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Developing managerial talent through stretch assignments

Oct 01, 2009

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Research by Paul Tesluk and Joyce E. A. Russell

On-the-job experience can be a powerfully transformative tool for professional growth—in fact, research indicates it may be the primary vehicle for learning critical leadership skills. Many companies use job assignments to groom high-potential managers, but what kinds of experiences are really valuable for developing manager potential? And what kinds of managers benefit most from these experiences?

Paul Tesluk, Ralph J. Tyser Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resource
Management and chair of the department of management and organization, Joyce E. A. Russell, Ralph J. Tyser Distinguished Teaching Fellow, with former Smith PhD student Lisa Dragoni, now at Cornell University, and In-Sue Oh, University of Iowa, examine the effectiveness of “stretch assignments”—experiences which challenge and potentially broaden a person’s current capabilities—from the lens of individual goal orientations. This approach, used by educational psychologists to describe student behavior in the classroom, is now being used to understand r which employees are most likely seek out and benefit from stretch assignments.

Part-time MBA students who were in early-career managerial roles participated in the study, as did their supervisors. The participants’ goal orientations were assessed on the degree to which they demonstrated a learning orientation. Learning-oriented people are motivated by a desire to demonstrate mastery of new skills and behaviors. The participants completed a survey on their managerial assignments and development, and the authors followed up with the participants’ supervisors to understand how managerial assignments relate to the development of managerial competencies.

“Stretch assignments are those that require someone to manage and negotiate change, exert influence over others, and build coalitions. These assignments are highly developmental because they require new managers to learn new skills in order to be successful in the assignment and they have significant challenge which motivates new managers to work hard to improve their capabilities.,” says Tesluk.

Tesluk and his co-authors found that those with a strong learning orientation benefited most from stretch assignments. They enjoyed being challenged and learning something new, and were more likely to seek out critical feedback.

Senior executives responsible for developing high-potential talent in their organizations should identify those with a learning orientation in their groups, and then create an environment where stretch assignments are valued and where people are given access to them. The best stretch assignment opportunities are often guarded, says Tesluk. Companies may not want to lose a person who is already doing a fine job in a mission-critical position in order to give a high-potential junior manager the opportunity to grow in that position. “It requires some organizational discipline to have rotational programs and create incentives for managers to take stretch assignments,” says Tesluk. “Yet, this has become increasingly important for organizations since today’s employees are much more likely to be looking for rotational opportunities in order to enhance their own marketability” says Russell.

In an economy where many companies have had to lay off employees, stretch assignments may be more a matter of necessity than of opportunity. Juggling workloads and reassigning tasks can be framed as an opportunity for junior managers to gain new skills. Managers should consider how they are developing leadership for the next generation and use challenging on-the-job experiences, in combination with active mentoring and review processes, to help high-potential employees grow. “This is especially critical today,” says Russell, “given the pending retirements of the baby boom generation and the large number of Generation X and Y employees who will need to be developed to assume those managerial positions.”

“Companies have cut back on leadership development activities because of tight budgets, but firms will need that leadership to help them surmount the challenges of a difficult economy,” says Tesluk. “Managers need to present assignments by saying Here is what you’re going to learn through this process, these are the things at which you will have to become highly proficient, I know you’re going to struggle and here is how we’re going to help you through the process. Then it becomes less about the end result and more about performing through the process.”

“Understanding Managerial Development: Integrating Developmental Assignments, Learning Orientation and Access to Developmental Opportunities in Predicting Managerial Competencies,” was published in the August issue of the Academy of Management Journal. For more information about this research, contactptesluk@rhsmith.umd.edu or jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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