This post originally appeared in The Harvard Business Review: How to Use Stretch Assignments to Support Social Good
A proven way to get ahead in your career is to take on stretch assignments. These projects can develop your skills and confidence, as well as prove to leaders that you can succeed at the next level. Many companies go to great lengths to create these assignments for employees as part of a retention and development strategy, and for good reason - if employees can't find stretch opportunities, they leave. In fact, the number one reason people leave their jobs is because they lack a career path, according to recent research. This fact is especially relevant for Millennials, who often value meaning in their careers and are actively looking for the opportunity to become leaders.
But if your company doesn't have a stretch assignment for you, one option is to look outside your company for one - especially one that lets you help a social cause. According to reports from the World Economic Forum, organizations' lack of access to talent is one of the leading barriers to global progress. There is a plethora of skills-based opportunities awaiting eager professionals who want to stretch their abilities and make a positive impact. Volunteering your skills in your spare time, on vacation, or during sabbatical can give back to the world while helping you develop your career in the process.
For example, take Deana, a UX designer at a large tech company who was looking to build the case for her promotion to manager. While she had ownership of a specific part of an important website, the sheer scale of the site and the size of her team meant that Deana never had the chance to manage the design and implementation of a full website from start to finish, nor to lead a team in that process. Her desire to get ahead led her to look for opportunities outside of the company ...and, in fact, she even looked outside of the country.
In Spring 2014, she flew to Guatemala to volunteer her user experience and design skills with a social enterprise looking to build an e-commerce platform for its locally and sustainably crafted supplies. While she was relatively junior at her company, she was by far the most experienced person with these technologies at the small Guatemalan enterprise. Once she laid the groundwork for the user experience and design of the platform, she was then joined by other skilled volunteers, who she managed while completing the development work.
When she returned to her job, she shared the work she did with her team and manager. Six months later, she was excited to learn that she was being promoted. Not only did her career benefit from her extra work, but the Guatemalan company did too: Its website is a cornerstone of its sales and growth strategy, and it has used the site to build new international partnerships to increase sales, scaling its impact.
Here's how you can find, do, and reflect on an out-of-office experience (OOE) like Deana's:
Before You Start
Document your hypotheses about your career goals, then choose an OOE that helps you learn new skills and test your assumptions. A previous article on HBR suggested forming a hypotheses and running small experiments to validate decisions about the type of job you want in the future. In addition to finding the type of work that makes you come alive, doing this can also help you decide if you want to work on a small team or big team, become a manager or specialize as an individual contributor, and work at a big company or a small one.
When you consider your OOE, choose one that closely mimics the type of role you think you want in the future. And choose an experience that helps build specific skills. For example, if you want to develop your leadership skills, you could join a board or act as a coach or mentor. To improve your soft skills, you might join a diverse team that's working on a time-bound project, like a fundraising event. If you want to work on your innovate thinking, you could volunteer at a social enterprise or startup that has challenging technical, business, or creative problems.
To start looking for an OOE, try searching on Catchafire, LinkedIn for Good, or (my company, full disclosure) MovingWorlds. You might also seek opportunities through your company's internal volunteer program.
If you struggle to come up with hypotheses or identify learning goals yourself, use your manager as a mentor to help you in this process. Companies big and small have realized that a lack of leaders is one of their leading challenges, according to research from Deloitte and The Conference Board, so they should welcome the opportunity to support employee development in an inexpensive way that creates great PR.
Furthermore, OOEs can help build more globally aware and innovative leaders. Some companies, like Microsoft's MySkills4Afrika program (which my company supports), IBM's Global Service Corps, and SAP's Social Sabbatical have already seen that these experiences create measurable impact, so they fund their employees on trips ranging from one week to one month long.
During the Experience
If you have taken the time to set your own learning goals for your OOE, then it's key to think about them throughout your experience. Put your goals on paper, share them with a friend or colleague to hold you accountable for your learning, and document how your experiences are affecting your hypotheses and goals.
While engaging in your OOE, give yourself ample time after every working session to reflect on the idea you learned, the skills you developed, and the mistakes you made. Think about what you could have done better, what you did well, and what you will do next time in similar situations. Write these down, and when time allows, share them with your manager or coach.
Wrapping Up and Moving On
After your OOE has finished, share the things you learned with your manager, team, and company. This can be as a summary email, a brown-bag lunch, or formal report. In it, highlight the work you did, the lessons you learned, and the practical recommendations that you will apply to your work. You might even create a blog or video documentaries to share your trip with colleagues, like this one from MySkills4Afrika.
Since your experience will most likely expose you to some innovative products, solutions, and/or processes, document these and share them with relevant parties. Create a report or "thought paper" that you can share with your work team. Include ideas to improve processes, harness innovation, and better deliver value to customers.
The world needs your brain power -- and if you connect your OOE to your job well, you might be able to get your company to support the project, and maybe even pay for it.
Just remember to keep the focus on learning valuable things, developing new skills, and making a positive impact in the world.