Having worked with CCL (Center for Creative Leadership) in both Russia and Kazakhstan, who were the originators of the 70-20-10 meme for corporate learning & development many years ago (sometimes written 70/20/10 or even 70:20:10), and also being a researcher by training, it isn’t difficult to find out what the 70-20-10 originally meant and was based upon.

Because I believe it is still widely misunderstood and even misused. And I’ve also realised that my conclusions from 70-20-10, are sometimes different from many people I come across who use it.

A recent example being the senior HR Manager who told me (and everyone else) that ‘All training courses should be 70-20-10’. (It turned out he thought that only 10% of a training course should be sitting and listening in the classroom and the rest should be interactive, in itself not necessarily a bad thing. Although he also believed that e-learning and reading books were part of the 20% rather than the 10%).

Maybe he was extreme in his misconceptions. But as I wrote above, even people I have met who do understand the concept sometimes draw conclusions different to mine. For example, that it means classical training is not useful in developing leaders.

So to start, what did the original proponents of 70-20-10 actually do and say?

It was back in the 1980s, and as part of a course on tools for developing effective executives, 191 currently successful senior leaders in different (often global) companies from different countries, were asked where they thought they had learned the skills and competences that led to their success. 616 key learning events were collected (I said I was originally a researcher!) which were collated into 16 categories. 16 is too many to be useful in practice so they were regrouped into 5 distinct sources: learning from challenging assignments, other people, coursework (classical training), adverse situations and personal experiences (outside work). As the idea was to have tools that could be used for development, adverse situations and personal experiences were omitted (25% of the key learning events, so extremely important, but not exactly easy to build into a course), leaving three.

And to make it easy to remember and use, it was rounded off to:

  • 70% learning from challenging assignments;
  • 20% learning from others
  • 10% learning from coursework

Since then a number of other studies, in different countries, companies, levels and groups all give similar sorts of results, reinforcing the general ideas behind the numbers.

So what are my learnings and conclusions?

  1. There is a place for formal training in leadership development! The 70-20-10 actually validates the importance of formal courses, rather than negates it. The trick, as always, is to design those leadership courses such that they support and enhance the learning that goes on through relationships (feedback and by observing good and bad role models) and even more through challenging assignments and on-the-job experiences. The coursework needs to be embedded in the job.
  2. We all look at our bosses, role models, other leaders, our peers, even our subordinates, and learn from them. One way or another. What to do and what not to do. But does your organization acknowledge and reward this activity? What does it do to help enable future leaders to learn in this way? Is coaching and mentoring actively developed and supported (and rewarded)? How does leadership L&D stimulate this? Does the company culture support this? The culture of the company is important in making the best use of the ‘20%’ in terms of learning from others to help develop future leaders.
  3. Deep down we probably all realize that challenging assignments are the main source of learning in leadership development. Us successful leaders really did learn the most ‘on-the-job’, doing the jobs we did. So why then are many companies so bad at choosing the next jobs for their future leaders, so they learn the things they need to learn, in a planned and structured manner? Why is career planning sometimes just opportunistic, short-term hole filling? As a businessman I understand the balance between short-term results and long-term development. But if a company has a leadership development framework and knows the leadership competences needed to be successful in the future, then I think it could actively design jobs for the future leaders to help develop those competences. And why when they are in a new role, is it ‘sink or swim’? Why not support the learning experiences in a more substantive and structured manner? Challenging assignments really are the key to attracting, developing and retaining future leadership talent and are at the heart of talent management. I am not sure though, that many companies get the maximum benefit they could from such experiential learning.
  4. 70-20-10 says that learning is happening, or can, happen, all the time. So the approach should be to use all three sources of learning in leadership development. And not independently but integrated. Continuous learning bringing experience, relationships and education together. Again I see far too few companies applying a co-ordinated, holistic approach in their leadership development.

So I think 70-20-10 is a still a great meme after all these years, and we can still learn a lot from it, if used properly!

It reminds us that:

  • most learning is on-the-job and hence we should do more to ensure that future leaders both learn effectively in their roles and that they do the right jobs to learn those competences they will need
  • learning from other people is important and we should ensure our company culture both supports, encourages and rewards this
  • formal learning is still one of the pillars of leadership development
  • learning can happen all the time and an integrated holistic approach from all three sources would truly accelerate and enhance future leader development.



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