By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners
Originally published by Harvard Business Review
During the course of our careers, there are job opportunities that arise — either internally and externally — that seem appealing but may be a stretch, taking us beyond our current level of knowledge, skills, or experience.
Research from Hewlett Packard shows that women tend not to apply for jobs unless they are 100% qualified, whereas men apply when they are 60% qualified. Subsequent research shows that this difference is not so much about women’s confidence in their abilities as it is about their beliefs about the “hiring rules” — that the required qualifications are actually “required.”
Knowing that job “requirements” are essentially a wish list from employers and, given that our personal and professional growth is a function of how much we stretch and challenge ourselves, it’s worth applying for stretch jobs. But, how do you know if you are applying for the right position and the right amount of stretch? To make this assessment, consider the following factors.
It’s possible to have blind spots around your strengths, where others see qualities, talents, or potential in you that you don’t readily see. Further, in attaining higher-level positions, you may suffer from impostor syndrome and question your abilities or qualifications. Yet, if current or former colleagues, managers, mentors or friends who know you well believe that you can do the job and encourage you to apply, despite your own self-doubts, they may very well be correct that you are capable of doing the job. Francesca was a director of people at a start-up when her boss, the head of HR, pulled her aside to say that while he’d love her to stay at the company, he thought she was ready for the top spot and would support her in pursuing these opportunities elsewhere. She was completely surprised, as it hadn’t crossed her mind before, but it was just the right vote of confidence she needed to go for the top HR role at another start-up.
Any new challenge comes with a bit of anxiety. If you feel this slight twinge of fear, but mostly get excited thinking about the prospect of getting the job, then this is a positive sign that this is a good step-up opportunity for you. Francesca found a great opportunity to not only be head of HR at another start-up, but to build this function from scratch. As she interviewed for the role, she found herself scared and excited at the same time. The scary part was that that she would now have the responsibility and ownership for making the high-stakes decisions, versus solely providing input into these decisions. It was her excitement about the company’s mission and the chance to build something new that helped her to move past these fears and know that it was the right role for her.
In crafting a narrative around your career to date and desired future career progression, you are able to tell a clear, coherent story about where you’ve been, where you are now, and where you plan to go next — with the targeted stretch job fitting nicely into the arc of the story, showing a logical career trajectory. This is what Herminia Ibarra, author of Working Identity, refers to as “making sense” — re-framing or re-interpreting past career moves and creating compelling stories. If you are not able to create such a compelling story that makes sense to you and others, it may be that it is too much of a stretch for your immediate next role.
Having a track record in taking on new challenges and being successful in doing so, not only makes you a more compelling candidate to the employer, but also will help you assess your ability to “bridge the gap” for a prospective stretch job. The bigger the prior challenges you’ve tackled, the more you can feel confident in your ability to tackle the challenges of the stretch position to which you are considering applying. Francesca drew confidence from her prior move from management consulting to HR at her current start-up. Despite having neither HR experience, nor start-up experience, she was able to be successful in her role. Her boss had hired her because he saw her as both strategic and smart and knew that she was capable of learning the rest.
While you may have little to no experience with certain aspects of the job, you have confidence in your ability to reach out to the right people and ask the right questions and are not bashful about leveraging your network. A phrase I often share with my clients who are facing a big, new challenge is “Nothing is rocket science, except rocket science.” So, unless you are applying for a technical job at NASA, you can likely figure it out. Francesca had no experience in employment law and other selected aspects of HR, but she knew she could outsource the specialties in which she didn’t have experience, and she had other relationships and advisors whom she knew she could engage to ask her “dumb questions.”
As with any new opportunity, one way to know that this is the right stretch job is that it also provides you with the resources for you to be successful. This includes your ability to build the right team, as well as sufficient budget and decision-making authority to be successful. You likely won’t know these things until you are in the interview process but discerning these things will be a clear indicator if this is the right stretch opportunity, or if you’d be thrown in the deep end without a floatation device. The support needed to set you up for success also extends to your home life. If the job requires relocation, significant travel or long hours, having the right support at home can determine if it’s the right stretch opportunity for you right now. Francesca started her new role four months after having her first child. She could not have taken on this new position, and the long hours that came with it, if she didn’t have great childcare and the support from her spouse who took on extra duties at home.
Stretch jobs are great opportunities to accelerate your professional development. Before making the leap, use the above strategies to assess if the job you are considering is the right one for you.