Have you ever had a serious case of the jitters? Or been at work preparing for a presentation but the thought of public speaking made you practically queasy? This kind of edge-of-your-seat anxiety and professional nervousness can be crippling. However, it can also signal professional growth.
Stretch assignments — or tasks given to an employee that is currently beyond their level of knowledge or skill can — can produce this type of anxiety but also present a prime opportunity. “It is important to accept new challenges and push yourself beyond your comfort zone,” says Jodi Euerle Eddy, SVP of Information Technology and Chief Information Officer of Boston Scientific. “You may even experience a nervous feeling of uneasiness, which is normal. Accept this feeling as encouragement knowing you are pushing yourself forward to new heights.”
It is her belief — and experience — that wanting to “throw up a little sometimes,” is a healthy sign of challenging yourself with new opportunities to expand your technical, personal and management skills. So if you’re ready to step out on faith to up-level in your career, here’s tried-and-tested advice on how to look for the right stretch opportunities in your current role or elsewhere.
1. Evaluate your current company & manager.
Before raising your hand for a stretch assignment, you should be very clear about what kind of company you work for and the type of manager you have. While many employers profess to be advocates for learning and development, some can be more rigid about allowing employees to try something new or think outside of the box.
“At Boston Scientific, we know the value of investing in our employees on multiple fronts, including education,” says Eddy. “Within the IT organization, we encourage participation in learning programs designed to improve their technical and personal skills. We want our employees to experience improvement. Challenging employees with ‘stretch goals’ is part of the learning process and keeps interest high.”
Even earlier in her career, Eddy was sure to eye various opportunities and had the benefit of a supportive employer that selected her to participate in a leadership development program which exposed her to assignments in a variety of IT disciplines. “From there I continued to focus on building out my own skillset, driven by a passion for learning. That meant rotating through just about every possible role in IT – ERP systems, networks, cybersecurity, application development, etc. – and soaking up as much as I could. In addition, over the years, I was also able to attend many world-class formal business and management training programs. Stretching yourself isn’t always about a specific assignment; sometimes it’s about raising your hand for those other learning opportunities.”
Now that she is CIO, Eddy assigns stretch assignments and takes into account two key factors. “First is the need of the company and the criticality of the assignment. Second is the abilities of the employee and, to some extent, the relationship of their current work to the work involved in the stretch assignment.”
2. Discern between a stretch assignment & a menial task.
Practice smart judgment when you are evaluating or considering taking on additional work with the goal of professional growth. As much as you want to be the utility player or eager employee, it’s vital to choose your assignments wisely and think through the outcomes and consequences. Having clear and consistent communication with your manager as well as a career development plan can help with this, and save you from the pitfalls of meaningless assignments.
“The key is to make sure you and your manager have a shared understanding of how work-related decisions are made,” says Eddy. “Mutual respect and genuinely caring for one another’s well-being are the foundation for this mindset and enable you to respond with confidence to work challenges including stretch assignments.”
To help you evaluate a stretch assignment, Eddy says you must do two things:
- Understand the need for excellent performance at all levels to support your company’s larger goals. "In our case at Boston Scientific, that’s the goal of providing the very best medical products and services for patients in need around the world."
- Have open dialogue—if you don’t feel like you are set up to deliver on your core commitments, talk with your manager about how you can prioritize together, to get you a place where you have room to stretch and grow.
3. Capitalize on every aspect of the stretch assignment.
Once you’ve taken on the task, enthusiastically approach the stretch assignment as a unique opportunity and bring it to a successful conclusion. If done well, you may position yourself for additional responsibilities, a raise or a promotion down the road. Therefore at each turn, attention to detail is imperative.
“It always makes sense to track your results and articulate where you’ve been able to add value—we should all be prepared to advocate for ourselves,” advises Eddy. “But the greatest gift of a stretch assignment is the learning. What did it teach you about this new area? What lessons can you bring to the next assignment? What questions did it raise that you’d like to continue exploring? It’s important to be focused and have clear goals; at the same time, taking on a stretch assignment to “check a box” is missing the point. There’s so much upside in the exploration.”
And when you feel the urge to throw up —or worse, quit— “remember that your manager has faith that you can take on the challenge.”
4. Stay in regular communication with your manager.
Taking on a stretch assignment should not be confused with taking on projects for your colleagues.
“If you feel overworked or overburdened by the actions or inactions of fellow employees, it should be addressed through appropriate management channels,” says Eddy.
Being mindful of your work-life balance as important as realizing the sacrifice you are making can pay off in the end. “Obviously, these assignments will require additional effort—if you believe there are viable reasons why you could not expend that additional effort at that time, it’s a good reason to have an open discussion with your leadership.”
5. Do not be discouraged by setbacks.
“On occasion, we all make a mistake or come up short on an assignment. Naturally, there will be setbacks. The key is to minimize these misses, learn from the experience and keep a positive attitude. If you can do this, you will continue to move forward. Oh, and volunteer for the next stretch assignment that comes your way.”
6. Be a source of inspiration.
Whether you have the capacity take on a stretch assignment or not, another way to be invaluable to your team and boss is to suggest ways the business can grow and tee up others for new challenges. Your manager depends on you for your ideas, insights and talents, so share them.
“As a leader, it’s my job to play to my team’s strengths as much as it is to help them bridge gaps. There’s no one way to approach it, but I believe in having open conversations in both directions. By defining clear goals for my team and knowing my people, I can look for the points of intersection where someone can stretch into a skill that will help us move the needle in a meaningful way. At the same time, I rely on my team to tell me about new projects or learning opportunities that get them excited, and how that can help us innovate faster and make an impact on the business. I see it as part of my responsibility to create space for those conversations to happen.”