Developing Emerging Leaders
– Effective Workplace Learning in Action

Albert Einstein once said, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”1

The classic guideline for developing leadership capability is the 70-20-10 ratio. This is a rule of thumb about how we learn professionally in three different ways:

  • 10% of learning comes through formal coursework and training.
  • 20% of learning comes from developmental relationships (peers, mentors, supervisors).
  • 70% of learning comes from challenging workplace assignments.

While this may appear to make sense it has proven difficult to apply in the context of professional development initiatives in the modern corporate environment.

With this in mind, The Colloquium Group developed some practical ways to put this 70-20-10 principle into effect, testing2 it in a large government department to encourage better managerial performance. This involved setting up stretch assignments designed to advance employees beyond their existing competency to new levels of professional development.

The Colloquium Group designed workplace learning experiences that involved being “stretched” in two directions: depth and breadth (Figure 1). Depth refers to increasing the level of responsibility, knowledge and intensity of work within an area of work already known, and breadth refers to broadening work outside of areas of usual work. Accordingly, depth increases intensity, and breadth broadens experience. The Colloquium Group found3 that not every on-the-job learning activity needs to stretch the learner in both these ways, the experiences with the highest impact most certainly involve both dimensions.

Figure 1. Stretch Learning Matrix

Figure 1. Stretch Learning Matrix

This approach encourages managers to “have a go” and this stimulates curiosity and adventure. The Colloquium Group found that the strongest motivational drivers in successful stretch learning are curiosity and adventure. Curiosity is the vehicle by which the open-minded travel to undiscovered countries, explore different possibilities, and make world-changing discoveries. Curiosity fuels imagination and wonder as we are stretched fearlessly into the unknown.

In this way, The Colloquium Group sought to engage learner curiosity to motivate work-based development experiences, as follows:

  • adding different challenges to their current set of responsibilities,
  • intentionally focusing on learning from one dimension of the work they are already doing, and/or
  • taking on a new role with new responsibilities.

To supplement the application of this model, The Colloquium Group developed4 a coaching framework: The Action Coaching Approach (Figure 2), where stretch goals are linked to an action learning cycle. Building on the work of Lewin5, Reg Revans6 popularised action learning as an industry-focused system to improve professional practice, where “the end of learning is action, not knowledge”.7 Action learning is a form of peer learning and disciplined inquiry,8 where a group of colleagues work on the real, live challenges they face.

Figure 2 - The Action Coaching Approach

Figure 2 – The Action Coaching Approach

The Action Coaching approach is built on iterative cycles of curious questions, usually in the form of the following: What did I plan to do? What action did I take? What did I observe? What are my reflections? Subsequently, the cycle repeats. There is considerable support in the literature for this cyclical process of action and reflection leading to further inquiry and action for change.9,10,11,12 The approach investigates reality in order to transform it13 and equally transforms reality in order to investigate it.14

Coaching is a very effective way of helping people engage in curious learning, as “learning must be equal to or greater than the rate of change”.15 In this way, coaching helps the learner remain ahead of the information gap they have.

By being stretched the typical manager experiences surprise, confusion and disorientation in new circumstances that are unique or uncertain. With coaching they do not get stuck and feel overwhelmed, curiosity kicks in to empower the exploration of possibilities. They experiment with practical solutions, testing and observing where the optimum results are found. Upon reflection a new depth of understanding16 is generated The new skills learned are usually transferrable and applicable to future situations.

These two models are heuristic and have proven useful in a variety of commercial and not-for-profit settings. This Action Coaching Approach, when used in conjunction with the Stretch Learning Matrix, employs the motivation underpinning curiosity and adventure by emphasising the following:

  • Learning through action.
  • A clear alignment of curious learning to the professional skills required of potential employers.
  • A focus on inquiry that is adaptive and useful.
  • An iterative approach where observation and reflection ignite action and learning.
  • The company gets improved individual performance and business outcomes quickly.
  • It is immediately useful as a reward for curious exploration and discovery.
  • Learning is challenging, and fun!

Both approaches are powered by curiosity as a strong motivating force to be unleashed by those teachers and leaders who wish to lead individuals on an adventure of learning and discovery.

Copyright © 2020 The Colloquium Group.

This is an adapted excerpt from the upcoming book: Savouring Life: The Leader’s Journey to Peak Performance By Stephen Smith, Murray Bingham, Catherine Kleemann, Anna Reznik and Carol Salvadori.

  1. Albert Einstein, Letter to Carl Seelig, March 11, 1952. Letter. Einstein Archives 39–013.
  2. S Smith and M Bingham, Report on Talent Management for BaptistCare: 70:20:10 Initiatives for Continuous Learning (Sydney: Robertson and Chang, 2016).
  3. Smith and Bingham, Report on Talent Management for BaptistCare
  4. Smith and Bingham, Report on Talent Management for BaptistCare
  5. K. Lewin, “Field Theory in Social Science: Selected Theoretical Papers,” ed. D. Cartwright (New York: Harper & Row, 1951).
  6. R W Revans, Action Learning: New Techniques for Management (London: Blond & Briggs, 1980).
  7. R Revans, Action Learning (Bromley: Chartwell Bratt, 1982).
  8. S Goff, J Gregg and K. May, “Participatory Action Research: Change Management in the ‘No Go’ Zone,” in Effective Change Management using Action Learning and Action Research, eds. S. Sankaran, B. Dick, R. Passfield and P. Swepson (Lismore, NSW: Southern Cross University Press, 2001).
  9. R.B. Burns, Introduction to Research Methods (Sydney: Addison Wesley Longman, 1996).
  10. D. Kolb, Experiential Learning (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1984).
  11. P. Parkin, Managing Change in Healthcare Using Action Research (London: Sage, 2009).
  12. R. Revans, Action Learning (Bromley: Chartwell Bratt, 1982).
  13. O Fals Borda, “Investigating Reality in Order to Transform it: The Colombian Experience,” Dialectical Anthropology 4 (1979): 33–55.
  14. S Kemmis, “Critical Theory and Participatory Action Research,” in The Sage Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice, eds. P. Reason and H. Bradbury (London: Sage, 2008).
  15. R. Revans, Action Learning (Bromley: Chartwell Bratt, 1982).
  16. Edgar Schon, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (Cambridge: Basic Books, 1983), 68.