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Making the Most of Developmental Assignments
By Don Jacobson
In her book Developmental
Assignments: Creating Learning Experiences without Changing Jobs,
Cynthia McCauley provides a superb framework to help leaders and
aspiring leaders think clearly about how to use work assignments to
develop leadership skills. McCauley, who teaches leadership at the Center for Creative Leadership
recently discussed her book in a Q&A with GovLeaders.org.
Q&A with Author Cynthia McCauley
GovLeaders: In order to
prepare for the retirement of the Baby Boomers, many government agencies
are focusing a lot of energy these days on leadership
development--especially training and mentoring programs. The role of
challenging and varied assignments seems to get relatively little attention. How
important are these kinds of developmental experiences in the overall
leadership development process?
CM: Our research indicates that
assignments are a major source of leadership development. When managers and
executives are asked to describe key developmental experiences in their careers,
50-70% of the experiences they describe are challenges encountered in their
assignments at work.
"When managers and executives are asked to describe key
developmental experiences in their careers, 50-70% of the
experiences they describe are challenges encountered in their
assignments at work."
GovLeaders: Your book is
an update to the very popular Center for Creative
Leadership book Eighty-Eight Assignments for Development in Place. What
have you and your colleagues at CCL learned about development in place
since that book first came out in 1989?
CM: We’ve heard from a much more diverse group
of managers about their developmental experiences. The original research
was conducted in the early 1980’s and focused on senior executives in
large corporations (mostly white males). Our data are now based on a
more demographically diverse sample from across types of organizations
and management levels. This led to a broader framework that describes
ten types of developmental challenges—characteristics or features of
assignments that stimulate learning (e.g., influencing without
authority, fixing inherited problems, and working across cultures).
We’ve also learned more about how people learn important lessons of
leadership outside the workplace as they participate in community,
professional, and service organizations—lessons that they can bring back
and apply in the workplace. We’ve also seen an increased emphasis on how
to work effectively laterally across the organization (rather than just
through the chain of command), thus developmental assignments which give
managers the opportunity to influence peers, work across boundaries, and
gain an understanding of other parts of the organization are
GovLeaders: In the book, you indicate that one way
aspiring leaders can broaden their experience is to “reshape” their job.
How does one go about doing that?
CM: Reshaping your job means adding new
responsibilities to your job. There are several strategies for seeking
these new responsibilities. First is to talk with your boss. Is there
something currently on his or her plate that could be delegated to you?
Look for things that have become routine for your boss, but would be a
stretch for you. Another strategy is to trade a responsibility with a
colleague. The added bonus here is that you can serve as each other’s
coach as you master the new work. A third approach is to take on
responsibilities that are currently “falling through the cracks,” that
is, work that would help your group or the organization but no one is
paying attention to it. For example, one manager told us about starting
a formal intern program for her organization. The organization sometimes
made use of interns, but not in any systematic way. The manager learned
more about work processes throughout the organization and honed her
ability to spot and develop talent. A final strategy is to devote more
time to an aspect of your job that could be developmental if you spent
more time focused on it, for example, coaching employees or negotiating
with vendors. Sometimes people avoid the parts of their job that they
aren’t good at—a sure strategy for not improving in these areas.
GovLeaders: You also
discuss temporary assignments as a great source of leadership learning.
In government, however, the Civil Service system
tends to make it difficult for people to move around flexibly. What kinds of mechanisms
have you seen organizations use effectively to facilitate short-term
CM: One approach is to educate bosses on using
temporary assignments as part of employee development. It is most often
the boss who gets the requests to assign one of his or her employees to
a special project or task force, who knows that someone will need to
fill in for an employee on temporary leave, or who actually creates a
temporary assignment in his or her group. Certainly that boss wants to
assign someone who has strengths that match the requirements of the
assignment, but he or she should also think through who could benefit
from the challenges embedded in the assignment. Organizations can
support this process by requiring regular developmental planning
conversations between supervisors and employees; these conversations
create space to think more systematically about the kinds of experiences
an individual employee could benefit from and primes the boss to be on
the look-out for these opportunities.
I have also seen a few organizations post opportunities on an internal
“marketplace.” These postings can include opportunities available for
anyone in the organization, for example, serving on the coming year’s
United Way campaign organizing committee, or opportunities within a
group, for example, a new R&D project that needs additional assistance.
GovLeaders: What does it take for an
assignment to be truly developmental?
CM: The developmental potential of any experience is
enhanced when three elements are present: assessment, challenge, and
support. Assessment includes the formal and informal processes for
getting data about how you are doing in the assignment. Feedback from
others is a common source of assessment, although self-reflection and
getting reactions from a coach also provide assessment data. Challenge
comes from being stretched by the assignment due to encountering new
tasks, new responsibilities, increased demands, or more complex
situations. Support helps people deal with the struggles of a
challenging assignment. Support usually comes from coworkers, but can
also come from family and friends. Our advice for making the most of an
assignment is to create a development plan that calls out the challenge
you will face in the assignment and articulates strategies for getting
the assessment and support you will need to maximize learning from the
Examples of Challenging
| Type of
|| Ideas for
| Unfamiliar responsibilities:
Handling responsibilities that are new or very different from
previous ones you've handled.
- Ask your boss to delegate one of his/her job
responsibilities to you
- Volunteer for a task that would normally go to a more
- Take up a new hobby
- Work with colleagues to redesign a work process
| New directions:
Starting something new or making
- Participate in the start-up of a new team
- Work on a strategic plan for a community or professional
Fixing problems created by someone else or existing before
you took the assignment.
- Take over a troubled project
- Serve on a task force to solve a major organizational
- Join the board of a struggling nonprofit organization
Problems with employees:
Dealing with employees who lack adequate experience, are
incompetent or are resistant to change.
- Coach an employee with performance problems
- Resolve a conflict with a subordinate
- Coach a sports team
Managing work with tight deadlines, pressure from above, high
visibility and responsibility for critical decisions.
- Manage high-profile customers or business partners
- Do a tight-deadline assignment for your boss's boss
- Manage a community event with high visibility
| Scope and scale:
Managing work that is broad in scope or large in size.
- Broaden the services or products offered by your unit
- Serve on a team managing a large-scale project
- Serve as an officer in a regional or national professional
Managing the interface with important groups outside the
organization, such as customers, vendors, partners, unions and
- Train customers how to use a new product
- Take calls on a customer hotline
- Take on public relations or other boundary-spanning role for
a community organization
Influence without authority:
Influencing peers, higher management or other key people over
whom you have no authority.
- Manage projects that require coordination across
- Represent concerns of employees to higher management
- Teach a course
Work across cultures:
Working with people from different cultures or with
institutions in other countries.
- Manage a multi-country project
- Host visitors from other countries
- Travel abroad
Work group diversity:
Being responsible for the work of people of both genders and
different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
- Hire and develop people of different genders, ethnic groups
- Lead a project team or task force with a diverse group of
- Join a community group that attracts a diverse group of
(Many more specific ideas are included in Developmental Assignments:
Creating Learning Experiences without Changing Jobs).
GovLeaders: Is there
anything else you would like to add?
CM: I would just want to emphasize that there
are many developmental opportunities available to us. You don’t have to
wait on a major job move or a formal program to continue to learn and
grow. It does take knowledge of yourself (i.e., where the gaps are in
your knowledge, skills, and abilities), creativity, and persistence.