Developing leaders by placing them on specific assignments is a great way to broaden their perspective while ensuring their highest development needs are being addressed in a structured way. The template (download link below) ensures transparency regarding developmental focus and management expectations of the outcomes of an assignment.
An assignment may require a change in location, but not always. An assignment could also be a temporary changed reporting relationship or being part of a different group or business unit. A different group of colleagues and managers to work with provides an assignee with the opportunity to broaden his or her internal network and learn to build relationships fast. International assignments can add additional learning objectives such as developing more cultural awareness and skills involving collaboration and communicating across cultures.
The example shown, helps to illustrate how one would go about using the developmental assignment template I am sharing above (see download link).
What should he/she learn?
The areas to develop (called Leadership Aspects in the example) would depend on the competencies that have been selected for leadership development and the latest ratings from the performance management process can be used to provide you with the ratings for each leader. This helps you to focus on the development needs with the highest priorities at that time. A conversation with the leader’s direct manager could be very useful in selecting the highest priorities. If the employee had been included in a recent talent review, there may be additional information available to complete the template and select the focus areas for his or her leadership development.
How will he/she learn?
Selecting the development activities, it is important to first understand specifically which aspect of that development priority the employee needs to learn more about.
Theoretical (mainly improving awareness)? Then an online self-paced course could be the answer. Or even sending the employee to attend an external class or read a book (or selection of books).
Learning new behaviors? Coaching and feedback based on actual examples encountered could be a good approach. You could also do a pre-test and post-test with some experiential workshop or learning intervention taking place between the tests. Workshops which include options to practice new behaviors can be great solutions.
A combination of learning interventions is the best way to address development needs. Look at each high priority learning need and look for ways to combine class-room training, self-paced learning, short On The Job (OTJ) assignments or tasks and perhaps coaching too. Each of the interventions would then strengthen learning and reinforce principles introduced.
Be sure to document who will mentor or coach the employee. He or she needs to understand the support you are making available to him/her on the journey of learning new skills.
What is the definition of Done?
Spend some time considering how you will close out the assignment with the specific learning needs. Will you want a written report detailing the learning that took place over the assignment period? Or will you want a report and also a presentation? Or perhaps just assign a presentation to be developed whereby the assignee is asked to share his or her key learning achievements with a panel of senior-level stakeholders? Assign the completion activity early so the assignee can prepare for it from the moment he or she starts the new assignment.
Include stakeholders early
Share rating templates with the intended evaluation panel and the assignee before the final event or evaluation of a written report. The transparency helps all concerned to anticipate the level of detail required and where the focus areas will be. This helps the employee prepare from early-on in the assignment to provide the required final product or presentation.
Documenting the learning objectives of an assignment helps to orient and align all stakeholders on how to positively impact the development of that leader – the leader himself/herself, his/her direct manager or supervisor, his/her coach and HR or L&D staff supporting the assignment.
Stretch assignments are useful for learning and personal growth and development, because they purposefully contain elements that are challenging in areas where the assignee needs to develop. Designed correctly, a stretch assignment confronts one with the necessity to get out of your comfort zone in order to succeed.
The starting point for designing such an assignment can be multiple data sources:
the person’s own development needs compared to established leadership competencies,
key proven areas of mastery that a company requires from their leaders to advance to the next level,
a mindset or mindset shift that is required to move the company and its leaders into a new way of operating; or
to build competency in specific important areas that are or will be important to the future of the company.
A stretch is not defined in a general way, but rather it is very specific to a person. While a stretch could mean that one requirement is for the person (plus family, if appropriate) to move to an international location, it inevitably would also include other job-related challenges. Examples include supervising more people, having financial performance targets (for someone who has only had functional roles in the past) or having more complexity such as multiple geographical areas to manage. The key balance to maintain when designing stretch assignments is to ensure that the assignee is put under a certain amount of pressure to learn and grow, but not so much pressure that he or she fails.
Mitigating failure risks
There are a few things you can implement to help monitor how things are going with each assignee and to provide a “safety net” for an assignee to get support from.
Assign subject-matter experts as coaches – depending on the scope of the assignment.
Assign a leadership development coach to help the assignee reflect on experiences, frame up challenges and cognitively choose best solutions and explore new ways of operating to be more successful in the assigned areas of responsibility.
Set up internal-company networking events for the assignees to meet, have opportunities to mingle and share experiences and also include a pre-determined learning event tied to overall leadership development objectives within the company.
Set up a structure of communication moments with the “home” organization supervisor and colleagues – this is especially important if you plan to return the assignee to the same organization at the end of the assignment. Maintaining ties would greatly improve a successful return and reintegration after an assignment. Communication moments like these can also greatly help colleagues NOT on assignment to learn from the experiences and best-in-class solutions their colleague on assignment is mastering.
New and challenging assignments often cause assignees to experience some stress. Supporting assignees to successfully navigate through the new challenges means you should pay attention to a change in behavior or performance which could indicate that he or she is stuck on the learning curve. Signs that things are going wrong are important to notice early-on to maximize chances of turning things around and avoiding an assignment disappointment and/or incurring an assignee retention risk. Pre-departure training should be provided to both assignees and their coaches to understand and recognize signs that things may not be going well and to understand ways to become unstuck in every situation.
Some warning signals:
Expectations for goal achievement by assignees must be specifically captured in a plan and communicated to an assignee along with available rewards for over-achievement of goals. The specific strategic importance of the assignment should also be highlighted as well as the developmental needs to be addressed during the assignment.
Tips for stretch-assignment coordinators:
Ensure that there is a structure that enables assignees to succeed and always follow-through with the check-in points and feedback activities to ensure all is well.
Ensure that all those involved in assignments are clear on the role of management, role and responsibilities of supporting coaches, the role and responsibilities of assignees and the role and responsibilities of assignment supervisors and “home office” supervisors.
Adequately prepare assignees for their assignments: cultural awareness training (for international assignments), language skills (where needed) and if accompanied by family members – consider a session to discuss the practicalities of moving to a new location with those family members present.
Ensure that the assignees get interim feedback on how their assignments are going -at least 3 times per year, but more often if this can be managed. This provides opportunities to refocus and apply new approaches as needed to ensure the assignment is successful.
Provide assignees and stakeholders in assignments ample notification about the end date of an assignment. This assures minimum surprises and helps everyone to plan actions leading to a well-organized return upon assignment completion.
When assignments are successful in achieving or exceeding on all the objectives, assignees should return from their experiences with increased confidence, leadership skills, and maturity. The personal growth and development they experienced should enhance their ability to make better decisions and build stronger interpersonal relationships with those they lead and follow. Being mindful of how to setup and manage stretch assignments can make all of that a reality.
A decade ago it seemed to be more common for employees to be on developmental assignments for longer periods of time. These days the duration of assignments seems to have become shorter. The required steps are not much different though.
It is vital for the organization to have a clear process around the mobilization, preparation, sustaining, return, development of assignees and there are multiple organizations (internally and possibly externally if outsourced) which need to contribute to the process in order to make the assignment a successful one for the company and the employee
Some of the biggest unintended outcomes of assignments are:
The employee (and/or family) did not fully understand what they were getting into and found it too overwhelming at the assignment location – wished to return earlier or resigned.
Employee did not understand how the assignment was adding to his or her skill sets or competencies and he or she ended up frustrated and demotivated.
Employee on assignment no longer felt connected to the home office and were anxious about what happens after the assignment – wished to return earlier or resigned.
Employees (and families) experienced a high level of anxiety associated with the assignments due to inadequate preparation and support before, during and after return to home location.
The process flow shared here shows a simplified version of how a developmental assignment should be planned and executed before mobilization, during and after an assignment has ended. It takes into account the logistics part, which may be an internal organization (Center of Excellence) or an outsourced party, the role of the manager, the role of the employee and how the Business Partner can contribute to ensure the entire process yields the desired outcomes. There are also some suggestions for surveys to capture any feedback to identify useful improvements to the process.
Make sure that managers are clear on the process, the various steps and the specific roles and responsibilities. Most employees will ask their managers for advice and information first. The role of the manager is very important to ensure future retention of the employee by staying in touch and ensuring the employee continues to feel valued by the organization during and after the assignment.
Create or outsource a solid assignment preparation program for employees (and families as applicable). This includes cultural awareness training, language training (if applicable) and developing the right mindset and approach to living in a new country for a period of time.
Apply attention and diligence when outsourcing logistics and defining the SLAs associated with mobilization. Lost goods, delays in finding accommodation, faulty or missing paperwork can cause a lot of unnecessary distraction and anxiety on the part of an employee on assignment. Conduct regular audits and have discussions with an outsourcing partner/COE using the surveys as a basis to provide input aimed at improving the experience of assignees.
Ensure either the Business Partner or the Manager has discussions with the employees to be sent on the assignment to ensure they understand how to leverage the opportunity to improve on their own skill sets/competencies and how they should contribute to the learning of those at the assignment location and again to the learning of those at the home office upon their return.
Preparation and Training
Training and support in these areas (see below) will help each assignee and his/her family – should they accompany the assignee – the best opportunity to understand the assignment requirements and the local culture better. And having an improved awareness will enable the assignee (and family) to have a solid plan of how they would set-up their start-up activities at the new location for a successful assignment experience and conclusion.
Being sent on an assignment is both an opportunity and a responsibility for the assignee. It can bring out the best and worst in a person as he/she (and the family) face huge life changes compared to life at the home office. The experience can lead to increased maturity, improved leadership skills and understanding and increased knowledge and skills if managed properly. As the manager, business partner or any other stakeholder in the process, it is important you ensure there is a clear process mapped out which details the various steps by process contributor and that each stakeholder is acutely aware of the bigger picture while performing own parts.
Conducting presentations at the end of developmental assignments is a common way for employees to share knowledge and demonstrate the value of his/her contribution to solving a situation or creating a new solution.
Presentations is also a great way to evaluate how much an employee has learned from an assignment, if you are the manager, mentor or L&D Partner supporting that function or project. Just telling someone that he or she did a “good job” at the end is not a substitute for specific and actionable feedback which a structured template can offer those attending the end-of-assignment presentation.
The structure of the end-of-assignment presentation typically would include these topics:
About the presenter – brief bio including background experience up to the assignment, role during the assignment and career ambitions and goals.
An executive summary of the solution provided or improvement implemented.
Brief overview of the Situation that had to be addressed, specific objectives identified and met and the team that were involved in addressing the situation.
Outcome achieved including metrics and recognition for support from other people and groups.
Summary of key learning points that the employee takes away from the assignment and will use in future
Questions and Answers session
The templates I am sharing include the Presentation Feedback Form which can help those attending the presentation to structure their feedback to the presenter (the assignee) in a consistent way. An HR or Training/Learning/ Development representative can collect all the feedback forms afterwards and collate those into one feedback document for the benefit of the assignee.
The second template is for the HR or L&D person who will combine all of the feedback received onto one Summary sheet which can be shared with the presenter. The feedback can offer helpful developmental suggestions and also recognize the successes and achievements that the presenter was able to demonstrate during the presenttion.
Customize the first column to include specific details around developmental objectives that were set as a part of the assignment. That way the presenter gets very specific feedback on how well he or she met those expectations through the presentation and handling questions during the session.
Be sure to prepare those who would provide feedback so they understand how feedback is to be captured on the form – sometimes they are confused about the columns and you may even prefer to just have one column with a score. Specifically ask them to add comments to help enrich the feedback and make it easier for the presenter to understand how to improve on his or her performance in future.
Deliver the feedback in person (vs by email) once the combined Feedback form is completed. Presenters may have further questions on how to interpret the feedback or how to improve on their own performance and should have the opportunity to get guidance and coaching on that during the feedback meeting to optimize the learning opportunity.
A powerful way to develop employees is to give them a portfolio assignment. This would be something they are asked to do while they remain responsible for their normal daily duties. Motivated employees with the ambition to learn new skills and take advantage of new opportunities to achieve developmental goals typically welcome such assignments. Portfolio assignments are less popular among employees who are less driven to succeed and develop their careers.