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Leading Rookie Talent: A Sizing Guide for Stretch Assignments

Stretch Assignments

ROOKIES: Bumbling newbies that require copious management? Or underutilized top performers that need to be turned loose?

While we often think of newcomers (be they young employees or experienced staff from another arena) as empty vessels that need to be filled up, my research shows that being a rookie – facing a new problem or a challenge for the first time – can provoke top performance. In the realm of knowledge work, rookies tend to outperform those with experience, especially when it comes to innovation and speed.

Why? Because they aren’t encumbered with previous knowledge and resources. And, they are hungry. Needing to close a knowledge gap quickly, hyper-learning kicks in, causing them to seek out guidance, experiment and get rapid feedback. They work lean and agile, the smart way all professionals should be working in the current, constantly changing environment. When cycles spin fast and knowledge doesn’t stand still, many leaders never face the same problem twice. In this environment, the ability to learn is far more critical than one’s accumulated knowledge.

While rookies are more capable than we might think, they still need leadership and guidance.

For starters, they need the right-sized challenge – one that is big enough to really stretch them, but not so big as to break them. When the learning gap is too big, people can easily become overwhelmed and simply let go (or break down). However, when the challenge is too small, people never engage.

How do you create the right sized stretch challenge?

When someone is in a rookie assignment, err on the side of making the first challenge doable—make it a constructive “micro-challenge,” one with enough tension to create movement and with just the right mix of relevance, difficulty and opportunity for recognition. For more junior staff, carve off a project that can be completed within two weeks, so the rookie gets immediate feedback and recognition.

When Jen Lamorena, eBay’s manager of college recruiting, brought on her own new hire, Jen gave her an important project – create and execute a social media strategy to support the firm’s initiative to recruit top university talent. The newly hired employee appeared to go into a spin cycle and sent out a few distress signals. Jen didn’t step in and micromanage, she scoped out a micro-challenge – create a video. With this clear starting place, the new staffer began making connections and mobilizing resources and within two weeks had produced an astonishingly great video that built the confidence she needed to tackle the larger campaign.

When establishing the degree of stretch, leaders must also consider what is at stake and reconcile the tension between letting people learn and protecting others from their potential mistakes. While I was teaching a leadership seminar at a hospital for Yale Medical School, several physician-leaders who oversee residency programs voiced an intriguing frustration. While they wanted to give the resident physicians space and freedom to do their best work, the life-and-death nature of their work forced them to micromanage and bark orders. They insisted that there was no room for learning when someone is flatlining on the operating table. I agreed and asked, “What percentage of your time is spent in these situations?” They suggested it was probably 3-5 percent of their time. Yes, these critical situations aren’t rookie moments. But the other 95-97 percent of the time just might be.

Along with a micro-challenge, rookies need micro-feedback—a steady stream of information to help them course-correct and stay on track. The best feedback comes in small doses and quick bursts, typically delivered in drive-by fashion rather than formal meetings. The newer someone is to a task, the more feedback they need and the more they need you to recognize and reflect what they are doing right.

When people are at the bottom of a learning curve, start small and build a series of wins. Then offer fast bursts of feedback and shots in the spotlight to fuel them up the steepest part of the learning curve.

Success Cycle Liz Wisema

When leaders offer a right-sized challenge, they spawn a success cycle. As the newcomer contributes quickly, they build confidence and are ready for an even bigger challenge. With the right leadership, they’ll become perpetual rookies, living and working permanently on the steep side of a learning curve.

Watch for my next guest post where we’ll explore how to provide your rookie talent the right combination of freedom and direction.

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Leading Forum
Liz Wiseman Liz Wiseman is a researcher and executive advisor who teaches leadership to executives around the world. She is the author of Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter and Impact Players: How to Take the Lead, Play Bigger, and Multiply Your Impact. You can connect with her at @LizWiseman.

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