The 70:20:10 to Leadership Development

Date:   Friday , December 15, 2006

Last week my 12-year old daughter returned from school, as thrilled with herself as a Cheshire cat. The reason – she had just been awarded the equivalent of the “student of the month” award. She roamed the whole day with the badge pinned in a manner that made it most visible. Finally, she went to sleep with it under her pillow. As I saw her smile in her sleep, what struck me was the power of being identified as someone SPECIAL. It meant no medals, no prizes, but the fact that one is recognized can do wonders.

The same is equally true of all organizations and employees. Many organizations have ways of identifying their Key Talent. These would typically form the top 15 to 20 percent of its employees at different levels. The first challenge is in the process of selection itself. Very often, any such effort is a double-edged sword with those not selected, questioning the credibility of the selection process. Therefore absolute transparency is required, where all are aware of what Key Talent means, the process of selection, the efforts and objectivity built in to ensure that only the best of the best get selected.

The next big challenge is in terms of what we do for these high fliers. I have heard of many instances where the fact that one is identified as Key Talent is the prize itself. In some organizations, this may lead to a training program at a city of your liking or a course that you have been asking for. Sure, any such effort will have its benefits but the question that remains is, “Is that sufficient investment in my highest performing employees. Does it help with “longer-term” change?

One of the ways of developing employees—whether Key Talent or not—is by giving them a wholesome experience of development. It can’t be a two or three days of classroom training but a program which pushes the employee to greater heights. Such a program would need to include a conceptual base, opportunity to practice and ample support from senior managers. The reason for this is quite simple.

Learning happens when the person gets new concepts or clarity on existing ones. These will only remain theoretical inputs unless the employee learns to use them. Therefore what is required is creating relevant opportunities for the person to experiment with the new learning and try putting it into practice. As the employee works through the assignment, there are various challenges that he or she faces and woven in them are learnings, which no classroom session can teach.

What can make the assignment more worthwhile is the availability of experienced mentors who can share their wealth of learning based on their past success and failures. This, in short is known as the 70:20:10 methodology. What this simply means is that 70 percent of our learning happens through actual work/assignments, 20 percent learning happens through others and 10 percent learning through formal training.

The 70:20:10 rule is something we at Dell have used and benefited from. All our Key Talent programs thrive on it and the results have been great, both in terms of talent retention and creating a leadership pipeline from within. Each of these programs ranges from 6 to 12 months. The emphasis is on assignments that help the candidate acquire knowledge and skills that they would require in the future. Each candidate also has a mentor to work with and is provided various opportunities to learn from senior leaders. This could be in the form of talks, one on ones and feedback sessions and reviews. The program is also interspersed with training programs to provide the inputs where required.
Let’s look at Naveen, as a case in point. A highly driven performer, with an enviable track record of turning around poorly performing teams, Naveen struggled to make an impression in a boardroom situation. In Dell’s terminology, he needed to work on his ‘Command Skills’ and ‘Boardroom Presence’. A diagnosis of his ‘Development Gap’ was made via robust diagnostic tools including an opportunity to interact with senior leadership, get quizzed and taking time out to reflect on his strengths and gaps.

Once a consensual development plan was put in place, bridging the gap, Naveen attended a 3-day classroom training, on ‘Business Articulation Skills’. But, his learning did not end there. We, by conscious design, made available to him copious ‘on-the-job’ forum for practicing his newly acquired skill. To keep the rigor going, we also organized for Naveen, a coach, who acted as the whetting stone, chiseling away those tiny aberrations and getting out the sheen. In few months’ time, Naveen emerged as a confident boardroom speaker.

What strikes me about the talent management process at Dell is the Senior Leadership’s commitment towards its key resources. It has been this single-minded focus towards identifying and grooming the high potential folks that holds us in good stead as we face this decade’s biggest corporate differentiator – the People.

The author is the Director, Learning & Development, Dell International Services. India. He can be reached at