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Stretch Assignments Are Career Catapults

Take That Assignment That You’re Highly Unqualified for…Before Some Other Unqualified Person Does

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I was less than 30 years old. I had no international business degree. My foreign language vocabulary consisted of exactly three words: hello, beer, and thank you. Even my strategy and business development experience was, shall we say, limited.

Nonetheless, one fine day, my boss called me in and said, “We need someone to focus on expanding our international health care business. I want to see if you’d like to do it.”

I’d just been tapped to lead something BIG. Something I was highly unqualified to do. This wasn’t a company pet project. International growth was critical to the enterprise. This was something we had to get right.

Everything inside me was screaming, “Are you kidding?? I don’t know how to do that!” I swallowed hard and fought the urge to blurt it out.

I reached out to friends, met with mentors, ran this crazy idea by anyone I thought could help. And help they did. (Wondering how to find mentors and how to get the most out of the relationship? Check out this article from Business News Daily.)

After many anxious discussions, I had my own epiphany: I knew the company well. I knew our strengths and the core capabilities we would have to leverage to expand internationally.

I certainly knew more than the old outside dude I imagined them hiring if I said no — some guy with tons of international experience but no genuine understanding of our business or the healthcare industry. Someone even more likely to fail than me.

If the assignment feels exciting, but you don’t know 50% of what it would take — you have found the perfect next career step.

So I jumped. I took on the new role, convincing myself that I’d simply need to take it one step at a time. The first step was a no-brainer. I put together a strategy session with folks from our enterprise strategy team and other departments. Their energy and insights gave me direction and a place to start.

Once I took the first step, the next step was also obvious. And I just kept stepping.

Full disclosure, there were times where I felt like a fraud. I’m not alone. Imposter Syndrome — the secret feeling that you don’t deserve the position you’ve achieved — was first identified in the 1970s, and brought into the mainstream in recent years by Brené Brown.

I’d often wear my glasses just to appear older and smarter. Still, it’s those underdog moments I remember most fondly.

Many people think, “I will do more once I’m promoted.” It doesn’t work that way. Promotion doesn’t come and then you stretch. If you stretch first, I promise that the promotion will show up like gangbusters.

It’s so important that you don’t wait until you have the experience or knowledge to take on something new. Others all around you are seizing opportunities that they know they’re not fully qualified for. You have the same amazing skillsets, likely even more. They’re just taking risks that you haven’t yet taken.

Taking on things you know are somewhat beyond you right now is not overconfidence. It’s a critical mindset that often separates those that rise and those that stay put. You don’t learn then do — you do, and that’s how you learn.

Just like signing up for a 5k when all you’ve ever run is around the block, you grow your intellectual muscles the same way you strengthen your quads — by pushing them.

It always feels uncomfortable at first — your brain/confidence/moxie muscles may even be sore and make you question what you’re doing — but if you push through, amazing things will happen!

In the end, I accomplished things I never thought possible. I proved I could do big things — things that challenged even the most seasoned executives. Most importantly, I proved to myself that anything is possible.

The same is possible for you.

  • Raise your hand for the next big project.
  • Tell your boss you are thirsty for something new.
  • Be sure others know about your past roles as well as what areas inspire your curiosity.

Often, when you’re successfully performing a role, you’re known as an expert in that one space, regardless of your experience in other areas. To break out of that box, you have to keep networking, keep talking with your manager and others about the things that interest you, your previous experience, and your willingness to try new things.

Know you CAN do anything they throw your way. Have fun catapulting!


What was the biggest stretch role or assignment you took that propelled you forward?

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