The importance of ‘stretch’ in talent development

In the same way that a professional athlete needs regular practice and ‘stretch’ to build their physical and psychological strengths to remain at the top of their game, so do employees, particularly those with strong aspirations and potential to advance.

Employees need regular opportunities to test their ‘limits’ – to see what they are capable of achieving when they use their strengths productively in different ways. This also builds what we call “agility”, or the crucial capacity to be flexible across different situations and operating environments. Although employees might not feel comfortable with the idea at first, part of the role of a manager is to coach and encourage the person through any initial reluctance and fear associated with moving outside their “zone of comfort”. This may sound like “tough love”, and in some respects it is, but without this positive challenge, employees are unlikely to get the most out of their strengths, skills and knowledge and will never discover the true value they offer to the organisation and society more generally.

I managed an employee who was excellent in 1-1 and small group interpersonal situations. She was clearly energised by the Empathy and Relationship Building strengths (based on the Strengthscope™ strengths model, see However, she had an irrational and persistent fear of presenting in front of large groups and resisted my initial attempts to encourage her to take up this challenge. Following a lot of gentle encouragement, constructive feedback and coaching, she eventually agreed to give it a go and lo and behold, she did a tremendous job. Positive feedback from the presentation encouraged her to gain more experience with presentations and she is now a very capable presenter, as well as a high performing senior manager.

There are various ways people can get ‘stretch’ in areas of strength, including:

  • Building new knowledge and skills in areas of strength
  • Taking on challenging assignments or projects that play to one’s strengths
  • Coaching/training others in their areas of strength
  • Gaining experience in different parts of the organisation through job rotations, secondments or short-term assignments
  • Using strengths in new ways to tackle performance blockers and challenges

In order to achieve “flow” or total immersion and engagement in a job, research has shown that a person needs to have a passion or desire to do the job, i.e., they need to feel strengthened by it. There also needs to be a good match between the level of skills required and the level of challenge and “stretch” provided. If there is no stretch, the employee is likely to quickly lose interest and becoming increasingly disengaged, undermining performance and effort. However, if there is too much “stretch”, the employee is likely to feel incompetent and frustrated, with their confidence and performance being adversely impacted as a result. It is the role of the manager to help the employee identify the degree of stretch currently being experienced by the employee through open inquiry and discussion. With a clear understanding of current levels of stretch, the manager and employee can then co-create new goals that raise or lower the degree of stretch to a point where the employee is feeling challenged and engaged, but not overwhelmed.  This ongoing calibration of stretch will keep the employee’s confidence, commitment and contribution high, resulting in strong business results and sustainable career success.

James Brook

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