31st March 2017

Forget 70:20:10 for executive development

Now I’m not saying that the 70:20:10 learning and development model is wrong — just the opposite. In fact, I think it’s a simple way of describing how and why true development occurs. Put another way, experience is the best teacher but you need other stuff too. Who would argue?

However, in the time since it was developed by Morgan McCall, Robert Eichinger and Michael Lombardo based on their work at the Centre for Creative Leadership in the 1980s, it has been widely misunderstood and misused to the point where the underlying value and relevance has been lost. Not to mention, it was put forward nearly 40 years ago and the corporate world has since evolved in leaps and bounds.


Understanding 70:20:10

There’s no doubt you’ve heard the concept of 70:20:10 but here’s a quick refresher. It’s based on research that suggests leaders develop best through means other than just formal training. McCall et al. said that lessons learned by managers roughly divide into 70:20:10.

  • 70% on the job, experience based, stretch projects and practice
  • 20% coaching, mentoring, developing through others
  • 10% training courses

These days it seems almost every organisation has its own interpretation of 70:20:10. HR departments have spent an inordinate amount of time convincing themselves and others that 70:20:10 is key to the process of employee development. But is the process really producing the outcomes they expect? More often than not the answer is no, and here are three reasons to suggest why:


1. 70:20:10 was established when training (10) was a ‘thing’:

The first reason we should forget 70:20:10 is that it was established back when organisations dedicated a good deal of time and resources to formal training. McCall et al. found that formal training on its own was not a major contributor to employee development, hence allocating it 10% in the framework.

However they didn’t say “don’t do training!” — quite the opposite. McCall et al. laid down some guidelines on what made for effective training. As we know training budgets were, and still are, the victim of the continuous expenditure review cycles and once gone it’s hard to get that kind of money and resource back into a budget. An unfortunate flow-on was the misguided belief by HR managers that cutting training wasn’t so bad because 70% of development comes from experience, as a consequence in many organisations formal training has been diminished as a component of employee development plans.


2. True coaching and mentoring is hard to find

The second reason we should forget 70:20:10 is that real coaching and mentoring, the kind McCall, Eichinger and Lombardo refer to, is hard to find. There are plenty of good professional coaches available to assist your staff if you want to pay for them. But, the kind of coaching McCall et al. were referring to in the 20% was the kind that came from managers who took the time to engage in the development of others.

Some managers and companies in some industries do coaching well — however, when I interview executives what I tend to find when I probe on how they coach, is that while they have positive intent, they tend to describe actions akin to telling their team members how. It’s not their fault — coaching is a skill and most managers have not experienced great coaching nor have they been taught how to coach, so they don’t coach, they tell.


3. Organisations have become more risk-averse

The third reason we should leave 70:20:10 behind is that, in our work at Generator Talent, we are seeing organisations become more risk averse when appointing people to roles meaning that fewer people are being put into true development experiences. True development experiences, the 70% that McCall and co. describe, are situations where the individual faces some real heat; where there is a real risk of failure, and therefore a real pressure to perform. Exposure to these experiences means having to lead, make decisions, and figure out what to do because no one knows what to do. However, with worthy intentions to reduce risk, organisations have developed a labyrinth of approval processes, committees, project plans etc. that in effect ‘insulate’ executives from precisely the kind of heat that brings about development through experience.

The reality is that 70:20:10 has lost its relevance in the way we work these days. Organisations are not investing in the 10% the way they used to, managers don’t know what it takes to enact the 20%, and organisations are too risk averse to do the 70% well for large groups of people. This is compounded by the fact that so many in the world of HR talk about 70:20:10 and include it in policy documents and talent plans, yet for most people there is no real developmental effect.

The primary implication of a framework that no longer works is that there is no compass for the development of majority of employees in organisations. As a result, I say that 90% of development these days boils down to pure luck.


Why 90% of development is luck

With Generator Talent, I interview a lot of people; some as candidates for roles I’m recruiting, others as part of our executive assessment work, and others still as coaching clients. Like most consultants, when I interview for recruitment, assessment or coaching I size up people’s experiences and accomplishments using the XYZ formula.

Accomplished X by Doing Y as Measured by Z

The top talent — those high performers on a trajectory to lead a department, function or to become a CEO — sort themselves from the pack quickly. The reasons for them having a faster trajectory and for being in high demand start with having a good education, supplemented by quality vocational training and having worked in organisations renowned for performance. But the thing that separates the best people from the pack is the quality of their experiences.

In exploring the development history of high quality executives we start to see a clear similarity in the types of experiences they have accrued. They all seem to have done things like fixing up a poor performing business or team, or having to rebuild a team by managing out underperformers and attracting new talent, or starting up a new line of business or leading a major change project.

There are more, but they all feature a level of adversity, diversity, variety and intensity of experience that ‘other’ executives don’t have and they are situations where the organisation and the individual bore a higher than normal level of risk.

However, and here’s the rub: when we interview these executives and we dig around on how these experiences came about it becomes clear that, of these top performers, roughly only 10% had been the subject of planned, active development by their organisation. For the other 90% their development experiences have come about due to luck.

That’s right, only about 1 in 10 of the best people recount that their manager or HR team proactively sought them out for an opportunity because it was identified that they needed to get that particular experience. The other 9 got the same experiences but they happened to be in the right place at the right time. Their development was because of luck. And remember, I’m talking about the top talent here.

I would argue that there is no shortage of organisational forums that could be an opportunity for selecting individuals for a true development opportunity. Whether it be succession or talent planning discussions, choosing participants in a merger or acquisition, or to work alongside the ‘ consultants who are coming in to work on a major transformation project’.

There is a risk aversion we see that impacts net development. Not enough organisations are willing to put promising but untested talent into make or break situations.


So, where to from here?

We need to look past 70:20:10 as executive development has evolved and we can’t leave it to luck to upskill our top talent either. We need to acknowledge it’s neither easy for the individual being developed nor is it easy planning development for someone else, and this is because it is all about doing things in a way that sits outside our comfort zones. In a follow-up post, I offer a new lens that suggests there are 3E’s in Development: Explanation, Exposure and Experience.

Are you keeping leadership development front of mind? By reflecting on your career experiences and putting a strategic action plan in place, you can work toward becoming a better leader. For an easy-to-follow framework to guide your development reflection, use our ‘Taking Stock Of Your Development’ worksheet.

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Justin Miles

Justin Miles

Manager Partner, Melbourne at Generator Talent
Justin is the Managing Partner of our Melbourne office, an outcome focused leader with a track record of driving business performance through proven talent and organisation development practices. Justin’s methods and skills have been shaped by working with performance oriented leaders in great companies including PepsiCo, The Campbell Soup Company, Diageo, Rip Curl, Fonterra and Wesfarmers, in Australia, the USA and Latin America.
Justin Miles

Categories: Developing Talent

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