might mitigate risks of failure while optimizing the learning of their future leaders.
On the one hand, we could choose to err in the direction of being too conservative, thereby limiting the opportunities for developing leaders to contribute and learn. On the other hand, if the match is not made with a proper dose of realism, we could be setting up the leader and the organization for failure. Fortunately, we have the advantage of recent research to guide our approach to these decisions.
What we know is that the relationship between the level of challenge of a stretch assignment and the gains in leadership skill obtained from the assignment is curvilinear (Figure 1). That is, increasing levels of challenge are associated with gains in skill development up to a point (line A-B). Beyond that point, further increases in level of challenge produce diminishing returns in skill development (line B-C). Challenge sparks motivation and stimulates learning, but there is an upper limit to these effects. At some point, a leader begins to feel overwhelmed with the novelty and complexity she faces.
We also observe the effect of "moderating variables," represented by the green line (B-D), which serves to change the shape of the learning curve. These moderating variables include the availability of feedback, developmental coaching, and a structured program to support development (action learning, for one). When present, they are able to offset the diminishing returns associated with high levels of challenge. Given these findings, management need not throw caution to the wind with a "sink-or-swim" approach, nor must they settle for an overly conservative "job rotation" strategy.
Indeed, a sink-or-swim approach operates under the faulty assumption that it is not necessary to calibrate the level of challenge or match the person's readiness to the challenge. As a result, it suffers the disadvantage of a high failure rate and the risk of too many "false negatives." As for job rotations, its aims are focused more on providing "exposure" and "rounding out" future leaders than on stretching their capacity to lead and master new business challenges under conditions of significant risk and uncertainty. Consequently, it may generate too many "false positives."
How, then, can we avoid these extremes and take a more prudent middle road, one that allows us to go beyond the same familiar "go-to" group while increasing the likelihood of successful developmental outcomes and business success?
Appraising challenge and making the person-assignment match
The curvilinear relationship between level of challenge and leader development compels us to consider just how critical it is that the organization and its developing leaders understand what they are "getting into." Framed as a question, we might ask "What features of the assignment should be examined to adequately characterize the level of challenge?" Again, we have recent research that is helpful. It directs us to give special attention to five characteristics of a challenge (see Table 1).
Any assignment may incorporate one or more of these characteristics. Using Table 1 as a prompt, we might simply ask, "How would this assignment challenge the leader with unfamiliar responsibilities, creating change, high levels of responsibility, working across boundaries, and managing diversity?"
Discussions along these lines might quickly generate greater specificity concerning the distinctive elements of challenge inherent to a particular assignment. If this process were performed jointly by a few well-qualified people, a rich and concrete description would soon emerge. And if the same group were evaluating the inherent stretch of multiple assignments, the comparative analysis would likely enhance the quality of their judgments, helping them to better calibrate the level of challenge within and across assignments, perhaps using a simple five-point rating scale (1=low, 5=high).
Another variable affecting the relationship between level of challenge and leader development is readiness of the individual leader for the assignment. Framing this as a question, we might ask, "What are the specific leadership skills and appropriate levels of competence a person would need to have in these skill areas for us to justify assigning her to this project?"
In addition to appraising the candidate on specific instrumental skills, experts argue the need to consider the more fundamental characteristics of the person. They cite robust research on the role of personality, motivation, and early-life experience in shaping leader development and performance. A properly trained professional can help the candidate access and examine these intrapersonal factors, and appraise their relevance to one's readiness for an assignment. Table 2 suggests how to achieve a holistic appraisal of person-assignment fit; that is, inclusive of skill-based and person-based competencies.
The first step in assessing the person-assignment fit based on these factors could take the form of a group discussion similar to that described for appraisal of challenge. The panel might consider the prior experience and demonstrated skills of the individuals, identify readiness gaps and their implications for risk, and target potential sources of support that would mitigate risk and bolster learning. All of this would help guide a realistic appraisal of skill-based readiness and fit.
A second step might involve candidates examining, with the support of a coach and their supervisor, their personal strengths and vulnerabilities insofar as they may affect their readiness for the assignment. This is particularly important because it is often the intrapersonal factors in combination with those in the interpersonal domain that affect one's ability to obtain, process, and adaptively use stakeholder feedback to learn, grow, and perform as a leader.
Organizational readiness and leader development
Recent McKinsey surveys (from 2008 and 2009) on talent management and supervisor engagement verify what many of us who consult to organizations already know - that there is generally a dearth of supervisor involvement in development. Supervisors are feeling more overwhelmed than ever by demands on their time, and even those with the motivation and good intentions of providing more mentoring and support just don't get around to it. This raises a vital question: What should we realistically expect from management, and what should we expect from the supervisors of those in a stretch assignment?
Some would say that this phenomenon suggests the need for individual leaders to be "more accountable for their own development" - a phrase that has gained currency in recent years. But what does that really mean beyond admonishing people to be more self-directing? And how realistic and effective have such exhortations been?
Others emphasize the importance of linking leader development more directly to business imperatives. But how do you do that without overemphasizing the purely task-oriented elements of learning and without ratcheting up performance pressures to a level that suppresses learning?
We will address these questions in more detail, but for now, suffice it to say that the primary responsibility of management, in the opinion of many, is to create conditions favorable for leader development. This implies providing the structure and resources needed to give each developing leader a realistic chance to learn, grow, and succeed, even where that means minimal and selective supervisor involvement. Mere rhetoric about personal accountability is not enough!
Recommendations for making stretch assignments work
The conceptual tools provided in Tables 1 and 2 and the guidance for how to use them go a long way toward ensuring thoughtfulness in the appraisal of challenge, and in making well-informed person-assignment matches. This, in turn, will lead to more prudent judgments and decision-making regarding the risks and benefits of placing important company work in the hands of developing leaders.
Beyond these tools and guidance on their use, I would like to highlight three areas of readiness that merit special attention:
- establishing the role of management
- preparing developing leaders for participation
- providing a supportive structure for leaders in stretch assignments.
Establishing the role of management
What follows is a set of specific recommendations for how to create a climate conducive to development in a difficult business cycle. Each taken individually will not be enough to quell the tyranny of the urgent; they must be used in combination. While an individual champion may be able to get the attention of a few key leaders, it is essential to create a critical mass of management support. This implies building a consensus among members of the leadership team.
Define leadership and organizational development as a governance matter. All stakeholders have an interest in the company's sustainability, and sustainability is promoted by generative leadership; that is, leadership that concerns itself with the greater good of the enterprise and developing the next generations of leadership.
Link developmental assignments to company strategy. Those who play a role in specifying stretch assignments must be insistent about defining their strategic significance and business impact. Assignments focused on burning short-term issues must be understood for their strategic implications if they are to be justified.
Use structure to ensure follow-through. The implementation and oversight of assignments must be designed to include review points. Accountabilities for developing leaders, key stakeholders, and sponsoring executives must be specified, and their contributions need to be noticed, shaped by feedback, and rewarded.
Bolster leaders' developmental focus. There is a natural bias for action and results in most organizations. This tendency needs to be offset by creating opportunities for critical reflection and perspective taking. This may require structured peer group discussions and access to external resources.
Leverage the dynamics of reciprocal influence between leaders and followers. Stretch-assignment leaders (as followers) can have a positive impact on their supervisors who also struggle to sustain focus on development amidst the rush of daily tasks. Relationships between stretch leaders and their followers can also produce mutually reinforcing effects on developmental focus.
Preparing developing leaders for participation
In light of the expectations that individuals take greater responsibility for their own development, ensuring the individual readiness of candidates for stretch assignments is more critical than ever. This is also where it is becomes most important to draw on well-qualified external coaches. The four-step process presented in Table 3 characterizes the key elements of such coaching and the gains derived from each step.
Why is it helpful? Gaining deeper insight into the underlying dynamics that shape one's intellectual, emotional, and social functioning is very empowering. Bringing these aspects of self into conscious awareness makes them available for critical examination. Often, leaders find opportunities to more fully integrate their interests, abilities, and experiences. Just as often, they discover opportunities to overcome self-limiting habits or assumptions from earlier points in their life and career.
As a result, they emerge from the experience with greater maturity, authenticity, and confidence, which enhance their judgment and strengthen their bonds with those whom they lead and those whom they follow.
Supportive structure for developing leaders
One way of supporting leaders deployed to stretch assignments is to provide them with a peer group with whom they can periodically reflect upon their experience for purposes of gaining perspective, obtaining feedback, and tending to problem-solving issues. There may even be pre-planned learning modules that have cross-cutting relevance to all assignments and leaders, such as topics that relate to dimensions of challenge (Table 1) or dimensions of competency (Table 2). Reading material and faculty can be brought in to address these topics. However, the essential goal is to get the leaders interacting about these matters in an environment of trust, candor, and mutual support.
This kind of structured learning and development process is often referred to as action learning. It implies a thoughtful design, which aims to ensure a high degree of relevance to the participant's operating environment and personal development goals. Although structured and designed with care, action learning must leave room for spontaneous experimentation and adaptive course corrections.
Moreover, the balance between considerations of efficiency and learning must be skewed in favor of learning. This means that one should be choosing stretch assignments with outcomes that are important and worthy of special attention, but that are not so urgent that they induce time pressures, which might compromise learning.
While this is not the occasion to go into design details, it is important to note that action learning programs can vary a good deal in their design. Depending on company size and development goals, programs may be company-specific or may include developing leaders from multiple companies. Regardless of design, however, such programs have the advantage of providing high-quality support without putting unrealistic demands on the developing leader's supervisor or executive sponsors. Moreover, they generally offer economies of scale when drawing on outside resources such as faculty or workshops, and they explicitly ensure the relevance of development activities to business priorities.
To be sure, these recommendations are not without cost, but most businesses are already spending significant sums of money on leadership development, so perhaps the critical question is, "Are these organizations getting a good return from their expenditures?" Answering that question for any particular enterprise, of course, requires a case-specific assessment. As a general principle, however, it seems reasonable to expect that organizations whose approach to leader development is grounded in sound research, proven models, and practical experience are more likely to achieve good returns. The advice offered in this article is intended to conform to that standard. T+D