Category Archives: Frameworks

The Other Side Of What We Know About Experience: Understanding Our Misunderstandings

silver-bridgeCall it the Freakonomics effect, but the unexplored side of things has always intrigued me. Many of us who read and contribute to this blog are committed to understanding the research-based principles of experience-driven leader development and applying those to our organizations, our colleagues, direct reports and mentees and, hopefully, ourselves. So rather than go further down the path of contributing to what we know, I’d like to spend a few moments on the flipside and do some myth busting.

Despite all we have come to understand and the corresponding practices we’ve developed, a great many outside our field have yet to grasp the important role that experience plays in development. The blind spots they’ve developed about why and how to leverage experience are both driven and sustained by some misunderstandings of what “experience” is and how it benefits learning and development.

This pain point was nagging at me as I was working on my upcoming book on leader development and so I turned a spotlight on three common and persistent misunderstandings I’ve come across in hopes that by calling attention to them, others might become more self-aware and proactively avoid getting tripped up by them. By the same token, the more we as practitioners know about what others don’t know, the better we can steer them to the useful truth.

Misunderstanding #1: Experience Is What’s On Your Resume

Much attention is given to work experiences that take place on the job, but work isn’t the only place where valuable learning can occur. In fact, many individuals who excel at learning from experience will share that some of their most valuable lessons learned have come from experiences they’ve had outside of work.

Just because learning takes place in a setting other than work doesn’t mean that the lessons can’t be successfully adapted to a work challenge. One individual shared the rather gut-wrenching experience he went through in trying to mediate a family dispute over who should inherit an uncle’s property. Through the experience, he learned a lot about dealing with diverse stakeholders under very emotional circumstances where there was a lot to lose. He later found that the insights and skills he gained from this experience proved quite valuable in negotiating multiparty contracts where interests diverged and emotions ran high.

Misunderstanding #2: Learning on the Job Is Mostly About Learning to Do Your Job More Effectively

Different on-the-job experiences teach different things. Specifically, the lessons learned from any experience can potentially fall into three different “worlds”: The World of Work, the World of People, and the World of Self. The lessons that teach us about the self are sometimes the most profound – and the most difficult. They often stem from a particular category of experience we call hardships. (For more on hardships, see my April 2014 post in this blog.)

Misunderstanding #3: Learning from Experience Is an Event

Learning from experience is an ongoing process, not an event. Because of the way that past and present interact, learning from experience never ends. Different perspectives emerge over time. Also, a lesson isn’t truly learned until it’s applied. Until you can apply the insights you’ve gained from your previous experiences, their true value lies unrealized.

In the spirit of transparency, this is an anecdotal list of misunderstandings based on years of coaching and consulting, and not empirically based. I would suspect that many of you reading this have encountered other limiting mindsets that potentially undermine the value of experience to leader development. I encourage you to share the misunderstandings you’ve encountered and contribute to our shared understanding.

The Origins and Evolution of 70-20-10

Cross Section of Chambered Nautilus ShellWhat a delight it was to read Bob Eichinger’s account of the origin and purpose of the 70-20-10 model in a blog post by Cal Wick.

I thought back to the time I had cornered Bob 10 years ago at a conference and asked him how he had arrived at the sources-of-learning percentages (70% from challenging assignments, 20% from other people, and 10% from coursework).

I got a shorter version of the story he shares in the post, but enough to go back and apply the same calculations to each replication of the original Lessons of Experience research.  Not every study produced the 70-20-10 results, but most were close. The one consistent finding:  Challenging assignments are always the #1 source of key learning experiences in managerial careers.

You can even find support for the central role of on-the-job learning in research framed as questioning the 70-20-10 model. For example, a major Conference Board – DDI study found that in companies with high-quality leadership development, 52% of leaders’ time spent on learning is on-the-job learning, 27% is learning from others, and 21% is formal learning.  Keep in mind that this study is asking a useful but different question (time spent on learning vs. key learning experiences in your career).  Yet, however you approach the question, on-the-job learning comes out on top.

Most folks have moved on from quibbling over the percentages to focusing on how organizations can best use all three major sources of learning to enhance leader development. The Conference Board-DDI report advocates for better integration of learning on the job, from others, and in the classroom.  Similarly, Bersin by Deloitte  encourages a continuous learning approach that weaves together experience, exposure, and education.

I’m totally on board with these approaches. At CCL, my colleagues and I still use the 70-20-10 meme from time to time, but we’ve also been using a different phrase:  putting experience at the center of talent management. It’s an approach that emphasizes the pivotal role of challenging assignments in attracting, developing, and retaining talent—and at the same time, highlights how the power of on-the-job experience is enhanced when surrounded by developmental relationships and formal learning opportunities.

I agree with what Cal points out in his post:  that the value of 70-20-10 was its ability to “open our eyes to learning that is happening all the time.” It makes me wonder, what am I still blind to when it comes to experience-driven development?

3 Behaviors of the Antifragile Leader

Last year, I had a conversation that gave me an interesting new lens to think about leadership.

David Peterson, who directs coaching and leadership development at Google, steered me to Nassim Taleb’s book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Taleb suggests that objects fall into three categories when they are exposed to volatility and stress:fitness2

  • Fragile: Objects that weaken and break under stress. Think of glass that shatters under pressure.
  • Robust: Objects that are robust and resilient under stress. Think of a rock that remains unchanged under stress.
  • Antifragile: Objects that grow stronger under stress. Think about muscles that are strengthened when exposed to stress and resistance and, conversely, atrophy under low-stress conditions.

Antifragile leaders, then, are those who can be thrown into any situation and will not only survive but thrive. They will grow in their capacity and abilities over time, in an ongoing cycle of stressors and strengtheners.

Which begs the question:

What are the behaviors that lead to antifragile leaders?

In identifying antifragile behaviors, three criteria seem important to me. The behaviors should (1) increase a leader’s potential over time; (2) be self-reinforcing, causing people to want to engage in them even more in the future; and (3) be learned skills. Based on these criteria, I’ve come up with three key behaviors so far:

  1. Feedback Seeking. Feedback seeking is more than passively being open to feedback. It involves strategically identifying the key people in one’s network and scheduling specific times to ask people for their feedback. The type of feedback that is sought is also important. For example, strong negative feedback might decrease the likelihood of it being sought in the future. An appreciative inquiry approach to feedback is more likely to be self-reinforcing. For example, rather than just ask for strengths and weaknesses, an antifragile approach might ask, “What are my strengths?” and “What could get in the way of my future success?” In this way, negatives are always discussed in terms of one’s future potential.
  2. Systems Thinking. Systems thinking is the ability of leaders to identify the dynamics at play within an organizational system. Leaders are able to think beyond themselves to identifying the key stakeholders in the system, what they value, and how their goals play out dynamically in the larger organization. When people seem irrational, a systems thinker doesn’t get angry, but thinks, “How interesting” – knowing the behavior is completely logical from the others’ perspective. Systems thinking also means finding a way to solve today’s problems in a way that also solves tomorrow’s problems or prevents them altogether.
  3. Critical Thinking. Critical thinking, among other things, is the ability to argue with oneself. Strong critical thinkers ask themselves, “Why am I wrong?” They don’t think one chess move at a time (What is my opinion?), but plot out at least three at all times (What is my opinion? What are the best counter-arguments? What is my rebuttal – if there is one?). Critical thinkers are willing to live in the dissonance of not having the perfect solution to a problem because finding the truth is more important than winning the argument.

What do you think it takes to develop antifragile leaders? And is antifragile a useful way to frame what is needed to prepare people to face unknown challenges that they will encounter over an entire career? Talk about it with your colleagues – and let me know what you think.

My Love-Hate Relationship with 70-20-10

If you’ve been in the leadership development world awhile, you probably know about 70-20-10. It is a short-hand way of describing the relative distribution of three sources of significant development in a leader’s career-long learning journey: 70% on-the-job challenges, 20% other people, 10% formal coursework. It has been called a model, a formula, and a rule. It is loosely based on a CCL study of the key developmental experiences of successful executives.

I love it and I hate it.

I love it because it is simple. It reduces what we know about the relative power of different modes of learning into a short phrase. Easy to remember. Efficient in conversations with people who know what it means.

I love it because it was drawn from data. 70-20-10 isn’t based on intuition or the need to sell a product. Although I’ve worn different hats in my career, I’m particularly attached to my identity as a researcher.

I love it because it is a call to action. Formal leadership development initiatives are overwhelmingly coursework-centric. 70-20-10 urges us to put on-the-job experience at the center of our efforts to develop leadership talent.

I love it because Bob Eichinger and Mike Lombardo coined it. Perhaps someone wants to debate me on the origin, but without a doubt, Bob and Mike were at the forefront of creating strategies and tools for turning the call to action into real action in organizations. They blazed a trail that I’m using today.

So, what’s not to love?

I hate 70-20-10 because it is silent on really important details. What kinds of job challenges, experiences with other people, and formal coursework are most developmental?  It’s certainly not just any kind of challenge or other person or training course that yields the most learning. The simplicity leaves out critical information.

I hate it because it is an overgeneralization. Not every leader’s learning journey is a 70-20-10 mix. 70-20-10 was derived from a study of men who made it to the executive ranks of corporations. The more a sample deviates from that profile, the less the data supports the proportions.

I hate it because people misuse it. I’ve heard colleagues complain that it is justification to cut formal programs. The reasoning: if they account for only 10% of development, why do we need it? (Back to the critical details—some things are best learned in formal programs.)  Another complaint: Attempts to force everything into the 70-20-10 mold, as if one concept should rule decision making about program designs, learning and development budgets, and individual development plans.

I hate it because it puts learning in silos. 70-20-10 can imply that there are three independent sources of learning, but our own experience tells us that assignments, other people, and courses are all interconnected.  Crafting developmental experiences that integrate all three is a key strategy for accelerating development.

My relationship with 70-20-10 is obviously complicated. But my list of loves and hates should help us clarify – rather than muddle – how we apply 70-20-10.

Let’s use 70-20-10 as an attention-getting call to action. Its simplicity and core idea are powerful starting points.

At the same time, let’s not be too rigid on those percentages. Know it’s a guide, not a prescription. Similarly, let’s not see it as a formula to apply to every learning situation.

Finally, let’s continue to build the deeper expertise needed to embed truly effective learning processes in organizations. That’s an idea I can truly fall in love with.