To develop as a professional, you need to stretch yourself outside your comfort zone and learn new things. The most effective way to do this is by taking on a stretch assignment. We have all taken training classes and left. While you may have some additional knowledge, you really haven’t grown. That growth only comes if you leverage new knowledge by applying it.
Sometimes that happens, but often it does not. Think about it: Have you ever gone to a technology course, and then left? Three weeks later when you have to use the skill, you are on YouTube learning how to do it, and you learn it at that point because you are applying it. True development comes from using what you know in a real-life situation and being accountable for it. And this can be scary, and that is why people often avoid it.
Many of us who have clamored for more opportunities and responsibility hesitate when a challenge is offered. We second-guess whether we can handle the new assignment or demonstrate the leadership to be in charge of a project, rather than be a worker bee. In our comfort zones, we know we can succeed — outside of our comfort zones often lurks the possibility of failure. That possibility seems to outweigh the benefits that come from success. For example, the first time you are told that you no longer need to go through your manager to a client can be scary because you no longer have a backstop, and your judgment is on the line. On the other hand, demonstrating judgment and handling a client relationship can lead to promotions or a client that wants you credited with its business. I knew one attorney who was offered the opportunity to work closely with a business that was struggling with compliance and legal issues. She hesitated because it was not a pure legal job and she would be working in the gray. She decided to take the role and it lead to career growth.
Stepping outside of your comfort zone also allows you to demonstrate that you are not a one- trick pony and can bring skills such as strategic thinking and a deep understanding to the table. A company offered one of its support-area employees an opportunity to step out of her support role to learn the business at a deeper level than others in her area and create connections with its leaders. This was a new role, and it was up to the person to design how it was structured. The associate struggled with the lack of definition in the assignment and what failure would mean. After many discussions, she took on the opportunity. Her development skyrocketed, as did her profile within the organization, and she developed relationships that served her well going forward.
Often, I hear from people trying to get to the next level that they are not being offered these assignments outside of their comfort zones. These types of opportunities can come organically to people who have a good manager or sponsor. Those who are not so fortunate need to ask for these opportunities. (And don’t fool yourself — others are getting out of their comfort zones and asking for these assignments all the time.) If you still aren’t getting the opportunity, you need to ask why. As a manager, I was thrilled when someone questioned whom I gave an assignment to — it showed me that this person was eager and cared about their career. It also gave me an opening to discuss that person’s developmental opportunities. So be prepared. You may not like all you are told, but you need to hear it because people who take on these assignments are most likely to succeed. If you still are not given stretch assignments, look for growth opportunities outside of work. For example, if you have a fear of public speaking or leading a massive project — like many people — join an industry or voluntary organization where you may have the opportunity to try out those skills. I had an enormous fear of public speaking, so I sought out speaking wherever I could because I knew it would be to my benefit. Remember, it is your career, so own it and focus forward.
If you have been given an opportunity and your gut reaction is to say no, the first step to getting out of your own head and taking on a stretch assignment is to recognize the benefits of doing so. Those of us who are parents push our children outside of their comfort zones all the time because it is for their own good. We challenge them to learn to swim, ride a bike or try another new activity. We should love ourselves enough to look for those opportunities to stretch for ourselves.
If you are still hesitating, talk to your personal board of directors. Those are people who know your strengths and opportunities and are invested in your success. They will help you become more comfortable with developmental opportunities. Also, imagine what success will look like and mean — and what doing nothing will mean.
Once you take on the assignment, you can mitigate some, but not all, of the risks by taking a few steps. First, commit to doing 110%. You need to recognize that being successful in this opportunity will require time and effort. Do whatever research you need to do — become an expert. Prepare, prepare, prepare. You cannot over-prepare when taking on something new. Second, find a peer or a member of your board of directors to act as a sounding board as you are navigating this new world. You may be able to use your manager for this purpose — but if she is looking to see how you do on your own, you could be undermining that effort. Third, ask for feedback, and if appropriate, incorporate it.
Finally, remember you may not succeed or hit a home run the first time. Growth takes time, and often, we learn more from failure than success. Development does not come overnight, but the more that you stretch yourself, the faster it happens and the more agile you become.