Victoria Atkinson White: ‘Challenge assignments’ can help develop your staff

Illustration of one person giving a hand to another, climbing a pie chart

Illustration by Claire Doyle Ragin

Successful leaders benefit from a combination of on-the-job learning that stretches them, developmental relationships, and formal training, writes the managing director of grants at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

Fear and excitement pulsed through me. I knew the only answer was, “Yes, sir, thank you for the opportunity.”

I had been on the job for a little more than a year when my boss told me that we had been invited to submit a $2 million grant proposal to strengthen relationships among our key partners. He wanted me to write it.

I had a seminary degree, and I had good instincts in nurturing relationships among people and organizations. I was a decent writer.

But I had no experience with grants.

I assembled a team to help fill the gaps in my experience. Through this process, I got to know professionals who helped me take the project further than I ever could have dreamed. A grant coach from the funding institution served as an invaluable mentor and brainstorming partner.

The experience of writing that grant changed the course of my vocation. It introduced me to new avenues of ministry and networks that have continued to expand over the years. It helped me learn the skills needed to craft and oversee a large foundation grant.

Training opportunity: Send your staff to Foundations of Christian Leadership, a formational program that cultivates theological and practical imagination in emerging leaders

What I saw at the time as a résumé builder and generous opportunity I now see as an example of what the Center for Creative Leadership calls a “challenge assignment” -- a key component of CCL’s “70-20-10” rule for leadership development.

The “Lessons of Experience” research from CCL suggests that “successful leaders learn within three clusters of experience: challenging assignments (70%), developmental relationships (20%), and coursework and training (10%).”

Through this challenge assignment, my supervisor secured what he and the institution needed: the grant. At the same time, he created a contextual leadership development opportunity for me.

Creating opportunities for challenge is one of the drivers behind Leadership Education at Duke Divinity’s new Innovation Grants program. Grants of up to $5,000 will be available to participants in a number of Leadership Education programs, beginning with Foundations of Christian Leadership-Greensboro.

Sending employees to conferences or seminars can be a simple and effective way to help them learn new mindsets, network with other professionals and develop leadership skills. But how many times have you returned from a conference energized, only to quickly return to your old ways of functioning?

Challenging those returning employees with assignments that push them beyond their skills and experience will, in keeping with the 70-20-10 guideline, reinforce what they have learned, develop their leadership capacity and expand the capacity of the organization.

As a leader, do you look for opportunities to give such assignments to promising employees? If you don’t routinely hand out challenge assignments, what is preventing you from making this investment in less-experienced staff?

Our Innovation Grants process provides some guidance for structuring challenge assignments in your institution. Consider these questions:

  • Why is this assignment important to you and your institution?
  • How will you equip your employee with resources and relationships to help him or her make the most of this opportunity?
  • How are you nurturing an environment where risks are encouraged and lessons are learned from both successes and failures?
  • How will you measure success?

Challenge assignments create an environment for leadership skills to be practiced and improved, thus altering behaviors and mindsets in the workplace. This is certainly what happened when I stood before my supervisor with fear and anticipation. I grew and improved my skills into a new interpretation of my vocation, giving me the confidence to tackle future, more complex assignments with enthusiasm and boldness.

More importantly, I learned the value of challenge assignments to developing leadership skills and confidence in others, and I now look for opportunities to pass this experience along. It is a sacred privilege to take stock of the talents of those around me and offer occasions for growth, challenge and leadership development -- moments when they can say, “Yes, thank you for the opportunity.”