The Limitations of 70:20:10 Learning


The 70:20:10 Model for Learning and Development is a learning and development model based on research and observation carried out from the 1960s until now. Morgan McCall and his colleagues working at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) are usually credited with originating the 70:20:10 ratio. Two of McCall's colleagues, Michael M. Lombardo and Robert W. Eichinger, published data from one CCL study in their 1996 book The Career Architect Development Planner. McCall, Lombardo and Eichinger's survey of high-performing managers revealed that:


" Lessons learned by successful and effective managers are roughly:

  • 70% from tough jobs
  • 20% from people (mostly the boss)
  • 10% from courses and reading "


So what are the limitations of 70:20:10?


When lessons from tough jobs, people and courses are in sync and focused on good, positive learning, then the above results makes huge sense as a guiding model to learning opportunities. But here's where it might go spectacularly wrong.


1. What if the lessons learned by successful and effective managers yesterday will not make successful and effective managers of our business today, tomorrow or next year?


2. What if we learn all the wrong lessons from tough jobs and other people (mostly the boss)?


This second pitfall warrants particular examination. For example, what if we learn from tough jobs and people (mostly the boss):

  • Not to challenge the status quo because people won't like or accept us
  • Not to innovate because people will push back
  • Not to connect with people who are different from us because they make us feel uncomfortable
  • To regard customers and colleagues as the enemy because they want new things from us
  • To avoid new technology because it upsets our tried and tested processes and systems
  • That leadership is about telling people what to do and controlling them
  • That leadership is about short-term, small picture results at the expense of long-term vision, goals and strategy
  • That leadership is about results and not people
  • That generating fear and anxiety is the best way to motivate people
  • To comply and protect rather than commit and change


This list could go on and on and is not random. These are, unfortunately, real lessons that real leaders and managers I have met over the years have taken from tough jobs and other people (mostly the boss).

So managers often need help to debrief good, positive learning from tough jobs and other people. They need skilful coaching from line managers or colleagues to find positive, forward-looking and productive lessons. This means that line managers themselves need to learn the positive, forward-looking and productive mindsets and skills of a good coach.


What are the mindsets of a good coach?

  • Every tough job has a positive lesson to be learned. Yes, really!
  • Coaching is about asking not telling
  • Just because the coachee looks and sounds like they can't find a positive lesson right now doesn't mean they don't have the capability to do so
  • Everyone can think and act better


What does a good coach do in conversation with a coachee to facilitate positive, forward-looking and productive learning from a tough job? They:

  1. Invite the coachee through questioning to reflect on what lessons they have learned so far and why
  2. Listen to the coachee and seek clarification where needed
  3. Help the coachee become consciously aware of any negative or limiting assumptions and inferences that they have constructed
  4. Challenge (and support) the coachee to consider different and new perspectives, gain new insights and generate more positive and enabling assumptions and inferences
  5. Work with the coachee to choose future actions that will conform with good lessons from a tough job


What's going on in our brains during this learning process?


Sandra Johnson describes it best:


' While experience is necessary for learning, reflection is required because "reflection is searching for connections - literally" (Zull, 2002, p164). Thus, dialogue with a trusted other that promotes reflection is a natural way of learning. Our brains search and make neuronal connections between the presented (new) knowledge and what we already know. Reflection, then, is a cognitive process whereby neuronal connections are made; when such connections are made, we have a restructured neuronal map or mental representation of that knowledge. The more neurons there are firing together (that is, the more connections we make while reflecting), the more complex is our neuronal representation of the topic and the longer that neuronal representation will last (Shors and Matzel, 1997) '


Extract from 'The Neuroscience of the Mentor-Learner Relationship', Sandra Johnson, from 'The Neuroscience of Adult Learning', Number 110, Summer 2006.




Yes, we learn from tough jobs, but to learn good, positive, forward-looking and productive lessons we often need good coaching from people (mostly the boss) and good training courses and reading. Good coaching and training help us to reflect and rewire our brains to make changes in our mindsets and behaviours and for better, longer-lasting learning.



Jonathan Chalstrey, June 2015


Jonathan's business and passion is leadership and team development. His first book 'Think Better, Lead Better: Transforming Your Leadership Through Understanding Your Brain' was published July 2015. Visit or



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