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.

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