Is the 70-20-10 framework the best way to train leaders?

Is the 70-20-10 framework the best way to train leaders?

The 70-20-10 framework has been a mainstay of leadership and executive training for decades. The central idea is that leadership training should be split up as 70 percent from challenging work assignments (occupational), 20 percent from relationships and feedback from others (social), and 10 percent from formal coursework and training (formal).

The origin of this framework is attributed to research done by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) in the 1980s. They asked successful executives about the most impactful experiences they had during their careers, and came up with this approximate division between occupational, social, and formal learning. This allocation makes intuitive sense, because it reflects the way we spend our time at work: we spend most of our time doing the work, then smaller amounts getting feedback from others and learning from courses, books, or other resources.

The 70-20-10 split reflects the way I learned to do everything in my career as a CPA. Yearly CPE helped me keep my skills sharp and learn new things. Those formal classes were most impactful when they were directly related to what I was doing at that moment. Then, review notes, informal feedback and discussions with others in the firm helped me learn to do better work, and to fine-tune the application of my formal training to a particular client’s situation. For the 70 percent piece, my most impactful learning came from stretch assignments, where I had to figure out how to apply the ideas from formal courses and discussions with partners to get the work done. I learned the most when I couldn’t rely on SALY – Same As Last Year.

Does data back this up?

However, as a few training consultants have noted, there isn’t a whole lot of empirical data to back up that absolute split between those categories. A recent survey by Training Industry indicated that the 70-20-10 split is perhaps best conceived of as a guideline, not a mantra, and is a reflection of how we spend most of our time at work.

Training Industry also found that the ratios seem to have shifted since CCL did their research in the 1980s. Results from the surveys they performed during 2017 and 2018 indicated a better ratio today might be 55 percent occupational, 25 percent social, and 20 percent formal training. Interestingly, they found that the actual ratio differed across industries and countries and also depended on a person’s level in the company. For executives, they found a ratio of 41 percent occupational, 31 percent social, and 28 percent formal learning.

Likewise, a 2018 research study in Australia found that the numeric division between the three parts wasn’t precise in practice. They also found that while the 70-20-10 framework “has the potential to better guide the achievement of capability development,” the actual implementation of such programs wasn’t always successful due to a lack of integration between the three parts.

The Australian researchers found that the concepts and techniques learned in coursework weren’t consistently applied in either mentoring or practice. Mentoring and peer support was mostly done in an ad hoc manner, and participants were often required to create their own networks and mentoring relationships. Perhaps not surprisingly, they found that success in experiential learning depended on the presence of good role models because people tend to learn leadership skills by emulating what they see.

Applying this in real life

These results suggest that – like all training structures – a 70-20-10 framework can’t just be plopped down without careful thought and ongoing support. The three learning modes can’t be locked off in separate silos but are highly interdependent. The overarching goal shouldn’t be to check off the boxes in a training program, but to help your team – and yourself – develop into better people and better leaders.

Formal learning is more engaging and more likely to be used when it correlates with what your team members are trying to do now. Feedback and mentoring are most useful when given in context of what someone is trying to do now or has recently done. On-the-job learning is more likely to have lasting impact when it’s supported by social and formal learning.

The most impactful learning experiences – no matter the mode – all come from stretching oneself, or, as one of my CPA friends says, “punching above your weight class.” Giving your team the resources they need, in the quantities they need and when they need them will help you develop leaders for the firms of the future!