The 70, 20, 10 Rule for Employee Development

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Promoting Skill Development of Your Human Resources

Employee development is a hot topic in today’s human resource and executive management circles.  Companies are investing more and more time and energy into building organizational strength through the capabilities of their employees.  It’s been said for some time that a company’s greatest asset is its people.  And now, firms have finally woken up to the fact that when their individual employees perform better, the better the organization can perform as a whole.  As a result, entire areas of study have emerged in things like talent management and organizational development.  To top it off, these specialties have been coupled with a major push for highly structured employee development programs across countless corporations.

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There are numerous ways to approach employee development in terms of structure and technique, but one of the most popular, and the one I find the easiest to both remember and apply is known as the 70, 20, 10 Rule.  This principle corresponds to the percent of time an employee should learn from on-the-job training (OJT), mentoring, and training, respectively.  The reason why the 70, 20, 10 Rule is so great is because it suggests that everything that our employees do as part of his or her job should offer some level of professional learning and skill growth.

Why Is Employee Development Important?

Before digging into the 70, 20, 10 Rule, let’s take a step back and talk about employee development in general.  All sorts of literature exists these days about the importance of hiring the best talent and establishing superiority through human capital.  So what is employee development?  Employee development is the emphasis placed on the learning and growth of your employees, which in turn leads to the lasting success of a small team or a large organization.  I will take this one step further and suggest that employee development helps a company establish a competitive advantage.  I will summarize what a strong emphasis on employee development will give you with three key points:

1.  The Ability to Create a Sustainable Organization: Unlike the decades in the past, today’s workforce seeks fulfillment, opportunity and personal growth.  They want careers, not jobs.  Translation: for most working professionals, it’s not just a job anymore.  If you as a manager are not providing for such things as learning opportunities, diversity of work and avenues for advancement, your employees are likely to take notice.  You are also at risk of a higher turnover rate – the frequency with which employees leave a company – because someone out there is willing to offer more, and invest in your employee more than you do.  By offering opportunities for growth, advancement and professional development, you can go a long way towards keeping your employees happy and from looking for jobs elsewhere.

2.  The Ability to Achieve Better Results:  I mentioned competitive advantage above.  To expand on this, when your employees are able to do more, through the bettering of their skills and capabilities, the more you can get done as an organization and the better the business performance will be overall.  Think about it.  Imagine you have an employee who is really good at in-depth data analysis, and another who is really skilled at taking complex information and making it simple.  Now, imagine what it would be like to have one employee with both sets of skills.  All packaged up in the same cubicle, at half the cost.  By actively encouraging and supporting the skill development of your human resources, you can help them become better, faster and more efficient at doing their jobs.  As I often tell clients, the best way to look at the value of skill development is to ask yourself how you would grow a fresh college graduate into an experienced 10-year employee after only 5 years.  How do you accelerate employees down the experience curve?  The answer, of course, is that you must give employees challenging assignments and a chance to learn and apply newly acquired skills.

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3.  The Ability to Attract Higher Calibre Talent: For the same reason that little kids aspire to become the next LeBron James, or the next Katy Perry, many working professionals aspire to work for the Googles, Facebooks and Ubers.  We all want to be the best at what we do.  We all want to be on a winning team and be among the best at something.   And for this reason, when your company earns the reputation of being people-focussed, best in class, and nothing but admired by outsiders, you will have the best applicants looking to join your team.   Talented employees know their worth, and will be selective in their search for employment.  You want to make the short list of their optimal employers.

Breaking Down the 70, 20, 10 Rule

So we have covered why employee development is so important to a company or organization.  Now, let’s look at how you can set up a system that makes it come to life – the 70, 20, 10 principle.  As mentioned above, the numbers correspond to the three main sources of an employee’s development.

The 70% of Employee Development – The largest and most significant piece of the 70, 20, 10 Rule is known as “On the Job Training.”  Simply put, the 70% is learning by doing and gaining knowledge through experience.  While this portion of development and growth is strictly due to the employee’s efforts and own self-learning, managers can actually play a significant role in maximizing the effectiveness of learning by doing.

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How?  As the manager, you should actively assign responsibilities to each employee to help him or her grow on a regular basis.  And given that on-the-job skill development represents 70% of an employee’s growth, the tasks given to employees should be as ripe for learning as possible.  For example, if you have a junior employee who has been in a supporting role for more experienced team members, perhaps you can offer the employee a more important role on the next project.  Similarly, if you happen to work in a long-cycle industry where projects can take several years from start to finish, ask one of your recent hires to help you with a new project proposal, so he or she can gain some insight into the whole project life cycle instead of waiting 5 years for one to evolve.  The best way to make the assignments valuable for the employee is to be very open that the activity is intended for them to learn.  If they go into it knowing it’s OK to ask questions and learn as they go, the whole experience will dramatically increase in value for both the manager and the employee.

The 20% of Employee Development –  The next component of the 70, 20, 10 Rule is employee development mentoring, coaching and feedback.  Teaching.  Mentoring and coaching employees is a fantastic and effective way to help them learn.  Afterall, as the manager and team leader, its your job to help them learn from mistakes, to share any observations and feedback you may have on their performance, and to help them learn from your knowledge and experience.  That’s why you’re the manager.  Effective coaching and mentoring should come naturally to the relationship, but does require that the manager deliberately spend some time not talking about tasks and projects.  Instead, deliberately focus some conversations on things like the goals, career paths and the ever-changing interests of the employee.

Mentoring and coaching should not be limited to prescheduled and highly structured employee-manager meetings, but rather be the norm for all interactions you have with your employees.  For example, when an employee asks a question or for your opinion on a matter, before offering your thoughts, ask your employee for their opinion and their reasoning first.  Guide them through their thoughts and help them arrive at a conclusion.  Then respond with your own opinion and rationale, which will help the employee gain a different perspective on the matter.

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The 10% of Employee Development – The last components of the 70, 20, 10 Rule is formal training.  Many managers frown on sending employees to formal training or seminars, as they are often seen as unproductive and unnecessary.  Further, when budgets are tight, spending money slated for training and development is often the first thing to go.  However, I happen to think that formal training – in the right context – is an excellent way to foster skill development of employees.  There are an abundance of topics and courses out there where employees can spend a few days or a week learning something completely new, in an environment away from office distractions like email and meetings.  Such courses and training offer less commitment (both financially and in terms of time) than advanced degree programs but can still offer the employee a chance to sharpen their leadership skills, explore an interest they rarely get exposure to in the office, or to simply learn a new software package.

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I recommend planning a portion of your budget to go towards external training for each employee, whether or not he or she chooses to pursue it.  For my employees, I request they alternate years between “hard skills” and “soft skills,” that is, if last year they went to a training class to help improve their skills with a certain piece of software, I would ask that this year they take the time to attend a seminar on project management, communication skills, or something along those lines.

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So there you have it.  The 70, 20, 10 Rule for skill development.  Sure, there are a variety of models and examples, but I have found this one to be very useful and practical in managing teams throughout my career.  Regardless of which model you follow, if any, the underlying key is that employee development is one of the most important responsibilities you have as a manager, and should remain at the forefront of your mind as you interact with your staff.  Doing so will help you create a winning team time and time again.

What tips do you have for helping employees learn and grow?


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  • Hassan

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge.
    I need some help here if possible.
    I have struggles and issues on development plan of employees. They have a lot of tasks and meetings and I have to make development plan for them and give more tasks ( based on 70 20 20 ) and they can’t or they don’t have time to do it or maybe they can’t manage their time. Also the competencies are to much but necessary. Besides the time is short.
    What should I do to manage and simplify the development plan? More practical.

    • Hi Hassan,
      Excellent question! You’re dealing with a common challenge shared by many managers. Essentially, your employees are very busy, and development activities always get deprioritized, or they simply don’t have time to get to it. Often times, you need to get creative with development plans, because time is always precious.

      Here are some thoughts for you:
      1. Since they are so busy, instead of giving them ‘additional’ development tasks on top of their duties, try to find opportunities for skill development in what they’re doing on a daily basis. For a simple example, if you want an employee to gain more international experience, assign them to a project with an international customer as opposed to having them work two different projects.
      2. Dedicate time for development – Asking employees to ‘fit a development task in’ is usually unsuccessful. For this reason, in the past I’ve actually scheduled one day a month for my staff to focus on their development assignments, and blocked calendars to prevent drop-in meetings.
      3. Instead of one large development assignment to focus on a given competency, try to do it in short bursts. I have an employee now whose leadership skills need to grow. Since I don’t have a project for him to take over at the moment, I instead ask him to step in and run meetings, sit in various discussions in which he is the expert, take actions to mentor junior staff, etc. So even though it’s not one single thing, over 6 months, he has had a number of opportunities to gain leadership experience.
      4. While we as managers want to see our staff grow, the reality is sometime our staff doesn’t want to grow (or doesn’t value it). They’d rather stick to their tasks. So, sometimes, you may find yourself in a position where it just feels forced. In this case, you can outline development assignments for an employee, but it is ultimately up to him or her to embrace it and make the effort.

      I do hope this helps!

      Tim G.
      The Managers Resource Handbook

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