Stretch Assignments

Stretch assignments or "hot jobs" can make careers. These are jobs that:

  1. Are on highly visible projects,
  2. Hold mission critical value
  3. Involve international experience

One report found that "62% of high potential employees described obtaining stretch and high-profile assignments... as having the greatest impact to their careers." Critical relationships came in a strong second (44% named this), and formal learning programs a distant third (only 10%). These are not completely distinct activities (relationships can lead to stretch assignments, for example), but it's worth nothing that stretch assignments were named the most.

When these jobs aren't going to underrepresented people because of either explicit or unconscious bias, careers don't have the opportunity to get off the ground [Catalyst]

Facts and data

  • Men are more likely to be given higher profile assignments. Significantly more men than women reported getting C-Suite visibility to a very great extent while working on projects (35% of men, 26% of women) [Catalyst]

  • Men are more likely to be given more management duties. Men’s project teams had more than three times as many employees staffed to them as women’s [Catalyst]

  • Men are more likely to be given projects with bigger budgets. The budgets of the projects men reported working on were more than twice the budgets of women’s projects [Catalyst]

  • Men are more likely to work on global teams with extensive travel. 88% of men and 77% of women said they traveled for work internationally, yet women were not any more likely to turn down international work when it was offered (11% of men, 10% of women). Additionally of men and women willing to relocate internationally, more men had an employer initiate an international assignment (35% of men, 26% of women) and more women than men were never offered an international relocation opportunity at all (55% of men, 64% of women) [Catalyst]

Significantly more men than women reported that their projects involved a high level of risk to their company [Catalyst]

From 248 reviews (141 by men / 107 by women) of 180 people (105 men / 75 women) [Fortune]


Moving to a globally managed talent system has helped us increase the representation of women in leadership roles in areas where we’d historically had less success. Everyone from across the company puts their people in a shared pool, and when employees are in this pool, they can be considered for all available roles. This helps ensure everyone gets to know our high-potentials from around the world and has gotten people focused on promoting a diverse pipeline. ~ Jan Fields, President, McDonald’s USA, LLC (source)

An Observation

Stretch assignments are vital to get to the next level faster. They don’t go to women and people of color as much, which is a problem. I think it plays out like this somewhat unconsciously: it’s harder to trust somebody who's very different from you. Choosing someone more similar feels like you're de-risking the situation since you can more easily coach that person through challenging situations. For someone someone very different, the chances of failing are much higher because I don't know how to jump in there and guide and coach and make this person successful in whatever that stretch assignment or what that opportunity is. I don't think this is how this process should work, but I think it's the mindset that commonly happens. ~ SVP at Fortune 200 Company.

The sweet spot of development or high achievers is a 50 to 70% chance of success [HBR] 

Take Action

  • Act as a trusted advisor and sponsor to those who are ready for a stretch assignment. By definition, those taking on stretch assignments need support. All people get nervous about taking on tasks they’ve never done before. Make sure to provide real support, recognition, responsiveness to unforeseen circumstances, and a realistic assignment (it’s stretch, not impossible). Help confirm the high performer's true strengths, find the right assignment, and plan the project together. Identify the key challenges and conditions for success, including internal communication and resources. Define a realistic timetable for objectives, including learning, building relationships, and scoring “early wins” [HBR]
  • Allocate critical assignments to high potentials in more intentional and strategic ways. Distribute "hot jobs" in a purposeful way, track demographics of those in mission critical roles. Develop matrix responsibilities that enable high potentials to participate in prestigious content-driven or expertise-driven initiatives [BCG] [Catalyst]
  • Not all stretch assignments are created equal, give or choose them wisely. Short-term projects are a good way to stretch without committing to a permanent change. Additionally, the most meaningful stretch assignments are the ones that push people not just into more responsibility but into more cross-cultural collaboration (whether it’s working across units, functions or geographies). This is a key competence for global leaders [HBR]