Stretch Your Team—Always

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Scott J. Allen, Ph.D., and Mitchell Kusy, Ph.D.

How often have you said, “It’s just easier to do things myself?” In reality, most of us have spent the extra hours doing a task ourselves, believing it would get done more quickly and efficiently that way. However, if you look around, there are probably people willing to take on more work. These are team members who want to take their experiences and skills to the next level. Slowly opening the door for them to help you accomplish everything on your plate is a great way to develop those around you. If you do not have the time, explain projects in small steps or schedule a time to explain the project thoroughly.

In other words, develop those around you by offering “stretch assignments.” At any given time, all team members should be working on at least one project that is taking their skills to the next level—a project just outside their comfort zone. Take some time, develop a plan, and, little by little, your time will free up and those around you will develop.

You also need to make sure you are available for questions. This takes a little time in the beginning but, in the end, you will actually have more time. Stretch assignments are perhaps the most widely used development tool, according to some leadership experts. Researchers McCall, Lombardo, and Morrison studied executives to determine critical developmental experiences in their careers. The vast majority felt that experience was the greatest educator. Other studies have found similar results. Many executives attributed learning from assignments such as project task forces, line-to-staff switches, starting a venture from scratch, turn-it-around jobs, and a leap in scope.

For assignments to have “stretch,” two variables should be present. First, they should be challenging, not just work for work’s sake. Second, stretch assignments should provide team members with opportunities to try out new skills, behaviors, and thinking.

A variation of this idea occurred when one of our clients from a high-tech manufacturing company used a “different set of eyes” to troubleshoot and brainstorm. She had her team brainstorm how others in different disciplines or areas of the company might address a particular issue. For example, one of the issues they were trying to solve was how to improve service to their internal customers. She asked the group, “How would a marketing person solve this problem? How would a human resource specialist address it?” This process was quite successful in helping others problem solve in new and creative ways.

Try experimenting with this approach on smaller projects at first. After some time, talk with team members and listen to what they have gained from the experience. If it fits your culture, attempt this with larger projects, as well.

One last bit of advice: Involve your team in the how of work to be done. Let those implementing the policy/procedure (often those on your team) make it their own, even on the smallest level. Maybe your team sets up the timeline, looks at the project plan, and determines implementation strategies. As much as possible, get your team bought into the process. We all like to have some choice in how we will behave or conduct our work. Edicts from you and those above will only make the project less enticing for you and for those on your team charged with ­implementation.

Whenever possible, look at your team and say, “Here is the end product and these are the objectives that must be met. I am here to support you. Let me know how I can help you meet these goals.” Some of you may have just twitched because you can’t imagine those around you having the ability (or time) to take on the initiatives directly. Helping those around you attain a sense of ownership will foster higher levels of commitment rather than simple compliance.

This article is excerpted from The Little Book of Leadership Development by Scott J. Allen, Ph.D., and Mithcell Kusy, Ph.D.

About the Author(s)

Scott J. Allen, Ph.D., and Mitchell Kusy, Ph.D.

Scott J. Allen, Ph.D., and Mitchell Kusy are coauthors of The Little Book of Leadership Development. Allen is assistant professor of management at John Carroll University. Kusy is an international organizational development consultant and full professor in the Ph.D. Program in Leadership and Change at Antioch University.