Mintzberg, 70:20:10, and Leadership (and Management) Development (Phil LeNir) - Guest Blog

Years ago, when I was a young engineering director, I made the acquaintance of Professor Henry Mintzberg (see Mintzberg on Management). He is one of the classic management thinkers, like Drucker and Handy. He has plenty to say about numerous aspects of management but the area of particular interest to me is on how managers get better at their practice of management and how we can help them do this.

Henry Mintzberg is most known for his studies of working managers:

“…I studied managers and what did I say in my first book (The Nature of Managerial Work, 1973) that got the most attention; that managers are interrupted a lot, that it’s a very action oriented thing. That was patently obvious to anybody who ever managed, or spent a day observing a manager. So what makes me so special? Nothing, I just wrote it down, that’s all. … I said: ‘Gee, it’s not what everybody says. This is not planning, organizing, coordinating and controlling, to take the most popular words to describe management. This is about getting interrupted, and trying to keep your head above water.’ And everyone said, ‘Wow… geez… so fantastic…’. (See: Mintzberg on Management).

Some 25 years after he first begun studying managers, Professor Mintzberg came to a powerful conclusion on how managers get better at their job based on his real world understanding of what managers actually do. He articulated this in his book Managers not MBAs (2003): “Thoughtful reflection on natural experience, in the light of conceptual ideas, is the most powerful tool we have for management learning.”

A growing number MBA and EMBA programs are adopting Professor Mintzberg’s methodology, displacing the dominant lecture or case study method. Even Nitin Nohria, the new Dean of Harvard Business School (the bastion of the case study method) is moving through with radical change in the way young MBAs are developed. The new focus is on helping young managers learn through reflection on their experience.

I began experimenting with the application of Mintzberg’s ideas while I was that young engineering director looking for a way to develop myself and my team in the midst of the meltdown of the early 2000s. I began bringing my management team together on a regular basis for learning meetings. I modified the course material and lecture PowerPoints supplied by Professor Mintzberg and his colleagues to guide 90 minutes of reflection and discussion. These “topics” gave us the pedagogy, Professor Mintzberg gave us the experiential reflective approach, and doing this together as a team made the learning happen.

Many years later I stumbled across the 70:20:10 framework (through Jay Cross and Charles Jennings). I quickly realized that Mintzberg’s approach fit squarely within the 70:20:10 framework. It integrated reflection, the power of social learning, and allowed participants to contextualize their experiences through structured knowledge. Mintzberg’s approach to leadership development encompassed all of 70:20:10 in one. This is in contrast to many current methodologies that seem to put learning activities into 70, 20 or 10 “buckets”.

In 2007, Henry Mintzberg and I co-founded the company, CoachingOurselves. We brought Mintzberg’s approach to the enterprise learning space by working with leading management thinkers to provide topics, the themed discussion workbooks.  Management teams use these during 90-minute discussion and reflection “meetings”.  L&OD piece these together to deliver interventions and programs that solve the classic needs (“I need to develop a culture of innovation”, “I need a high potential leadership program”, “I need to deal with our engagement challenges”), but in a balanced 70:20:10 approach. In 2012, we had over 10,000 managers in 130 organizations using our topics.

The results have been beyond my initial expectations, but not without difficulties and surprises. The hardest challenge is changing the dominant L&OD mindset with the organization. Even when the HR team believes in 70:20:10 or the CEO is a big Mintzberg fan, it sometimes takes months, even years, before this very different approach can be embedded into a new initiative, piloted, and launched.


Phil LeNir, is president of CoachingOurselves. The company offers a novel approach to developing leaders and transforming organizations based on 70:20:10. There are no lectures or disconnects from the workplace, just groups of managers developing together using tools created by more than 40 leading management thinkers. The company was founded with Henry Mintzberg in 2007.

Phil has delivered numerous speeches on their unique approach in Canada, Europe and Asia. Prior to CoachingOurselves, Phil occupied senior management positions in companies such as Nuance, SpeechWorks and Systemcorp during which he addressed the challenges of mergers, rapid growth and the dotcom crash.

Phil holds a Masters of Management and Honors Engineering degree from McGill University in Canada.