The 70:20:10 mantra is urban legend

Concept of a businesswoman with a big idea

There is an urban legend going around that learning is 70:20:10 – meaning that 70% of learning occurs on the job, 20% from mentoring and coaching and 10% from classroom training. This claim comes from experiential learning theory and the work of several academics.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The assertion comes from research on novel, significant new assignments for leaders. These leaders are required to manage change with diverse teams across traditional organizational boundaries. The methods listed above are their primary sources of learning and leadership development[i].

More recent research

More recent academic research on leadership development, however, has questioned this finding. It asserts that earlier models about learning were too simplistic in their assumptions on how leaders learn and the complexity of organizations.

In a literature review for the Oxford Handbook on Leadership and Organizations, University of Michigan researchers D. Scott DeRue and Christopher Myers set the record straight. DeRue and Myers pointed out that earlier research was focused on the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) required of leaders.  It didn’t focus on the complexities of organizational structures and the changing dynamics of leader-follower relationships in our global, mobile and agile work environment. Finally, it didn’t account for results.

Here’s their summary:

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. 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 were a fact.
  2. Second, as McCall (2010) appropriately points out, this assumption is misleading because it suggests that informal on-the-job experiences and learning from other people, and formal programs and learning from other people are independent. Yet, these different forms of experience can occur in parallel. 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 investment is directed at formal leadership development programs (Conger and Toegal, 2003.) But, we are not ready to condemn formal learning 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 development experiences. Some scholars argue that this allows leadership development to become a “haphazard process (Conger, 1993) without sufficient notice to intentionality, accountability and formal evaluation (Day, 2000).[ii]

In their review, DeRue and Myers point to a study by Barling, Weber and Kelloway (1996) who conducted a field experiment of 20 managers randomly assigned to either a control group or a leadership training group. The training group managers received a one-day training seminar on transformational leadership, followed by four booster training sessions on a monthly basis.  The control group received no such training. Results showed that the participants in the training group improved their performance more than the managers in the control group.[iii]

What has been your experience?

If you don’t believe me, look at your own learning.  Did you attend college? Go to graduate school to earn an MBA? An advanced technical degree?  Get a certificate in your field?  Attend a company sponsored seminar or workshop?

While today’s learning organizations need to stay current with on-line, real-time learning, rapid prototyping, and use a mixture of learning forums (group sessions, video, digital, group or one-on-one coaching and mentoring), learning needs to be much more than mostly experiential and on the fly!

Tell me, what has been your experience? I would love to hear from you!

Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and is a Managing Partner of InnovationOne.US. He works with key decision makers and human resources leaders on talent management, leadership development and coaching, innovation, and other strategic initiatives. Please e-mail Victor at or For innovation visit www.InnovationOne.US.

[i] W. M. McCall, (2004) “Leadership development through experience, Academy of Management Executive, 18, 127-30.

[ii]Ibid. D. Scott DeRue and Christopher G. Myers, “Leadership Development: A Review and Agenda for Future Research,” in The Oxford Handbook of Leadership and Organizations, ed. David V. Day (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). Download PDF from

[iii]J. Barling, T. Weber, and E. K. Kelloway, (1996) “Effects of transformational leadership training on attitudinal and financial outcomes: A field experiment,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 81, 827-832.

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