How To Implement the 70-20-10 Principle for Leadership Development

The 70-20-10 strategy was created by the Center for Creative Leadership based on thirty years of Lessons of Experience research.[ref]Ron Rabin, Blended Learning for Leadership: The CCL Approach (Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership, 2014). The 70-20-10 principle is also described by Kramer and Nayak, Nonprofit Leadership Development, 82-101; Kramer, “Solving the Time and Money Puzzle”; and Hoyle, Informal Learning in Organizations, 168-177.[/ref] This strategy is designed to help current leaders develop potential leaders with limited time requirements. In this post I show you how to use the 70-20-10 strategy to develop potential leaders in your nonprofit organization or church. How To Use the 70 20 10 Principle for Leadership DevelopmentThe 70-20-10 rule for leader development follows this breakdown: 70 percent challenging assignments, 20 percent developmental relationships, and 10 percent coursework and training. In nonprofit organization these three components reinforce each other and add up to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Before examining the 70-20-10 strategy closer, it is important to describe what it is not. Robin Hoyle mentions that he has seen the 70-20-10 approach misrepresented in the following statements: 90 percent of learning is done on the job, it is how people naturally learn, the numbers do not matter at all, the 20 percent is done most effectively through Twitter and LinkedIn, and that since most learning is done on the job there is no need for training courses (Hoyle, Informal Learning in Organizations, 169).


A. 70 Percent Challenging Assignments

The on-the-job element of the 70-20-10 strategy is not simply doing one’s usual work but instead is “stretching” tasks and projects that provide the learner with new challenges and situations.

But, why 70 percent?

This is because “human beings retain information most effectively when they gain it in a practical context.”[ref]Kramer and Nayak, Nonprofit Leadership Development, 83[/ref] Or, as Andy Stanley has stated, “People learn on a need-to-know basis” (Andy Stanley, Deep and Wide, 69-85). Malphurs and Mancini inadvertently agree with the 70 percent principle advocating that “you can’t learn leadership by simply being in a classroom or a seminar. It’s best learned while you are involved ‘up to your elbows’ in ministry in which you can apply and evaluate classroom or seminary instruction” (Malphurs and Mancini, Building Leaders, 156). One testimony from a current leader supports the 70 percent idea, “I made some huge mistakes as a young leader, but at the same time, it’s how I learned – through trying, failing and trying again.”

B. 20 Percent Developmental Relationships

The 20 percent element of the 70-20-10 approach consists of conversations with coaches, peers, managers, role models, or experts. Kramer and Nayak believe, “Learning is even more powerful when the lessons of experience are reinforced through informal discussion with people who have performed similar work” (Kramer and Nayak, Nonprofit Leadership Development, 83). One of the benefits of 20 percent conversations is that conversations do not always have to be with a superior.

Hoyle states that the 20 percent time can best be spent with coaches “who are specially trained to assist individuals to look at their own goals, assess the landscape and the challenges and opportunities they face and then plan action” (Hoyle, Informal Learning in Organizations, 168). The most important part of the 20 percent is that the learners are discussing their learning needs and are planning how to adapt what they are learning to their work. This also includes honest conversations with the potential leaders about themselves, their strengths, and their weaknesses.

C. 10 Percent Coursework and Training

The 10 percent element of the 70-20-10 model is formal training. These are workshops, eLearning modules, and even training simulations. While only 10 percent is formal learning in the Center for Creative Leadership’s model, it does not devalue formal classroom learning. Instead, it sees formal learning as most valuable when it “supplies technical skills, theories, and explanations that apply directly to what is learned through experience—and when it is both valued and quickly integrated within the work environment.”[ref]Kramer and Nayak, Nonprofit Leadership Development, 83.[/ref]

D. 20 and 10 Combined

The 20 percent and 10 percent areas can take place in a variety of areas. For example, the Center for Creative Leadership has been exploring four distinct areas where these two can occur.

  • The first is feedback. This is honest feedback that a potential leader receives that helps improve performance.
  • The second is social media. This is a way that potential leaders can get connected with other leaders to gain expertise, build community, and function as a virtual water cooler.
  • The third are apps and mobile learning. These are performance support tools, job aids, learning “nuggets,” and effective examples. The key here is that an app can be used to quickly pull up learning material when it is needed (instead of being buried in a workbook on a shelf).
  • The fourth is massive open online courses (MOOCs). In this format thousands of people can explore ideas and solutions together. (For more on MOOCs see Hoyle, Informal Learning in Organizations, 137-157.)

While two of these methods of combining 20 and 10 are digital, Ron Rabin at the Center for Creative Leadership admits, “Blended learning for leadership isn’t just about technology or mixing classroom with online experiences. It’s not about social media or the latest trends that promise to transform learning forever. It’s about building, in a thoughtful, systematic way, a structure to enable and support how leaders learn best.”[ref]Rabin, Blended Learning for Leadership, 7.[/ref]


According to Kramer and Nayak, there are four steps to implement the 70-20-10 approach effectively in nonprofit organizations.

A. Cultivate Talent Champions

These are the managers who recognize the importance of developing the up-and-coming leaders. Talent champions take responsibility for preparing potential leaders for leadership positions in the future.

B. Identify the Organization’s Needs and Craft Development Opportunities

The next step is to identify ongoing activities that potential leaders can engage in as a way to develop new and needed competencies. These opportunities should involve four areas.

  • First is discomfort. Assignments should take potential leaders outside of their comfort zone and use skills that they have not yet perfected.
  • Second is accountability. Potential leaders should take responsibility for their assignments and take ownership of the results regardless of the positive or negative outcome.
  • Third is clarity. There should be a lesson that can be learned, and that lesson should be clear to the potential leader.
  • Fourth is relevance. Projects should teach potential leaders skills they need in their current roles.

C. Co-Create Individualized Development Plans

Managers must provide support and guidance for development plans, but potential leaders need to take the initiative to create and execute the plan. Kramer and Nayak suggest that the potential leader and manager meet twice a year to follow up on development plans.

D. Follow Through on Development Plans

What gets managed gets done. Therefore, senior level managers need to ensure that managers are checking in and encouraging potential leaders to fulfill their development plans.

By Christopher L. Scott

Christopher L. Scott serves as senior pastor at Lakeview Missionary Church in Moses Lake, Washington. Through his writing ministry more than 250,000 copies of his articles, devotions, and tracts are distributed each month through Christian publishers. Learn more at