The Influence of Personal Life & Hardships on Leadership Development

The Influence of Personal Life & Hardships on Leadership Development

The True Numbers Behind 70-20-10 & the Overlooked Impact of Hardships on Development 

More often than not, in the midst of a leadership development program design discussion with a client, they’ll say something about 70-20-10. “We’d like you to keep in mind the 70-20-10 model of development,” they say. “Have you heard of that?”

By this point, our faculty members are well-versed in gently pointing out that, yes, we’ve heard of it, because the research for that model was developed right here at CCL.

“Fantastic! We like to base most of our designs around that model!” comes the response.

And so it’s gone for much of the last 30 years, with 70-20-10 becoming a beacon for how leadership development designs should be arranged.

The theory behind it is as follows: 70% of learning should come from challenging on-the-job assignments; 20% of learning should be gleaned from watching and working with others; and a modest 10% represents formal, in-classroom or virtually-based learning. Instructional designers often loosely translate that to: “more interaction, less lecture; more pre- and-post-session work and more longitudinal programs in order to ensure learning transfer, fewer day-long seminars filled with soon-to-be-forgotten theoretical concepts.”

Is this a good model for learning? Yes.

And more so, it’s widely accepted as the gold standard, a research-based, long-standing model often cited by development professionals, most of whom may not even know about the original research findings that eventually led to it.

Up until a few months ago, I was one of those development professionals. Then, I had the opportunity to meet with Cindy McCauley, a senior research fellow and expert in the area of putting experience at the center of talent development, which stems from the work of Bob Eichinger and Mike Lombardo, the famed 70-20-10 creators. I needed some slides on Cindy’s work, and while reviewing what she’d sent me, I noticed one particular pie chart: “70-20-10” it said at the top of the page, but below, the chart had 5 different areas: “challenging assignments” took up just under 50% of the circle, with roughly 40% split between “other people” and “hardships.” A final 10% was split between “formal coursework” and “personal life.” I was confused.

“What’s this?” I asked Cindy, only to have her confirm my suspicions: These were the original results from the CCL research question, “Where do key development learnings come from?” That data found that “hardships” were equally as important as “other people,” and that lessons from one’s personal life aided development in an essential way. And yet, I’d never heard of the 50-20-20-5-and-5 model.

Cindy explained: The originators of the model dropped hardships and personal life events because organizations had little control over them. Coursework could be replicated, mentors could be assigned, but who could guarantee hardships? Or — more importantly — who would want to? After dropping those 2 pesky categories and doing some simple recalculations, the model shook out at the now-trusty 70-20-10 breakdown.

Consider that this model was developed in the late 1980s. Perhaps looking for or focusing on hardships felt unnecessary. If things were going well for an organization, why manufacture a hardship? And were hardships even something to discuss openly at work? Similarly, work wasn’t likely considered the place to discuss one’s personal life; workplaces were quite a bit more formal, and lines between the personal and professional were more clearly delineated than they often are today.

And in either case, Eichinger and Lombardo weren’t wrong: It could be more of a challenge for employers to try to create these types of experiences for all employees (i.e., manufacture a hardship or ask employees to share leadership lessons learned outside of the office).

Still, you don’t need to think too much about the current business environment to see how different things are today. It’s not unusual for an employee to be friends with their whole department on Facebook. The lines between work and home have blurred significantly, as people bring their emails to bed on their smartphone and as family obligations are split more equally among couples, often requiring more flexible schedules.

In fact, according to several recent studies, Millennials report that a good balance between work and life is one of the most important factors in accepting or continuing with a job or organization. If we don’t help employees to mine their personal experiences for leadership skills, we risk not only losing out on prime learning opportunities but on disregarding a part of their life that they have identified as being of paramount importance.

As for hardships, I’ve found it impossible to find an organization that doesn’t have a full list at the ready. Layoffs, budget cuts, mergers, acquisitions — anything from C-suite scandals impacting morale and public brand to the stress some workers feel about being required to move or risk losing their position in the company. (And that’s not even mentioning the global coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath.)

At this point, companies no longer need to manufacture hardships; these days, they’re pretty much guaranteed.

Ignoring these hardships in favor of focusing solely on challenging assignments or coursework does a significant disservice to employees. Pretending hardships aren’t there doesn’t make them go away. In fact, ironic mental processing holds that asking employees to ignore a stressful hardship, such as rounds of layoffs, pretty much ensures that they won’t be able to focus on anything else.

So where does this leave us trying to make use of this model? The phrase “If it’s not broken …” comes to mind, but the problem isn’t that the model is broken — it’s that it’s incomplete. And the answer to filling that gap has been there all along; crisis can be turned into opportunity.

Organizations can address hardships head-on and develop learning opportunities around them rather than trying to sweep them under the rug. Who could turn their back on the chance to get 20% of learning lessons from that bucket alone? And they can do something similar with the area of personal life, which would both cater to the confirmed preferences of Millennials and honor the extra-professional experiences of all employees.

Viewed through a hiring lens, giving the appropriate credence to lessons gained from hardship and acknowledging that personal life affects professional life might even increase the career opportunities for those with non-linear career paths, like employees who took time off to raise children or care for family members, or excellent job candidates who spent time pursuing an artistic passion or serving in the military before moving into their current line of work.

It’s unlikely that I will stop hearing “70-20-10” from my clients any time soon. But my hope is that there’s an appetite to modernize the revolutionary work of Eichinger and Lombardo, ironically by returning to our original research findings. It may have just taken us 30 years to grow into it.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

As much as organizations have traditionally overlooked it, the reality is that hardships and personal life do affect professional life and development. Equip your people to turn the hardships they undergo into learning experiences and development opportunities with customized leadership development tailored to your unique needs to help grow your organization into the future.

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December 4, 2020
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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