Why leadership development on-the-job fails and how to get it right

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No one, we believe, will challenge one of the key propositions at the heart of our Leadership Development Kit: that individual leadership skills are best developed through practice and experience on-the-job. The plausibility of this claim drives the success of simple concepts such as 70:20:10, suggesting that the far majority of learning (like around 70%) happens through practice and only 20% through feedback and coaching, while formal training adds another 10% in relation to the other two (let’s mention in passing that there is no empirical evidence of 70:20:10 as far as we know – yet it still is a catchy concept and it doesn’t sound awfully wrong).

In many leadership development initiatives, however, training leadership skills off-the-job still gets the majority of program planners’ attention. Why? For one, it may seem more tangible to plan a training program than to define a true on-the-job approach based on action learning and individual initiative. Second, many large companies work with formal competency models. And it is straight forward and ‘reportable’ to tie a training agenda to those competencies. You can manage the agenda of a training to an extent that you can’t control what happens in action or in decentralized coaching and mentoring.

When focusing too much on training, however, leadership development efforts fail to realize their full potential. Above all, they miss the value of individual learners’ agency in setting priorities for themselves.

But even those initiatives who take on-the-job learning seriously suffer from common setbacks. One is overstretching. It has been shown that challenging assignments offer great learning opportunities for developing leaders. Challenging assignments push them to try new things in real-life settings. Especially first-time leaders experience the transition that they have to work through other people to make the organization successful (rather than do all the stuff yourself). However, if the challenge is too big – or if the individual is lacking support and opportunities to reflect and experiment –, they will find it hard to maintain their learning orientation. The fear of failure can become too strong to learn and develop. One risk is that they only engrain known practices, instead of trying new things.

Another common issue results from linking the performance management system with leadership development. Leadership development then becomes box ticking – been there, done that, reached this level, etc. Putting developing leaders in such a frame orients them towards abstract models instead of developing their own, authentic approach towards leadership. And, as with overstretch assignments, too strong a focus on performance kills the curiosity and learning orientation that is required to truly develop as a leader.

Effective development of leadership in contrast happens on-the-job, through feedback and reflection, and leveraging resources (such as knowledge, people, and time). As part of our Leadership Development Kit, we have defined a tool that leaders, or their coaches and mentors, can leverage to come up with ideas and actions to integrate leadership learning with actual practice on-the-job: