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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Jul 10, 2020


The most widely cited model when it comes to development is 70/20/10. While it is often referenced, it is also frequently misunderstood. This week we look at why development isn’t quite 70/20/10.



Hello and welcome to episode 85 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we look at why development isn’t quite 70/20/10.

The most widely cited model when it comes to development is 70/20/10. While it is often referenced, it is also frequently misunderstood. The idea is that organisations and individuals should focus development opportunities around three different areas:

  • 70% of development should be “on the job”

  • 20% should be with “other people”

  • 10% should be through “courses”

So where did these suspiciously rounded-off figures come from? 70/20/10 was coined by Bob Eichinger, Mike Lombardo and Morgan McCall in the 1980s with the Center for Creative Leadership. They arrived at the figures based on responses from senior executives about their key development experiences. The 70/20/10 proportions were a rounded-off representation of the themes coming through those reflections. Despite the widespread acceptance of the model, it has also received a number of criticisms, most of which are unfair. For example, some suggest that 70/20/10 is saying that formal learning isn’t important, or that the ‘on the job’ component is passive. Neither of those really reflect the model and the authors’ intent. 

One reasonable criticism is that the work was based on a relatively small number of US executives who also turned out to be predominantly male and white. Anyone who is familiar with research into leadership will recognise this isn’t the only place where this has been a problem. In fact some argue that the bulk of psychological research has been conducted on university and college students - hardly a representative sample of the population. In addition, it does suffer from what we could call ‘survivor bias’. When we ask existing leaders to reflect back on what made them successful, we’re staring back in time to what made these people successful during the 1970s. A similar criticism can be levelled at research based on successful entrepreneurs who gain an almost cult-like status. If we ignore all of the unsuccessful entrepreneurs whose businesses failed, it’s hard to gain a true perspective on what really made the difference for the successful ones. 

The original intent of the model was to encourage organisations to proactively focus on the development of their people, and that a great way of doing that is through the work they conduct, the people they interact with, and the occasional more formal training they undertake. If we accept that original intent, it’s easy to see that 70/20/10 is a helpful guide when considering development opportunities.

Since the original study the Center for Creative Leadership has updated the figures using a broader and more diverse sample. They have drawn out some interesting nuances to the model. Their latest research shows that the 70% “on the job” element is actually made up of challenging assignments (45%) and hardships such as business mistakes or losing a job (22%). So the 70 is actually 67. The updated 20% “other people” is actually 23%. And the 10% “courses” is actually 5% coursework and 5% personal life.

I’m sure you will appreciate that calling 70/20/10 the 45/22/23/5/5 model is far less catchy, so it’s okay to stick with 70/20/10. What I find most interesting is the picking apart of the “on the job” component.

As I flagged earlier, often “on the job” is misinterpreted as passive learning - that somehow learning and development will just happen as people go about their day job. But the “on the job” element is not just business as usual. As CCL have highlighted, 45% of our leadership development tends to be through stretching and challenging assignments. We can take a proactive approach to giving people challenging accountabilities and roles in the context of their development goals. That would go a long way towards helping people to grow and develop. The tension we face in doing that is organisations typically want people who can already do the job, whereas individuals typically want jobs that allow them to develop. So organisations will need to shift towards seeing appointments and promotions as development opportunities, at least in part. We can still assess whether people have potential, but even the best tools still require us to roll the dice a bit on talent. Taking this approach may actually reduce the certainty that someone will work out. But it does reinforce, again, the importance of the “20” (or 23) part of 70/20/10. If we’re going to stretch people, then we really need to surround them with people who can support and encourage their development. Giving someone a stretch assignment is far more like growing a plant from a seedling than it is like screwing in a new light bulb.  

You might want to think about and discuss with your people the kind of stretch assignments that might aide in their development. If I think back through my career, I really wasn’t ready for my first consulting role, my first people management role, my first executive leadership role, or for running my own business. Each transition felt like jumping into the deep end of the pool yet again. But it always felt like I had people around me cheering me on who were prepared to jump in to rescue me occasionally if that’s what it took. In summary, 45% of our development is likely to come from challenging assignments. Work with your people to help identify their development goals and options to safely stretch them.

I find the 22% of development coming from hardships really interesting. Does it mean that we should manufacture hardships for our people? Obviously not, although I do occasionally think that’s what some leaders are trying to do. Rather we should see hardships as a key element of development. They are a great chance to learn, provided people see them that way and are supported to draw out the key development outcomes. Of course, hardships are more likely as you take on greater responsibility. As you work with people to give them challenging assignments, you’re also increasing the risk of hardships. Think back over the hardships in your own career and how much you learned. For me the global financial crisis was one of the greatest business hardships I’ve experienced. I don’t think it’s coincidental that the development gained through that tough time coincided with me being in a stretching role.

Here in July 2020 we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic. Are we helping our people to use this hardship as a development opportunity? Are we taking that mindset into it ourselves? Perhaps one way to help ourselves and our people come through this time is to focus on the opportunities to stretch and grow. 

In all of this, the 70/20/10 model reminds us that we each need an opportunity to reflect and build on the learning through connections. Provide people with the opportunity to connect and reflect on hardships and learning. Be there for your people as they are stretched beyond what they think they can do. If we do this, we will all emerge stronger and more capable. 

As I wrap things up and on a more personal note - how are you going? Can I encourage you that if you’re finding these current circumstances challenging and stressful then, congratulations, you’re a human being like the rest of us. Hopefully this episode reminds each of us of the opportunity to emerge stronger, and the need to support others through to the other side, whatever that might look like. Have a great week.



Putting Experience at the Center of Talent Management By: Joan Gurvis, Cindy McCauley, and Milynn Swofford. Center for Creative Leadership