February 15, 2021
A long-held belief holds that managers acquire the lion’s share of their management and leadership skills from their on-the-job experience. In the HR community, there is a widespread belief that 70% of a leader’s skills come from work experience, 20% come from coaching from their manager and others, and 10% comes from formal development activities. It sounds good. But is it true? Do leaders improve with age and time on the job?
My colleague, Joe Folkman, and I turned to our database of 360-degree feedback instruments to discover if leaders improve with age. We selected a group of 58,959 leaders for whom we have demographic data. We broke them into four age groups to see if it is indeed the older leaders who are perceived as being more effective compared to their younger counterparts. We further refined our analysis by examining those people who were currently in:
The graph below shows what we found—the effectiveness of leaders in general actually declines as they age. This totally contradicts the long-held assumption that leaders learn from their work and experience in their position.
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We extract two essential conclusions from this.
It should be a shocking dose of reality for C-suite and HR executives to suddenly realize that what they thought was supplying 70% of the development for executives and managers is having no effect at all. Logic would argue that attention would shift to the role of coaching and mentoring as the next primary source for development. The challenge is that the coaching solution counts on the very group who do not appear to be practicing much self-development, and it is generally acknowledged that the higher you move in the hierarchy, the less likely you are to receive coaching from an internal source.
How Some Escape
We have been talking about statistical averages and the plight of leaders as if they were one group. The good news is that within each one of these age categories, broken out by levels in the management hierarchy, people are achieving very high scores. We continue to believe that focusing on these groups and helping all leaders understand what they do differently has great promise. We can help everyone to identify these behaviors and deliberately learn to behave that way. We can escape what would appear to be a destiny of mediocrity.
Every leader’s current position can be used as a highly effective classroom in which to learn. It can be a vibrant laboratory in which to experiment. However, it requires deliberate action. Here are a few that we would recommend in order to help leaders improve with age:
It is time to jettison the old 70/20/10 rule of thumb about the sources of leadership development.
There is no evidence that leaders get better simply by having more miles on the road. The opposite is true leaders don’t improve with age. Rather than getting better, there is a slow decline. Something dramatic is required to break out of the rut. A few people have the discipline to wind their own mainspring and continuously improve. But the great majority of leaders do not. To all readers, I implore you to consider these simple questions. What is your personal plan for becoming a better leader? On a scale of 1 to 10, what is your level of commitment to that plan? What grade would you give yourself about the progress you’ve made in the last year?
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Learn more about Zenger Folkman’s 360-Degree Assessments and leadership development workshops. Register for this month’s leadership webinar hosted by Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman.
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