Develop Your People Faster By Investing In Experiential Learning

“Any firm that can outperform its competition in building and creating skills will gain a significant competitive advantage.”

– David Maister, True Professionalism

As a friend of ConvergenceCoaching, you know we’ve spent the last decade writing and teaching about the BIG TRANSITION coming in our country. 78 million Baby Boomers – the youngest of which are turning 50 this year – will leave our workplace in the next 10-12 years and the time to develop leaders and successors is NOW.

In learning and development, there is a long-standing axiom called the 70-20-10 rule. It states that people learn 70% of their knowledge through experiential or on-the-job learning, 20% through one-on-one coaching, mentoring and guidance and 10% through traditional classroom or online training programs.

The trouble is, most firms don’t understand this rule and instead expect their learners to develop their skills in the exact opposite ways. Often, on-the-job training is delivered ad-hoc, without any forethought or structure. Universally, firms under-invest and under-estimate experiential learning and their people don’t progress at the pace that’s possible. In this article, we’ll explore the benefits of experiential learning and how to change your firm’s mindset to value this type of learning more than you do today. Then, in our Practice Perspectives article, we’ll explore eight tangible activities to provide more experiential learning opportunities to your up-and-comers.

When you shift your firm’s learning culture to emphasize on-the-job learning more than classroom or online learning, you’ll:

  • Develop skills more effectively – improving quality and efficiency
  • Reinforce learning they’re getting from other sources – knowing something is simply not the same as doing it! Your people can take our online Conflict course and learn some new methods for addressing performance issues. But that doesn’t mean they can have those conversations effectively until they’ve practiced and done a few! Having seniors and managers sit in on performance appraisals for staff they’ve supervised on jobs or having them sit in on a difficult conversation can progress their understanding and ability to have those conversations immensely
  • Progress your people more quickly – and for more firms time is of the essence!
  • Differentiate your firm from others who simply don’t pay attention to this – which can provide you a competitive advantage when recruiting
  • Demonstrate that you care about your people. When you allow your people to “ride along” on activities they’ve never experienced, like exposing tax staff to external client meetings or bringing an audit manager to a finance meeting with a banker, you show your interest in investing in them and they’ll feel – and reciprocate – your commitment

And, experiential learning doesn’t require a hard cost investment in an outside learning and development organization like ours. Your investment is the cost of planning and executing and most of the time, you’ll be bringing someone along on something you were going to do anyway!

Once you’re “sold” on the importance of experiential learning, the first step to shifting to a learning culture that values experiential learning almost above all other types of learning requires that you shift the mindset of your firm’s leaders. To make this cultural transition:

  • Forward this article and the Practice Perspectives article to your firm’s partners and learning leaders. Ask them to read both and schedule a “physical” or virtual meeting to discuss it
  • Identify one or more ways you can “pilot” professionalizing your experiential learning from the ideas in the Practice Perspectives article.
  • Choose a small number of firm leaders – managers, senior managers and partners – who are very good people developers or teachers. Work with them to develop a “curriculum” of experiential learning opportunities.
  • Identify a pilot group of staff, seniors, supervisors and/or managers to act as your first “intentional experiential learners.” We recommend these be some of your best and brightest, what we refer to as your “special sheep” in our Focus on Your Rising Stars newsletter, so that you can give them a “perk” and show that they are important to you.
  • Create a framework to consistently plan your experiential learning opportunities. The plan should define:
    • The “instructor”
    • The learners
    • The learning objective. For instance, you might want to deepen relationship building skills, or develop someone’s ability to address performance issues, or teach someone to scope and price a project in the proposal process
    • The experiential activity. If the objective is relationship building, the activity might be attending three different meetings with the “instructor” where you meet with a referral source, a client and a prospect
    • The supporting process. Perhaps the supporting process around this relationship experiential learning might be:
      • Instructor discusses the planned experiential learning with the learner to enroll them in participating
      • Instructor identifies the three meetings in which to include the learner
      • Instructor connects with referral source, client and prospect to ask if they are okay if they bring along a staff person to observe and learn. Instructor may encourage the referral source, client and prospect to do the same since they probably have up-and-comers to develop, too
      • Instructor sends meeting notice to the learner for each meeting
      • Instructor provides “pre-work” to the learner – perhaps reading the LinkedIn profiles, web site and firm files for each person ahead of the meeting and writing a brief synopsis of what they learned and what questions they might ask each person if they were leading the meeting
      • Instructor meets with the learner ahead of the meeting to review their pre-work, share what they know about each person and what their objectives for the meeting are and agree on the role the learner will take (quiet “shadow” observer, active participant, meeting leader, etc. – the more experienced the person and the more meetings they’ve been attending, the bigger the role)
      • Instructor and learner conduct the meetings
      • Instructor and learner debrief after the meetings. Instructor asks learner open-ended questions, “How did that go?” “What questions do you have about how the meeting progressed?” “What do you think our follow up actions or next steps should be?” “How do you feel about taking a more meaningful role in the meeting process next time?” “What did you learn and how do you feel about the experience?”
      • Instructor provides learner feedback. “Here’s what worked that you should keep doing. Here’s what didn’t work as well that you should refrain from doing next time. Here’s what I’d like you to start doing going forward.”
      • Instructor might also ask the learner to handle any post-meeting follow up – freeing the instructor up to do other things!
    • Evaluate your pilot process and then roll out a more formalized experiential component to your overall learning plans.
    • Identify those who will participate meaningfully as instructors and make them a formal part of your learning faculty.
    • Tie experiential learning to your leadership goals and compensation to make sure those who invest in the future capacity of your firm are rewarded for their efforts

Bring your people along faster and differentiate your firm from the rest. Invest in intentional experiential learning programs today!

For additional information on developing your future leaders, contact Jennifer Wilson at or (402) 933-2900.