Tips to develop talented employees

Stretch assignments can help employees develop new skills, and building a great team can only make you look better.

Tips to develop talented employees

Stretch assignments boost professional development.

Managing people takes a lot of finesse. Being in charge of employee development requires even more skill, but the payoff is worth it. Investing in and supporting employees tends to lead to higher productivity and more loyalty on the job—plus a better workforce overall. But helping your staff reach their potential is about more than just sending them to endless classes—although some training can be useful. The following stretch assignments can help you grow your best team.

What is a stretch assignment?

A stretch assignment is an extra project or task that’s out of the ordinary that will build a skill or give employees visibility with important stakeholders.

“Maybe there’s something they need to learn or demonstrate that they’ve learned in order to be seen as more competent,” says Mikaela Kiner, an executive career coach in Seattle and CEO of uniquelyHR. “If they’re just doing their day-to-day job, they may not get the skills or exposure they need to progress within the organization.”

That could mean rotating roles, or even job shadowing, if there are others in the organization they can shadow. “Or maybe there’s a particular experience you want someone to gain,” Kiner says. “It might be an experience in the field or international, if you have a distributed team, but create assignments that help them get that experience as part of their day-to-day job.”

Assign them to a cross-functional group

When someone has been with the company for a couple of years, things can start to get a little predictable. As part of a strong employee development plan, help them expand their perspective by giving them exposure to people with different expertise.

“Put them on a team of cross-functional skills to help solve a branding issue or a supply chain issue,” says Wayne Strickland, a career coach, speaker, and author of Get Over Yourself, Decide to Lead: Insights From Hard Lessons Learned. “When you take people with limited breadth in their careers and put them in a group with broad skills and experiences, they grow. All of a sudden, you don’t have to tell them everything, they can be a part of the group and hear for themselves.”

Give them a customer-facing assignment

There’s nothing like a stretch assignment that throws your employees into the customer wilderness to teach them to sink or swim.

“There are a lot of people who stay in the office and are very theoretical about the way things work,” Strickland says. “They can get very adamant and borderline arrogant about what the customer should do.”

Solution: Send them out into the field or put them in a position where they’re interacting with customers or clients directly. “They grow up,” Strickland says. “Customers have requirements, they have demands, and they have strategies, and you have to fall in line with them.”

Fill the gaps

Part of managing workers includes understanding what’s most important in that person’s role and determining where they need to grow. That might mean offering individual coaching or staff training that’s useful to a group of employees.

“It’s a good opportunity for a customized workshop or training, but make sure it’s not off the shelf,” Kiner says. “Bring in something that has the right look and feel for your organization.”

You’ll also find, as you test your employees in different roles, that they can’t do everything perfectly—and that’s fine. “You always find a few flat spots, like they don’t collaborate, or they don’t communicate effectively,” Strickland says. “You can go work on something for six months to a year, and then give them another shot at doing the same thing again.”

Offer regular feedback

Instead of an annual performance review—which experts aren’t big fans of—consider quarterly employee reviews along with continuous feedback. “Things are moving so fast, and organizations are so dynamic,” Kiner says. “So, storing up feedback for a long time is a disservice to everyone.”

That doesn’t mean bombarding someone with feedback every day, but if it’s relevant, let them know. “They need to know specifically what they’re doing well and where there’s opportunity to grow,” says MaryBeth Hyland, a workplace culture consultant and founder of SparkVision. “If you can say it to a dog—like, ‘Good job!’—it’s not feedback.”

And when you offer feedback, make sure it comes from a place of kindness. “If you just say, ‘Wow, you did a really crappy job on that presentation today,’ that’s not constructive,” Hyland says. “Give it some intent before giving feedback: ‘I think you’re one of our rising stars, and the only way you’ll continue to rise is if we continue to have an open dialog and feedback about what you can do better. Next time, when you do this kind of presentation, let’s make sure there’s some more detail associated with X, Y, and Z.’”

Be a confident boss

Being a manager takes a lot of work, and knowing the ins and outs of team building exercises like stretch assignments requires skill and experience. Looking for some ways to be a better manager? Become a Monster member for free and get expert career advice emailed to you every week. You can also upload up to five versions of your resume. Recruiters check Monster every day for managers with great people skills. Make sure they can find you.