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Big Stretches April 1, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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Early in my management career, I ran the Unix portion of a large corporate data center.  There were close to one hundred people there, managing all the things you need to run a big, multi-vendor environment.  It was fun, challenging, and educational, in more ways than I expected.

It came to pass that one of the senior managers had a new opportunity and would be moving on to a different part of the company.  As was the tradition, there was a send-off event at work, which was always structured as a roast of the honoree.  I had never been to one before, as I was still relatively new to the group.

Imagine my surprise when the Director of Operations pulled me aside and told me that I would be one of the speakers!  I was expected to get up and speak for three or four minutes, telling jokes and entertaining the crowd.  Refusing was not an option, so I started putting together a routine of sorts.

People who know me know that I can speak to large groups at the drop of a hat.  I’ll get up and speak even if you don’t have a hat.  For me, “staff meeting” is just corporate-speak for “captive audience.”  However, “speaking” and “entertaining” are two very different concepts.  I enjoy the former; the latter is in the ear of the listener.  Coupled with being the new kid on the block, this seemed to be an overwhelming challenge. In short, I was terrified.

But I did it.  I got up, started talking, and they actually laughed!  No one was more surprised than I was.  And the benefits of the experience extended beyond overcoming extreme stage fright.  I became accepted into the group, developed more relationships, and became a more effective employee.

Later, I asked my director why he asked me to speak.  After all, he didn’t know me very well, and he was taking a bit of a risk.  He told me he thought I could step up to the challenge and that I would do a good job.

For me, it was a big stretch that had a big payoff.  Because my boss had faith in me, I showed I could succeed in a difficult assignment.  That success translated into other opportunities that helped me and the organization.

When is the last time you gave one of your people such a stretch opportunity?  When did you roll the dice and let someone really go beyond their comfort zone?  This is incredibly hard to do.  A few posts back, I talked about letting people solve their own problems; that is hard enough for some leaders.  Now we’re talking about letting people take on big, public challenges with a high-risk/high-reward payoff.

Can you do it?  Do you have people ready for that challenge?  Are you mature enough as a leader to let them try and support them if they fail?  It’s a test of their mettle to see if they can hit that stretch goal; it’s a test of your leadership skills to make it possible.

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Comments»

1. Manish Mohan - April 1, 2009

Great post, as always. As leaders and managers, it is critical that we continue to challenge our people.

From the perspective of a subordinate (and we all are one irrespective of the level in the organization, even CEO being the subordinate of the shareholders), it is also critical to ask if I am taking those big stretches that land in front of me. Do I see new assignments as additional workload that I should try and get out of, or am I seeing these as big stretches? Do I take the initiative to seek out the big stretches?

2. Jeremy - April 4, 2009

Another good post Chuck. I have say that “Do you have people ready for that challenge?” seems to be the largest hurdle for me. Then again, if these people were a dime a dozen, they wouldn’t be so valuable.


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