The problem with the 70:20:10 rule in leadership development

I recently stumbled across a piece of text in a forthcoming chapter of the Oxford Handbook of Leadership and Organizations, which made me smile. It made me smile because leading authors in the field, Scott DeRue and Christopher Myers, structured the issue I had with the 70:20:10 rule nicely. Here it comes:

“A common assumption in the existing literature is that 70% of leadership development occurs via on-the-job assignments, 20% through working with and learning from other people (e.g., learning from bosses or coworkers), and 10% through formal programs such as training, mentoring or coaching programs (McCall et al., 1988; Robinson & Wick, 1992).

Despite the popularity of this assumption, there are four fundamental problems with framing developmental experiences in this way.

  1. First and foremost, there is actually no empirical evidence supporting this assumption, yet scholars and practitioners frequently quote it as if it is fact.
  2. Second, as McCall (2010) appropriately points out, this assumption is misleading because it suggests informal, on-the-job experiences, learning from other people, and formal programs are independent. Yet, these different forms of experience can occur in parallel, and it is possible (and likely optimal) that learning in one form of experience can complement and build on learning in another form of experience.
  3. Third, it is inconsistent with the fact that a large portion of organizational investments are directed at formal leadership development programs (O’Leonard, 2010). It is certainly possible that organizations are misguided in their focus on and deployment of these programs (Conger & Toegel, 2003), but we are not ready to condemn formal programs given the lack of empirical evidence.
  4. Finally, it is possible that the “70:20:10” assumption leads organizations to prioritize informal, on-the-job experience over all other forms of developmental experiences, which some scholars argue allows leadership development to become a “haphazard process” (Conger, 1993: 46) without sufficient notice to intentionality, accountability and formal evaluation (Day, 2000).”

Why do I like it? Because today I often hear and read that we have a leadership crisis, but if we’re developing our leaders based upon assumptions like the 70:20:10 rule this can hardly be called a surprise. Stated differently, we are in dire need to make our leadership programs best practices instead of best guesses. The later starts with consulting scientists in order to know what works and what is still unknown, and by measuring the effects of leadership programs in quantitative, qualitative and longitudinal ways.

Yes, doing this is a hassle. Yes, it takes time and costs money (at first sight). And yes, it is complicated and sometimes politically dangerous. But then, and only then can a sound decision be made on how to refine leadership programs beyond the current practitioners expertise and judgment, the evidence from the context, and the perspective of the participants. As those sources no longer do the job.

In sum, leadership development should move beyond the 70:20:10 rule, and into evidence based leadership development. It seems that individuals, organizations, and societies need it today more than ever.

Any comments?

DeRue, D.S., & Myers, C.G. (forthcoming). Leadership development: A review and agenda for future research. In D.V. Day (Ed.) Oxford Handbook of Leadership and Organizations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


About Jesse Segers

Academic Director of The Future Leadership Initiative
This entry was posted in 19. Leadership development, Academic insights & evidence, English and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to The problem with the 70:20:10 rule in leadership development

  1. Whoever frames 70:20:10 as a ‘rule’ clearly doesn’t get it. As close as it gets is that it’s a rule-of-thumb. 70:20:10 is simply a reference model or a framework – an attempt to align development strategy with the ‘real world’ where most learning occurs in the context of work. Anyone who thinks it’s about the numbers clearly has the bull by the tail.

    My experience working with organisations that have implemented both leadership and individual contributor development strategies based on the 70:20:10 framework has been that it serves more as a change agent than anything else. the framework provides structure to de-focus on expensive, non-scalable, often ineffective formal programmes, courses and curricula. In their place it helps focus on the importance of rich experiences, practice, conversations and reflection as crucial elements in the process of development and learning.

    Having worked in the field for nigh on 40 years – as an academic and running corporate learning functions – my experience leads me to believe that if we can provide development experiences in the context of the challenges that managers and leaders work day-in and day-out it leads to far more impactful development than any number of away-from-work leadership programs, no matter how august the organisation designing and delivering them.

    I wonder whether there’s a logical flaw third ‘problem’ as stated above. Evidence of the efficacy of formal leadership development doesn’t suggest that it is the ‘best’ approach, or even that it works in most contexts. On the other hand there’s plenty of evidence that development integrated with work does work – take a look at Goldman Sach’s accelerated leadership approach or many other examples.

    The problem with current leadership bench strength isn’t due to organisations using the 70:20:10 approach. In fact, the reverse. The vast majority of time, effort and budget is still dedicated to formal programs in at least 90% of organisations. It could be more powerfully argued that the problems are, in fact, due to over-reliance on formal development, And don’t rely on the evidential and research base of most formal leadership development.

    Incidentally, ‘informal’ doesn’t mean ‘haphazard. I suggest you read Jay Cross on this – author of ‘Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways that Inspire Innovation & Performance’

    I think there’s a deeper factor at work here. When we look at ‘real’ learning – changing behaviours in light of new experiences – it’s obvious that authentic experiences are key factors for effective development. It’s difficult to structure authentic experiences into formal leadership development programs and package them up for sale to clients. It’s far easier to attack any alternative approaches that are calling the king’s clothes into question.

    • Jesse Segers says:

      Dear Charles,

      Thank you for your lengthy and insightful reply. I believe we’re on the same page here for most things. I fully agree that development experiences in the context and challenges of the managers is extremely useful. Moreover, there is consensus in the academic literature that this is the primary source of leadership development. As coincide has it, I was on MIT today in order to exchange ideas on how to best organize action learning. But also, and that is more the point me and Scott DeRue and Christophe Myers are trying to make about the 70:20:10 rule, is how can we best measure the effect of action learning or for that matter any other leadership development program, including formal ones? The latter have e.g. strong effects but on different outcomes due to a lack of transfer of learning (i.e. on knowledge outcomes, and not on behavioral or performance outcomes). The point is that we should try to move leadership development to the next level by finding out more clearly what works and what does not work, rather than relying ourselves on a framework which has no empirical base.

      That said, I obviously agree the 70:20:10 should only be seen as a just a rule of thumb, and I’m not stating that it cannot serve as a change agent. My experience with companies that cite the 70:20:10 framework is, however, different than yours. They use the 70% as an excuse for their lack of leadership development initiatives, and hence, to keep things as they are. Moreover, if I ask them how their 70% is managed, the answer is among the lines that they don’t. I do not necessarily blame them, because there is still a lot that we don’t know about developmental experiences.

      As DeRue and Myers (forthcoming) point out: what should be, for example, the content of these experiences? Should they be negative and/or positive? Should they reinforce each other? How often ? At what interval? In which sequence? Should they be linked the business strategy or can they be outside of the core business of the organization? What type of experience leads to the development of leadership skills and what type to the development of leadership identities? To what degree should these development experiences be formal (planned) or informal (unplanned)?. I guess the later is what you refer to as authentic. How challenging can they be? And how much support is needed? For whom? How should these experiences look like: learning from others experiences or only by personal direct experiences? …

      The point here is, that we, academics, practitioners, consultants should at least try to find an answer to some of the questions above, rather than assuming that the 70:20:10 framework will do the trick, as there is, unfortunately, no empirical base for this framework.

      • Jesse – If, by ‘no empirical basis’ you mean no peer-reviewed research publications I’d agree wholeheartedly. However from my own experience I have seen implementation of the 70:20:10 framework within a FTSE100/Fortune500 organisation:
        (a) improve manager and individual performance (resulting in contribution to >600% increase in share price)
        (b) Reduce spend on employee and manager development by >70%
        (c) Gain accolades from the executive board
        (d) Contribute to organisational and business agility

        I could quote benefits gained from other organisations that have used the framework to achieve positive impact, change understanding the importance of the work-learning continuum and so on.

        The question this raises for me is whether these on-the-ground outcomes constitute ’empirical basis’ or not. Or is the view that ’empirical basis’ is dependent solely on published research?

      • Jesse Segers says:

        Hi Charles,

        Yes, with ‘no empirical basis’ I mean no peer-reviewed research publications. I have no doubt that the framework can be used as a useful change management tool in case on organization is not familiar with it, or used it in a different way than intended, and that it could lead to positive outcomes.

        I can, however, as an academic, not accept claims that it leads to increases > 600% in share price, contributed to organizational and business agility, etc. There are so many other variables that could have lead to an increase in share price and lead to business agility, e.g. public communications of the CEO, a long anticipated new product that was launched, a competitor that got into trouble, a reorganization, …

        Does that mean that your observations do not have an empirical basis? Does this mean that there are no positive effects from using this framework? Of course not. But it is not an empirical basis for academics. For them, some in-depth longitudinal comparative case study research would be helpful to make claims of using the 70:20:10 framework as a change management tool in leadership development more substantial.

        And that is the point of DeRue & Myers, and that I’m also trying to make. And I believe, we’re all on the same page on that one: the leadership development business would benefit from more rigorous field studies in order to find out what works when and for whom in order to achieve what.

      • Jesse – I wasn’t for a moment suggesting that implementation of the 70:20:10 framework “leads to >600% increases in share price” merely that it made some contribution to that outcome (at least the CEO agreed that it did).

        Possibly the issue is that the 70:20:10 framework simply hasn’t been in use for long enough and enough data hasn’t yet been collected to satisfy the academic ’empirical’ test – but we had to wait almost a hundred years for empirical proof of Einstein’s general theory of relativity in terms of the existence of black holes “beyond any reasonable doubt” and that didn’t stop scientists from applying Einstein’s theories across a number of domains.

  2. Jay Cross says:

    Jesse, we see things differently. It may be that we’re coming from different places –you’re an academic and I’m not. Nonetheless, permit me to address your points and “give it the old college try” to explain why we do not agree.

    “There is no empirical evidence…” There is general agreement among practitioners that 70:20:10 framework sounds about right. The fact that science has not hypothesized and confirmed something doesn’t make it untrue.

    The 70, 20, and 10 are clearly not independent. This is a misinterpretation of the shorthand of the model.

    Organizations do over-invest in formal programs but that’s only part of what’s going on. They also under-count their investment in informal programs. Managers count what they control. It’s not tough to figure out how much is spent on formal programs. The cost of experiential learning is rarely measured.

    As Charles notes, informal need not mean haphazard. Stretch assignments lead to informal learning. They can be targeted toward developing particular skills. Experiential learning is powerful because it deals with real problems in context. Application reinforces what’s learned. Learners who take ownership of problems and solutions become intrinsically motivated by pride of accomplishment.

    An organization that leaves experiential and informal learning to chance is squanders opportunity. One reason the 70 and 20 sometimes slips through the cracks of management awareness is that they are implemented at a different level than the 10. Formal learning occurs at the program level; authorities define the curriculum. Nurturing informal learning requires working at the platform level; the powers that be create an environment that makes learning on the job second nature.

    Leadership is a complex phenomenon. Scientists have been working on this issue for more than half a century. What have they come up with? Have they uncovered any evidence that experiential learning is ineffective? Absent empirical evidence, I’d be reluctant to toss the spirit of the 70:20:10. in the bin.

    Jesse, you are ready to move beyond 70:20:10 based on negative factors — its lack of precision, that a misinterpretation can let organizations rationalize doing little to support leadership development, and the absence of scientific study. How about considering the positive side?

    I recently shared the 70:20:10 model with a senior group of instructional designers and educational planners. It opened their eyes. They realized that they’d been expending most of their energy in the formal realm, and that there’s a whole lot more to it. Without dealing with whether in a given situation it’s 80:15:5 or 60:25:15, they got the message that leadership development is overwhelmingly experiential and that formal learning is comparatively a drop in the bucket. The simplicity of the 70:20:10 formulation makes is memorable.

    I agree that more study is called for but I hope it relates methodologies to behavioral outcomes. If something doesn’t change behavior, smart businesses should not invest in it. Mere knowledge outcomes don’t improve the business.

    The questions you refer to from DeRue and Myers seem spot-on. I’m somewhat surprised they are prepared to toss out 70:20:10 before answering them. I agree that those are areas we should be (and are) working on.

    The issue is not whether 70:20:10 will, as you say, “do the trick.” Rather, it’s whether the model aids our understanding of what’s going on.

    • Jesse Segers says:

      Dear Jay,

      Thank you for another very insightful response on this post. It is clear to me that you and Charles are using the 70:20:10 model in the best way possible. As a tool to help organizations think more in-depth on how to develop their leaders, and to make them realize that there is lot more to developing them than formal (controllable) programs. The benefit of the model is clearly that it can open up discussions, and helps to redirect one’s focus on experiential learning as this is the most important source of leadership development (also according to academics). Something which is needed, as indeed it can fall to the cracks of management awareness for the reason you rightfully point out among others.

      Maybe the differences in our experiences is that you’re a called upon when organizations want to change something, which is not necessarily the case when they call upon me. Or that you work with organization who are not familiar with the model, while most organizations I meet are, and no longer use it in the spirit as it was intended, but rather as a fact (as so often happens with models in the long run).

      DeRue and Meyers propose an alternative model that can help open up the discussion again, in a structured and very profound way. They call it PREPARE. It can be found here:

      It is a bit lengthy to explain here, and personally I think it deserves a separate post (which I will do when I have more time). Hence, it is definitely worth a read!

      To make things clear, I’m not against the spirit of the 70:20:10 model per se, and not against using it as a way to create reflection, in contrary. This blog and any skepticism from my part are solely indeed to promote reflection and learning, as you rightfully suggest.

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  4. Jacques Strydom says:

    Hi gents.

    Thank you for the open discussion. It really fosters the principle of dialoguing: free-flow of meaning in an environment of trust. And serves as example of informal learning for the reader.

    Do the points that both of you have raised apply only to leadership/management development or could the thinking be applied to functional / technical (e.g. sales / ops etc) as well?

    • Jesse Segers says:

      Dear Jacques,

      unfortunately I’m not an expert in functional/technical training/development. It is, however academically known that on-the-job learning works well for skill transfer. That is, if it is done in a environment that facilitates learning (safe to make mistakes, feedback is given etc), and when it is approached in structured way (what is the objective, how much time is there to learn, demonstrate, break it down in smaller behavioral parts, …).

      Hope this helps you somewhat.

    • Hi Jaques – my experience is that this approach/thinking applies equally to functional and technical development as well. We’ve known since Herman Ebbinghaus carried out his ‘forgetting curve’ experiments in 1885 that context is critical for learning. Ebbinghaus’ experiments have been replicated over the years. Functional / technical learning out of context of where the skills and, more importantly, the capabilities are to be used is usually less effective than development in the context of workflow.

  5. Jay ~
    Thoughtful and well-reasoned response to Prof. Segers. Thank you.
    An idea and a request:
    1. “Field test” the “70-20-10 Hypothesis” with ASTD and SHRM Chapter members. Perhaps begin with National (ASTD , SHRM ) and ask them to query members in the field.
    Pleased to propose some assessment questions if useful, and suggest use of the “HLH” response scale. That’s the “Hitt+Likert+Harvard Scale,” a six-choices decimal scale that encourages assessment responses that produce robust statistics including individual and work group “batting averages” and “Need Index” for continual improvement and constructive changes.
    2. A logical application of the 70-20-10 concept is that every work group leader (and best if every other work group member too) has an “Individual Development Plan – IDP” as part of their work tasks. And even better when each work group has a WGDevel. Plan (WGDP) that ties to each member’s IDP.
    Can you list some learning and action resources for IDPs and WGDPs? These resources would help move the 70-20-10 issue from discussion towards action.
    Best ~ Dick Webster

    • Jesse Segers says:

      Dear Dick,
      Thank you for the suggestion to field test the 70:20:10 hypothesis with ASTD & SHRM chapter members. It is, however, unclear to me why the 70:20:10 concept would lead to an IDP or WGDP?. I’m not saying that these tools are not useful.

  6. Professor Segers:
    “It is … unclear to me why the 70:20:10 concept would lead to an IDP or WGDP?”
    Please consider these points:
    1. IF 70% of on-the-job and job-related learning occurs because of informal means, THEN it makes sense to task each member of the company (work group leaders and other work group members — to use the late Professor Rensis Likert’s “work group” term) to make learning a part of their day-to-day work tasks.
    2. Applying Professor Mason Haire’s key point: “What gets measured, gets done”* suggests that IF you make a learning plan, discuss it with your work group leader and your co-workers know about it, THEN you’re likely to accomplish the learning work you have planned, i.e., committed to.
    3. Further, IF your individual / personal learning plan is part of the work group’s development plan, THEN there is even more reason to do the learning work you have committed to do as a needed part of the larger work group learning effort.
    4. As for IDPs as part of WGDP: When Professor Likert was asked “Why the term ‘work group’?” he responded: “All teams are work groups, far from all work groups are teams.” Assuming the truth of that statement, then consider all of the process improvements, performance tools, interpersonal skills, and other matters that work group members can choose to learn about to improve their performance and results.
    5. Even better when every member of the company can use self- / work group-selected topics and questions to create assessments they consider useful for their learning work. The late Dr. William D. Hitt (Manager of [Project] Manager Development, Battelle Memorial Institute, 1958–1998, author of 11 books and > 60 other reports and monographs) put it nicely:
    “Self-assessment for self-development and self-renewal.”
    * Professor Mason Haire, Emeritus, MIT, quoted by Bob Waterman in “Start Your Own Quality Revolution,” Success magazine, April, 1988, p. 16).

    • Jesse Segers says:

      Dear Dick,

      Thank you for educating me on this! I have nothing to add to your clear and conditional reasoning. I especially like the idea of sharing it with co-workers, as research in the field of 360° feedback has shown that doing this increases accountability, and therefore improves behavioral change compared to does people who do not do this. Making it part of work group plan is likely to increase accountability as well. All teams are indeed work groups, but not the other way around. Self-assessment as some sort of auto-generated feedback is indeed beneficial.

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  10. Amazing! Its genuinely awesome paragraph, I have got much clear idea concerning from this paragraph.

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