If you’re like most professionals, you’ll eventually reach a point in your career when you realize that you can’t advance to the next level without being able to show that you have relevant experience—a lot of it.
One way to demonstrate that you have potential to grow beyond your current role is to take on “stretch” assignments. In 2003, Catalyst reported that a whopping 40% of women in corporate leadership positions said that seeking out difficult, highly visible assignments had been a very important advancement strategy. It makes sense: By volunteering for additional responsibilities, you can learn new skills, make your talents visible to your leaders, and demonstrate your readiness to step into a role that goes beyond the one you’re currently in.
But despite all the benefits of volunteering for stretch assignments, there are times when the extra workload can actually work against you. In a recent coaching program, one participant told me, “A mentor told me that volunteering for stretch assignments will help improve my career. I took on three new projects, and now I’m not getting any sleep. Help!”
This woman’s mentor had given her good advice, but it has to be applied within reason. We have to learn to put guardrails around accepting stretch assignments so that we don’t get stretched too thin by them!
But how? How can you say “no” to stretch assignments without also saying “no” to furthering your career?
The key is to be highly selective. One common misstep that many high performers make is accepting too many low-visibility assignments that require them to work overtime without gaining the benefits of recognition and new skills that such assignments should bring. To avoid stretching yourself too thin for no visible career benefit, here is a checklist for when to diplomatically say “no” to extra assignments.
1. Assignments That Stretch You Too Thin
Before saying yes to a stretch assignment, do a risk assessment. Be brutally honest with yourself: Is there a risk you’ll overreach, take on too much, and compromise your ability to fulfill your regular responsibilities well?
Start by weighing the obvious factors, such as whether this side project will suck time away from your core priorities and what trade-offs it might take in your personal life to accommodate extra hours at work.
For example, Andy, a technical project manager, had recently earned his MBA and was looking out for opportunities to build a reputation as a strategic thinker. When invited to take on a stretch assignment to combine numerous products into a single product line, he said, “I weighed the probability of being successful against the workload and lack of a cohesive business plan, and saw a no-win scenario.” Ultimately, he declined to participate.
Don’t ignore the possibility of unexpected emotional costs, either. Will saying yes to this assignment mean working with a leader who is known for burning people out? Will it require you to collaborate with co-workers who are notorious for slacking off in the face of a looming deadline?
Look for projects that stretch you without overwhelming you, so that you can deliver a consistently high quality of work. Focus on the quality of assignments, not quantity—and take them on at a cadence that allows you some recovery time between deadlines and deliverables.
2. Assignments That Don’t Build Your Strengths
The best stretch assignments are those that require you to build business acumen, new technical skills, or leadership ability. Don’t volunteer yourself for a project unless it has the potential to expand your skill set and lets you demonstrate your potential to go beyond the job you’re currently in.
After turning down the first stretch assignment, Andy noticed that his business unit lacked a single point of contact for coordinating requests for new product development investments. Whereas the previous assignment would have used his existing project management skills, this one required him to develop new skills, such as strategic thinking and engaging stakeholders across the organization. He volunteered, shouldering an additional full-time workload for a month. “I built credibility as a strategic leader, which helped me land the higher-profile role that I’m in today,” he said.
3. Assignments That Don’t Meaningfully Expand Your Network
Stay away from projects that are all about work and have no relationship-building opportunities. Go after projects that allow you to build stronger working relationships and demonstrate your expertise to leaders, sponsors, potential mentors, and peers.
For example, say your company’s annual charitable giving campaign is spearheaded by a leader you admire, who is responsible for an increasingly important business division in the company. Even though the campaign isn’t directly job-related, taking a lead role in it can be a way to show that person that you are smart, energetic, and reliable—and to convey that you’d like to work for him or her one day. And the random collection of colleagues you’ll meet and bond with? If you stay in touch, you can become each others’ eyes and ears for what’s going on in different departments.
4. Assignments That Don’t Build the Reputation You Want to Be Known For
Say no to projects that don’t align with the personal brand you’re trying to build and promote within your organization. For example, if you want to be regarded as a strong cross-functional project leader, think twice about committing to assignments that require you to work alone. Ideally, the assignments you accept should align with your brand and give you opportunities to showcase your accomplishments and make your value visible to management.
Overall, remember that stretch assignments are designed to build your skill set, network, and organizational brand, not simply add busy work to your already busy schedule.
But keep in mind: When you’re offered assignments that aren’t a match, don’t just say no! You’ll hurt your chances of being asked again. Thank the person for the opportunity, letting him or her know you’re honored to be considered. Then graciously decline, “in order to give my full attention to responsibilities already on my plate.”
Even then, don’t leave him or her hanging. Recommend a colleague who might appreciate the assignment. And hint at what you’d like to do instead. This last step is critical: Give specific examples, like “Keep me in mind for future projects that require a project manager with strong interest in business strategy.”
Finally, there will be times when it simply is not possible or politically astute to turn down a stretch assignment, and if that is the case, agree to help out—but seize the moment to negotiate what you want from your next assignment.
Be ruthless—but diplomatic—about negotiating assignments that align with where you want to go next in your career. Otherwise the only stretching you’ll be doing is stretching yourself too thin.