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Developmental Assignments Are Vital: Don’t Squander Their Potential

By Evan Sinar, Ph.D.

Evan Sinar, Ph.D. Almost two-thirds of companies frequently use developmental assignments such as special projects, rotational placements, and temporary/challenging job responsibilities to develop their leaders. They’re also extremely powerful in the eyes of leaders: 70 percent consider developmental assignments one of their top three most effective methods for learning to become a stronger leader, more than any other method included in our Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015.

It’s well-known that developmental assignments are essential for leader growth—but what makes them valuable? What is it about some developmental assignments that makes them more beneficial for the leader and more effective for the organization…while other developmental assignments end up being a waste of time and investment for all parties?

We addressed this question by pairing two datasets, one of 1,500 HR professionals and the other of 8,600 leaders from these same organizations. We asked the HR professionals to rate the value of their organization’s developmental assignments for improving leader effectiveness, and what characteristics best described these assignments (the seven characteristics they chose from are described below). Independently, we asked leaders to rate the value of their company’s developmental assignments. Since we knew the nature of developmental assignments for each company, this allowed us to determine which characteristics were the strongest drivers of value for each group, HR and leaders.

What makes development assignments work?

The bubble chart visualization below shows three views of the data for seven distinct developmental assignment characteristics. First, the farther right a bubble is, the more valuable it was for leaders. That is, lower-value for leader characteristics on the left, higher-value for leader characteristics on the right. Second, the farther up a bubble is, the more valuable it was for HR—higher-value for HR characteristics on the top, lower-value for HR characteristics on the bottom. Third, the larger a bubble is, the more common is was, based on how often HR used that term to describe their organization’s developmental assignments. Since these characteristics are not unique (for example, an assignment can be both cross-cultural and cross-functional), HR respondents could choose as many of the seven descriptive terms as they wanted (because of this, responses below total more than 100 percent).

Developmental Assignments are Vital

We found four distinct patterns in the developmental assignment data:

High value for leaders, high value for HR

Two types of developmental assignments were extremely valuable for both leaders and HR, striking a balance by meeting the needs of both stakeholder groups:

  • Cross-cultural – For example, assignments spanning countries or geographies. Though relatively rare overall (they were common for only 26 percent of companies), they were unsurprisingly much more prevalent in multinational corporations at 47 percent. Though leaders found cross-cultural developmental assignments slightly more valuable than HR, both groups viewed these assignments very positively.
  • Cross-functional – For example, assignments spanning business units. As a promising sign that the use of this method is matched by its value, this was the most common developmental assignment feature at 61 percent, and the most valuable as seen by HR while in the top three for leaders.

Moderate value for leaders, moderate value for HR

Two types of developmental assignments were moderately valuable for both leaders and HR—distinctly less valuable than the two characteristics above, but still worthwhile:

  • Budget-focused – For example, managing increased profit and loss responsibility. For nearly half of all organizations (48 percent), their developmental assignments were often budget-focused, making them the second most common characteristic. These assignments are slightly more valuable for leaders than for HR.
  • Externally focused – For example, dealing with key groups outside the organization to build and extend partnerships. Twenty-three percent of organizations characterized their developmental assignments as externally focused. This type of assignment is slightly more valuable for HR than for leaders.

Mixed value - much more valuable for one group than the other

Two types of developmental assignments were drastically different in their value between groups:

  • High-visibility – For example, increased exposure to senior leaders. Quite common, used by 45 percent of HR professionals to describe their organization’s developmental assignments, these assignments were surprisingly much more valuable for HR than for leaders. This can occur when HR overestimates the benefits of exposure alone, while to leaders, this may more often be disconnected from their personal development goals.
  • High-risk – For example, with heavy consequences for failure. Though the rarest of any developmental assignment characteristics at 14 percent, this was actually a prime driver of developmental assignment value for leaders, second only to cross-cultural for this group. A high risk of failure increases the chances that leaders will—regardless of the outcome—know more about themselves and their skills after the developmental assignment than before. Though this value is less apparent to HR, leaders are finding the rewards alongside the risks.

Low value for…everyone

Only one type of developmental assignment was low value for both groups—much lower than all other assignment types:

  • Spontaneous – For example, managing an unplanned or emergency situation. This type of developmental assignment was fairly common, used to describe assignments for 34 percent of organizations. Though not mutually exclusive (for example, an externally focused assignment can also be spontaneous), this characteristic and what it entails (namely, a lack of context and coaching alongside urgent developmental assignments that leaders are thrust into) were agreed-upon and severe detractors of value.

Research-driven strategies for designing developmental assignments with maximum value

Building on this research, we offer six recommendations for building developmental assignments that will be valuable for the organization and, most critically, for the leader:

  1. Minimize and avoid spontaneity. Clearly, it is not possible to have an extensive plan in place in advance of an unplanned situation. However, even emergency situations can be paired with advice and coaching before and—perhaps even more important to entrench the resulting learning—after spontaneous developmental assignments, to avoid the near-complete absence of value from these assignments currently.
  2. Prioritize high-breadth developmental experiences. Cross-cultural, cross-functional, and high-risk developmental assignments share a common element of “developmental stretch” for leaders, to force them to consider distinct perspectives.
  3. When breadth-building experiences are rare or infeasible, connect leaders with budgetary and externally focused developmental assignments to draw on their benefits for strengthening leaders’ operational and partnership/networking skills, respectively. These assignments are well-balanced in their moderately positive effects for both HR and leaders.
  4. Provide support but don’t eliminate consequences. For leaders even more so than HR, risk was a positive attribute for developmental assignments. Coaching before and during a high-risk assignment paired with accountability maintained for the leader can generate value while ensuring necessary support is available to set him or her up for success. Our research suggests that these assignments are underused given their rarity, yet they are high-value for leaders.
  5. Maintain a feedback loop from leader learners. It’s important to gather information on developmental assignments from those who have completed them—though in many cases perceived value was similar between HR and leaders; gaps remain showing several instances where one group is overestimating value of a particular assignment type.
  6. For any type of on-the-job learning—including but not limited to developmental assignments—build in awareness/accountability for the leader’s own manager for post-learning feedback, seeking application opportunities for the newly developed skills, and folding the learning objectives into the leader’s personal development plan. Doing so will address the top barriers for on-the-job learning.

Developmental assignments can be the most valuable leadership growth weapon in HR’s arsenal in their role to build, trigger, and reinforce these assignments so that their resulting value matches their prevalence. Though not all assignments are created equal, planful design choices, manager awareness, and shared accountability accompanying on-the-job learning can increase the odds of development assignments reaching their full potential as an essential leader development method.

Evan Sinar, Ph.D., is DDI’s Chief Scientist and director of DDI’s Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER).

For more information about the Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015 research, including 25 highly actionable findings about the current state of leadership, an evidence-based roadmap for leadership development, a scoreboard of 20 common talent management practices, and global benchmarks for 11 metrics about leadership talent, see http://www.ddiworld.com/glf2014.

Posted: 23 Jul, 2015,
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