Downshifting: Managing the S-Shaped Curve of Learning

This blog is about downshifting, the practice of taking a step down to relaunch one’s career or learning. It’s a difficult part of a long career.

The Piano Player

When I studied the piano, a long time ago, I had several times the experience of reaching a “plateau”. Suddenly I did not progress anymore. This happens a lot and certainly not only in the world of music. Also athletes, artists, business people and everyone who is executing a human activity and wants to become good at it.
Back to the piano. Someone who starts to play the piano, can get to a certain level very fast. They can play simple tunes, with two hands. But to leave the level of the simple tunes and go to the first simple pieces of classical composers, they need to put effort into it. And even with the effort, it’s possible that there is no significant progression? How come?

We can answer this question by looking at learning as increasing performance (or ability) over time. This is sometimes called the S-shaped curve of learning.

The S-Shaped Curve

The Theory of the S-Shaped curve (a sigmoid) of human growth states that learning occurs in certain phases. When learning a skill, people usually start at level 0. They will first start out slowly. They they enter a phase of fast progression. They add skills and the progress is exponential. At a certain moment progress gets at speed there is a steady evolution, followed by a period of slower evolution. To finally reach the top of the evolution. This is the “plateau”, the experience that growth is over.
S-Shaped Curve
This is an interesting moment because there are 3 options:

  • one can maintain the level of performance at the current level (maintain)
  • one can regress (fall)
  • one can find a new S-shaped Curve, which means that the exponential growth starts all over again (reboot).

When a piano player reaches the level of stagnation, it is even kind of risky to continue practicing. It is not unlikely that the techniques will be spoiled by sloppiness. That’s the free fall moment. And once the technique has become less pure or disciplined, it’s very difficult to unlearn. Doing more of the same is not always the best idea. At first people become better at it, but after a while they can stop learning or learning some bad habits. And we all know what that means.
This so called sigmoid growth curve has been used to explain many dynamic processes, like innovation, learning, …It’s only one of the possible descriptions of a learning curve. It has been observed in many instances of learning, like language acquisition. Even when this is an ideal model of learning, it’s interesting to consider this model when thinking about careers or even life-span development. .

How to Relaunch Growth?

So, once on a plateau, the piano player should find new ways of progressing to get into another S-Shaped Curve. There are many options:

  1. change the instrument.
  2. do a master class with another teacher.
  3. change the music, find new exercises and pieces.
  4. unlearn bad habits, find new techniques and get feedback on them.
  5. change the teacher.
  6. stop playing and find another instrument.

Some of these are drastic, others are more feasible. But there is always a sense of downshifting. Downshifting is the act of leaving known territory to learn new things. It requires that people abandon their job, their role, their status, their accumulated prerogatives. Downshifting is a painful process that many people avoid.
The French call it “reculer pour mieux sauter”. 
You could compare it to shifting gears when your car is climbing a slope. You have to shift down in order to conquer the mountain.

You have to shift down in order to conquer the mountain.


We are all like a piano player. At a certain moment we find ourselves at a level of stagnation. And then we need to decide what to do.

  • Shall we try and maintain our level of competence? That is risky, because it’s likely that we will be overtaken by changes which will make our competencies obsolete anyway. It’s important to understand why we do this.
  • Shall we allow ourselves to fall down? That’s a recipe for failure.
  • Shall we try and relaunch ourselves into a new phase of development. That’s the only way to succeed. But this requires career disruption and downshifting.

Downshifting is always painful. Like I have described in another blog, people stay in a job for the wrong reasons. Even when people are aware that the job is no longer suited, they stay, for convenience, for comfort, for the money, out of fear. The psychology of loss (I know what I have, but don’t know what I’ll get) plays an important role.
We should get rid of the idea that a career should be linear and continuous. If we are to prolong our careers (as we live longer), we need to build in disruptions, moments of dowshifting. A plateau is always an opportunity to learn, to progress and to develop one’s employability. It’s not by doing the same over and over, that people will develop employability in the long run.

Future Self

As downshifting is so hard to do, people need to develop a concept of what their future will or might be, an attractive concept of themselves in the future. Alternatively one could also develop a disastrous concept of the future: if I don’t change I will end up …
Building a future self is extremely difficult. People are usually unable to do so. But it helps to think in scenarios. What if I stay in this job? What could I do if my employer goes bankrupt? What is my alternative? Can I develop skills that are transferable to other industries, jobs, activities? What do I want to do when I retire? Do I have a plan B? What happens when I stay?
As it is very difficult for people to see themselves in the future, there are very few disruptions in careers. And even less moments of downshifting. People tend do to the same, more of the same, or the same but better. But as we live longer, more of the same is not the right strategy. The risk is that the same will not exist anymore.
I can only advise people to change regularly. It’s the only option to stay agile and versatile. Mobility within the organisation or between organisations or roles is a good thing. It avoids reaching a plateau. It launches growth and enables people to use their potential. But when that plateau is reached anyway, we should take heed.
For people who are in a mono-job career like medical doctors, teachers, nurses, police officers, … it’s more difficult to imagine a different future. They have invested heavily in studies to become what they are today. But even in these positions there are possibilities: changing the employer, changing the country, adding something new, retraining, going for managerial responsibilities, … There is always something that is possible to make sure you can reboot the s-shaped curve and to avoid falling down.

Downshifting helps to avoid falling down.


6 Pathways for Lifelong learning in a VUCA World.

Lifelong Learning is essential in a VUCA World. The @weforum has published a white paper on it. Here are 6 Pathways for lifelong learning for individuals.
Lifelong Learning

Learning Does not Stop When the School Finishes

Learning does not stop when school finishes. That’s the sentence the OECD PIAAC video ends with. The video shows how the skill acquisition (maths and reading) is changing in the world. The US and the UK seem to bellowing ground. Countries like Japan, Finland, the Netherlands and South Korea are either maintaining their level or they are progressing.

Skills are important to an economy. Talent is the raw material for future economies. In a digital world we need to invest both in education of young people and in retraining ageing people. If not there will be a divide between the educated and the non-educated.

Arguments for Lifelong Learning

To build a sustainable society we must make sure that people get education. They should be able and willing to learn and develop throughout their life-span. This is not new in itself. But there are two fundamental reasons why this has become more pressing than ever:

  1. the rate of change, and digital change in particular is dazzling.
    Industries are disrupted and new ways of working and living appear. The changes are challenging the traditional industrial way of working. We seem to be returning – maybe slowly – towards a talent market that is no longer solely based on employment contracts and job tenure, but on entrepreneurship and agility.
    The value of a degree is quite limited. Skills and especially knowledge have the tendency to become obsolete very fast. Jobs that we know today, will not exist in the future. They will disappear faster than in the past. So we have a choice. We can all become Luddites and try and stop these changes. Or, we can embrace them and tackle them through lifelong learning.
  2. We will live longer.
    So we will have to provide for ourselves longer than ever before. If the 100 year Life is to become a reality, we need to increase the productive hours. There are two reasons for this.
    First, pension schemes are under financed and cannot support pensions of 30-40 years.
    Second, we might see careers of 50 to 60 years. Are we able to do the same job during 6 decades? I don’t think so. We are not the Rolling Stones. The social, emotional, physical and mental challenges that we will have are tremendous. Andrew Scott and Lynda Gratton have given us these insights in their splendid book ‘The 100 year Life‘.This means that we will have to learn and unlearn continuous. It also means that we might have to develop 2 or 3 career orientations in our lifetime.

Is Lifelong Learning a Fact or a Desire?

Having multiple career orientations requires lifelong learning. But today I fear there is no common understanding of the need to engage in lifelong learning behaviour.
When I ask people if they have a plan B, an alternative route towards the future, most people reply that they don’t. But if you ask people what they would like to do when they would have to leave their current job, they do have an idea.
Most people do not invest (personal) time in learning. They do follow courses, but usually in the context of their current job. They want to keep up or become better in what they do today. In itself that is very honourable. But it might be not enough if digitization and longevity force us to reinvent ourselves continuously.
The World Economic Forum states in its recent report on Accelerating Workforce Reskilling for the Fourth Industrial Revolution that

Despite the growing need for adult reskilling, opportunities for broad-based and inclusive reskilling are currently not available at the appropriate levels of access, quality and scale of supply in most countries.

Progress has been made in the access to greater amounts of low-cost digital training across many countries; but a cohesive system which addresses the diverse needs of learners, dedicates sufficient resources, and brings together the right stakeholders in providing applied learning opportunities is still lacking.

These are harsh words. Especially the difficulty that low-skilled and elderly people have to pursue a path of continuous learning is troublesome. Like it’s often  the case, programs of reskilling do not reach those who need it the most. People who have the habit of learning will find their way faster towards new and old learning platforms. MOOCS provide a tremendous source for learning, but are not reaching all levels and segments of the talent market.
But there is no excuse for not knowing and not learning. In a VUCA world only the ones who are able to learn and apply their skills in a creative and connected way will succeed. The future is bright for those who can evolve throughout their entire career and life.

Pathways for Change

Should we then be pessimistic? The WEF report says that the coming (or arriving?) 4th industrial revolution brings also opportunities. It identifies 10 pathways for change.

  1. Take Stock and Recognise Existing Skills
  2. Understand Skills Demand
  3. Adopt the Right Mix of Financing Instruments
  4. Build and sustain motivation for adult learning through active labour market policies and accessible resources
  5. Create shorter learning modules that foster continued learning
  6. Determine the role of different stakeholders
  7. Recognize and promote on-the-job training opportunities and maximize informal learning opportunities
  8. Reach those that need it most—SMEs, lower-skilled workers and older workers
  9. Customized teaching for adults
  10. Harness the power and scalability of blended off-line and online learning, enhanced with virtual and augmented reality when relevant

These pathways have been identified on country level. And the report provides examples of actions for governments, companies, unions and institutions. But if you look at them, you can apply some of them on individual level. So I’d like to add some ideas for individuals to increase their employability through lifelong learning. Here are the 6 pathways for Lifelong Learning.
Lifelong Learning

Shared Responsibility

Fact is that lifelong learning is not common enough. It is a shared responsibility. Governments and organizations should create contexts where learning is easy, affordable and safe. Schools should focus on learning skills. Individuals should spend personal time in learning and be proactive.
In a VUCA World, learning is the greatest skill to have. And the increasing digitization offers opportunities to embed learning in daily life. Maybe, it’s now or never for lifelong learning. These 6 Pathways might help people to create their personal lifelong learning strategy. I will come back to these 6 Pathways in a next blog.

Your Last Training Course

Imagine that you are allowed to follow one last training course. For the rest of your life there will be no training course after this one. There are no limits in terms of costs, location or content. You are free to choose. Which training course would you choose as your last one?
It’s a difficult question. Comparable to your last supper, your last wish, your last lecture, your last trip. But I’m not being morbid. I guess you are not dying, and even if you were, the question could be relevant. Anyway, the question is important enough to think about it.

Choosing Your Last Training Course

What would your selection criteria be?

  1. A training course that would boost your chances on the labor market? Maybe you’d go for an expensive training at a business school of high reputation.
  2. A training course that would give you that new skill you’ve always wanted but you did not get it?
  3. A training course that gives you the ultimate insight in the secrets of life, humanity, …

Your choice probably depends on the stage of your life. If you’re in the early stages of your career you might opt for the first category. If you’re in the middle you might opt for the second choice. And if you’re  in the later stage of life you might go for the third.
However, people in the later stage might wish  that they had the third kind of training course or learning experience much earlier in their career. Indeed, we seem to focus on content and knowledge when we pick our learning experiences. We think that this will get us further. And indeed. In the early stages of our career we are supposed to provide expert knowledge. However, we might benefit more from the third option if we would get this kind of input much earlier.
Because of our focus on knowledge we risk to get stuck in a one-way street. Training has often a tunnel effect. We build on what we have learned before. But it’s very often more of the same. Building knowledge might even create biases. And this kills deep learning.

Training Is Not Learning

I asked about your last training course. But even if there is no training after this one, you can continue learning. So the choice of this training could be oriented towards that learning: learning how to learn. Could there be a training course that opens your mind so much that you draw in knowledge, experience, evolution. What kind of mind boggling training would that be?
It would be a training course that probably erases your acquired biases. These are filters in your observation and learning that hide novelty from you. They protect you from anxiety, uncertainty but they freeze your evolution. Biases lead to confirmation of what you know or prefer and they reject anything that is confusing. So maybe there is a training course around that erases these biases and makes your mind so open it is almost dazzling.

Human Deep Learning

Your last training course must make all further formal training not needed. It’s a training course that boosts your curiosity, your drive to learn. The training enables you to learn deeply. I strongly believe that deep learning is not only something for a machine. Deep learning is for humans as well. But it’s a skill that we do not develop. Or we lose it. And our education system does not launch pupils into deep learning, but rather into biased skills acquisition.
Your last training course will launch you into the deepest learning possible. Would you go for that?
Choose wisely.

No Excuse for not Knowing, and for not Learning.

70-20-10 Learning

Although the 70-20-10 model for learning and development of Morgan McCall and his colleagues has been under discussion recently, I’ve always found it a useful framework. The model illustrates clearly that training can take different forms. It states that we learn roughly 70% from on-the-job experiences, 20% from other people and 10% from courses and reading.
And that last part has changed dramatically!

Learning Resources

Learning resources are no longer scarce. The time that this kind of learning took only place in a classroom setting is far behind us. And although classroom training still has its valuable applications, the Internet, portables, mobile devices, content commons, collaborative platforms, and so on make learning possible anywhere at any time. With the Internet there is almost no excuse for not knowing. There is almost no excuse for not learning. Of course we assume you have internet access and basic physical and social needs are satisfied. Those who are driven to learn can find many ways to learn.
Two years ago ago I started experimenting with digital audio recording technology (i.e. DAW – Digital Audio Workstations). First with Steinberg’s Cubase and now with Ableton Live. Both software programs are loaded with tons of features and possibilities. With no advanced knowledge I started learning step-by-step by watching YouTube instructional videos made by people ranging from semi-professionals up to – and most of the time – just very enthusiastic users and musicians. For the few very specific technical problems that I met, the different user fora brought a solution. It’s amazing and admirable how many people like to share their knowledge. OK, for some it’s part of their personal branding strategy, but you really see a lot of enthusiastic people just sharing their knowledge.

Learn, unlearn, relearn.

In our Western society, working on one’s employability has become a continuous occupation. Alvin Toffler already forecasted this in 1970(!): “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”.
Bass players have their particular way to formulate this. Bass player and music teacher Ed Friedland nicely said: “I’m still learning new things every time I play. When you reach the top of one mountain, you can clearly see the other mountains that lie ahead”. Or bass player Charley Sabatino answering the question “What are your musical goals?” in the BassPlayer Magazine of July 2014 with “To continue to play, grow, and explore until 45 minute after they bury me.”
Speaking about a drive to learn …. If you are doing what you love, who cares? Mastery is about loving the process and the journey, not the ultimate goal.
See also on


Johari reveals your blind Spots.

About the Unknown

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.

Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary of Defence.

Donald Rumsfeld said this during a press conference. I believe it was about the war in Iraq. I don’t know if he was aware about it, but with this quote he played with a framework that I like:  The “Johari Window”.

 The Johari Window

The Johari window is a technique created in 1955 by Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham. It helps people to better understand themselves and their relationship with others. It was Charles Handy who called this concept the Johari House (Johari: Jo + Hari, parts of names of the developers) with four rooms.

  • The Arena is the part of ourselves that we see and others see.
  • The Blind spot contains the aspects that others see but we are not aware of.
  • The unknown is the unconscious part of us and is seen by neither ourselves nor others.
  • The Façade is our private space, which we know but keep from others.

And if we translate these house and rooms into a window, it looks like this
Johari Window


I use it to confront people and help them to accept and understand the “blind spot”. This is an area of things you do without having a clue. And for others it’s very clear.
Or what to think about the “unkown” area. Here are the things that do exist in the relation between you and the others, without anyone consciously knowing about them. That’s pretty scary if you ask me.
The other parts are more conventional. Things that are clear for everybody in the “arena”.
Things you consciously choose not to show or share with others. So you are the only one to know the and you choose to keep them behind your “façade”.


What is the purpose of using this tool ? I sometimes use it during feedback exercises.
I start such a session with an “empty” Johari window. Ideally, during the conversation chemistry rises and there is trust. On those moments, my interlocutor and I may get inspired and we are willing to “open up” more than in usual circumstances.
That is generally the moment where the Johari window is really inviting to share with each other:

1. Feedback

Feedback about what is clear for you about the other, but what may not (yet) be clear for the other. This will certainly help the other to become more aware and develop on those blind spots.
“You really talk a lot… If there is one hour available, you talk 50 minutes in general”
“Really… Good lord… I was not aware about that, thank you…”

 2. The things you’ve always chosen to hide.

You should never feel obliged to share the things you’ve always chosen to hide and certainly when it’s about your private life. But a moment may arrive when it feels as the right thing to do. Then you’ll share things you’ve never shared before with that person. Not only as a token of strong trust,  but much more because it simply feels as the right thing to do, on those moments.
“Well, I have never shared this with anyone here before, but the reason I have difficulty in dealing with people having a lack of patience, is because my ex-husband was like that as well. And the divorce has been quite painful, and still is… So it’s certainly not an excuse, but you may understand my behavior better now… I am sorry”
“Oh no need to apologize, thank you for the trust. This must be difficult for you… And yes, this will make life easier, by at least understanding the cause…”

3. Anything else ?

Any other concerns, impressions, convictions, emotions or observations that come on the table. They may stimulate awareness on the things you and your interlocutor do not know consciously about. But that have impact on the relation or collaboration between the both of you.
“I am not exactly sure why, but it seems like every time we talk about the branding of the new product, we get distracted… we never make an action list, we never succeed to focus…”
“Yes, indeed, now that you mention it… That is true, indeed… And yes, why is a good question… I don’t know… Are we believing enough in this new product ourselves ? We all said yes in the meeting, but we had a lot of discussion before that… I thought we had that behind us, but perhaps, we haven’t yet… I am not sure”
“Oh, glad we you have the same impression… At least we can talk about it now more openly and perhaps find out the real issue sooner or later”


My suggestion is to actively invite each other to discuss these kind of topics. To make use of the Johari window. By filling it in together, and by repeating this exercise at regular moments, you will visualise and achieve a great evolution. Topics that were once all closed and unknown are now much more open. You are aware and invited to explore further.
This movie clearly explains once more.


Learning coaches are not life coaches


Learning Coaches ?

I am working for an organization that wants some of its employees grow into learning coaches. The ambition is to generate a pool of them. These learning coaches will help to develop

  • the learning processes of their colleagues and of some external partners;
  • a learning culture, simply by starting to coach learning processes.

Logical Levels

This week I explained the Logical Levels of Robert Dilts to them. I love to work with this framework. I think it:

  • represents in a comprehensive way, a complex environment of aspects such as identity, mission, values and behaviours.
  • clearly distinguishes single loop versus double loop coaching.

Learning, and the Logical Levels of Robert Dilts
Learning, and the Logical Levels of Robert Dilts

Let me briefly explain that. Single loop coaching requires coachees to profoundly reflect on the “what” and “how” of questioned areas. Double loop coaching requires reflection on the “why”, the purpose and drivers of the “what” and “how”. Sometimes double loop level is also called the meta level: the why of the what and how.
When I explained this topic, a participant asked a very interesting and prompt question:

“This is very fine, Karl, but are we as learning coaches even supposed to discuss these “heavy” topics with the coachee ? I do not feel comfortable to question someone’s mission on earth, you know… Shouldn’t we just keep it to learning.”

I could have thanked the Gods for that question. Let me try to share some parts of my answer.
When your coaching role is clearly devoted to the challenges your coachee has with learning, you should stick to that role.  Then you are a coach for the learning process of the coachee.
The way coachees learn, as for all other things in life, is not isolated. It is part of their entire life. It’s not only about the skills they (do not) develop, about the what and how of their learning. It’s also about why they learn something. What is their purpose of their learning ? How does it fit into their personal mission?


You are a learning coach. You have observed that your coachee seems to struggle with excel.  In spite of the fact (s)he has already done a few trainings and has practiced a lot, there is no progress.
Lately (s)he has come to you to share concerns about the own learning and lack of progress made in excel.
A question could be: What precisely is difficult for you in Excel ?
An answer could be: Well every time Nadia is trying to explain me to make macros, she gets nervous if I don’t understand or do it quickly enough. And it has come so far now that I do not dare to go and ask her anymore…
A new question could be: I hear two things now: excel and Nadia… How do you want to continue?
An answer could be: Well if Nadia would just have a little more patience, I could ask all I want to ask and make progress.
Question: I hear you say you need a bit more patience from Nadia. How do you deal with teachers lacking patience, more in general, when you try to learn something?
An answer: I hate people not having patience. It reminds me of a my ex. (S)he was even worse. I am sorry, I simply cannot stand that. Should I even be telling this?
Question: You may tell, if you like so, and I will listen. We will certainly try to understand the impact of that situation on your today’s learning. Because that’s the purpose here.


The coachee is not talking about excel anymore. (S)he will very soon start talking about very personal and perhaps painful aspects of the private life.  The coachee’s values will certainly be part of that. His/her mission may even come in.

Critical part for the coach

As a learning coach it is critical:

  • not to follow the coachee in the content of the “new” story.
  • however to listen extremely carefully to it.
  • to interpret it taking a learning perspective. What elements about the ex and about patience could be relevant for the coachee’s learning process ?
  • to share your interpretation with the coachee.
  • to ask the coachee if it’s correct and to confirm or correct if needed.
  • to go ahead then based on a validated summary of all you’ve heard. What impact does all this have on the way you learn today from people with a lack of patience ?

Connecting the why with the what/how

At this stage you’ve connected the deeper why of the excel problem (the why had no link with Excel) with the what and the how (failing to make progress in Excel). You’ve done that without going in detail on the content of that deeper why. You’ve only listened and summarized. Your next question did not go further on the why. It made the coachee turn back to the what and the how.
Learning coaches should only be interested in the learning process of the coachee.  That is how learning coaches can work with the logical levels on double loop level without going into the detail of certain topics. Doing so would lead the coachee very far away from the learning purpose.


The participant seemed to understand my answer. As matter of fact the entire group was very silent all of a sudden. I asked if they were ok. Yes they were, but it was clear that the introduction into double loop coaching and these levels, had opened a new perspective and awareness for them.
Some eyes started to shine as if they were saying: “Why haven’t I seen this earlier ?” It’s the power of coaching.
This video shows an excellent summary of the Logical Levels

Entrepreneur vs Employee

entrepeneurAre you an entrepreneur ?

I remember the day I applied for an HR Services Manager role in a FMCG firm. That was 13 years ago. This blog tries to bring that memory back to life.
The notion of entrepreneur was apparently very important to my future boss.
The what?”, I asked.
That is already a good sign”, he replied. “You ask what it’s about. Most candidates do not. They simply nod their heads. I often get clichés or some examples when I ask what it means for them to be an entrepreneur.”
So I repeated my question. “What does entrepreneurship mean to you in the role of an employee ? You’re not looking for a freelance HR Manager, right ?”
He smiled. It appears he had a concern. He was worried about the job I had then. I was HR Business Partner in the financial industry. My future boss was wondering about the habits, the culture and the way things were getting done in that industry. He perceived the banking and assurance industry as rigid, hierarchical and bureaucratic. And clearly the company I was applying to, wasn’t like that at all.
I listened to his concerns.
Then I told him about the context of a merger and the related change I was working in. I talked about the uncertainties I had to deal with every day. I described how often it was up to myself  to be creative,  to find solutions, and to take decisions. Last but not least, I told him I had to work with colleagues without having any logic or formal line in the organisation.
Then he replied: “You can tell me everything you like. I can’t check all these things. But I clearly feel your huge enthusiasm talking about this. Are you sure you want to quit your current job ?”
Yes, but for other reasons, as I explained earlier.”
OK, Karl”, he said, “let me just explore a bit further your own story about being an entrepreneur.”

Entrepreneurship for Employees

“First of all”, he continued, “it is important that you do what your job description suggests. Let there be no mistake about that. But then again, that is not enough”. (From here on the quotation marks are omitted).

Two job descriptions

I would appreciate if you’d have two job description after a year in the job.

  • the one in front of you now;
  • another one that you create yourself. You don’t have to write this one down, but it definitely should exist and be visible to everybody.

The job you create yourself, could at a certain moment replace or even overrule the official one you have on paper now.
See it like this. As you have an HR background and as you are applying now for an HR function, I recommend that you use this job content as guideline. Certainly in the beginning, when all is new and you still need to find your way,

Continuous challenges

However once you’ll have found your way, I expect you to create new challenges.  And I want you to consult with me about them. Challenges can be about:

  • roles
  • job content
  • ways of working
  • initiatives
  • projects
  • strategies
  • collaborations with colleagues or external people
  • responsibilities.

Every time we meet, I’d like you to present at least one idea to enlarge, enrich, change your job. And I want you to tell me about at least one error you’ve made.
Quite frankly, I am much more interested in coaching you on those aspects than on your performance in the job as it is described. This being said…
I interrupted him with a smile. Yes, you want me to do the job as well.

The Engagement

Already on the way back, my future leader called me. He asked if I could come in the evening for a last meeting with the CEO. And I was kindly invited not to screw things up because I was number one on his list.
Guess what the CEO asked ?
The conversation repeated pretty much what my future leader had said about the expected entrepreneurial spirit. At the end of the meeting he made me a formal offer. I gladly accepted.
The first year I worked there, I thoroughly explored my entrepreneurial skills. My new colleagues really showed me all the corners of the room. I loved it!
Let me try to summarise these skills.

The skills of an employee-entrepreneur

  • Be hands-on.

    Some tasks are not part of a formal description. But someone needs to do them. Do not hesitate to do them yourself. Especially when you see no one else is picking them up.

  • Ask internal/external “strangers” for help.

    You can’t know everything. Certainly not when it’s not your job. So nobody will ever blame you for asking what you don’t know. On the contrary. They’ll appreciate it. So ask people for help. Also include people you do not know yet.

  • Read and act in between and across the lines.

    Your territory is not somewhere on the organisation chart. Your territory is the large group of people all working for the same company, or on the same projects. Network and have conversations with them regardless their function or place in the organisation.

  • Have courage.

    You’re doing things you’re not used to do.  Sometimes there’s nobody to call and ask how to go ahead. So you may have to take decisions yourself. Take risks, make errors and assume the consequences. Your boss may disagree with your final decision. (S)he will usually agree that the presented options were reasonable for the situation at hand.

  • Be results-oriented.

    Take ownership of many things. You want to complete them successfully. The result (the “what”) is much more important than the “how”. Of course within the context of common sense. You are a can-do person. You cut through and resolve problems others run away from.

  • Grow fast.

    Your judgment becomes stronger and more powerful with each experience, decision or failure.

  • Be energetic.

    You are full of enthusiasm and energy. You consistently generate results that are higher than expected.  You are fully committed to the organisation, its goals and its overall success.

  • Supervision.

    You perform effectively with limited supervision. You are able to self-motivate and set priorities with minimal guidance.

  • Multitask.

    You are flexible to create and accept new assignments and responsibilities. You can take on more than one role until these tasks can eventually be assigned to others.  You’re also willing to do things that others with less responsibilities or skills will take over in later phases.

The environment of an Employee-Entrepreneur

Of course this can only work in the right environment. An employee can only become an entrepreneur if the company encourages him/her to be an entrepreneur. I have known organisations that prefer you to do your job within the lines of your job description without exploring other areas. And that’s fine if organization and employee agree on that and find happiness in it.
Briefly, I think a culture that encourages people to become an entrepreneur, should have the following elements:

  • the belief that teams of entrepreneurial employees do better and work faster than teams of traditional employees would.
  • the willingness to accept mistakes, conflicts and chaos, than a traditional employee environment would.
  • a coaching style more focused on potential than on performance.
  • a reward policy that prioritises success in special initiatives, and not success in the normal job.
  • a very safe and trustful relationship with the direct leader.

I went through an intensive learning curve in this company. This would turn out to be priceless later in my career.

The skills of a real Entrepreneur

You’ve learned how to be an internal entrepreneur. How can you transfer those skills into being a real entrepreneur in the real market ? This is an important question e.g.  when you become consultant after a corporate career.
To be continued.

Continue reading “Entrepreneur vs Employee”

Are you a 70-20-10 Development Leader ?

boatA new development model?

70:20:10 is a framework for development, developed in 2002 by Charles Jennings. He is a global and creative expert on development solutions. The basis of this model is research that covers 5 decades.  It’s a strategic model for learning and development. The basis of the model is that to develop, people need to be (1) aware of a current or future need and (2) feel motivated to do something about that need. Awareness comes from experience. It can come from feedback, mistakes, watching other people’s reactions, failing, feeling not being up to a task. Experience is the single most important source for development.
According to the model, development comes

  • 70% from experience: on-the-job,  tasks and problem, tough challenges.
  • 20% from feedback and coaching: social, informal learning, feedback from people (often the manager).
  • 10% from formal learning: courses, reading.


The 70:20:10 Learning Pyramid

It’s not about the exact numbers.  The numbers can vary depending on the company or the industry. It’s about the idea. This model of development goes beyond the classroom and formal training. It promotes the workplace as a place of development. That is extremely important.

Why now ?

The idea behind 70:20:10 are not new. So why is the model relevant today? Organizations understand that formal training alone won’t make the difference. To understand the limitations of the 10%’ is one thing. Implementing a development strategy with the 70% and 20% is another. This model offers a truly integrated and holistic approach for development. And as organisations are facing new challenges, they need to leave old paradigms behind and adopt new ones. This requires new ways of development. This requires faster learning. This evolution requires radical changes in the development landscape. And that’s why the 70:20:10 offers an attractive framework for development
Just a few examples of how learning is evolving.
Learning Paradigms

The development leader

70:20:10 provides a framework to both HR and leaders. A leader might already use the 70:20:10. But there is always room for improvement. The framework can help leaders to adopt various development roles.

  1. Development through stretching assignments (70%)

    Experience is the true teacher. A leader can shape experience. 
People learn the job on the job.
    Increased business speed makes learning on the job vital. To stay ahead people need to learn faster, better and smarter. People learn to do a tough job by doing it. A Stretching assignment stimulates development. It pulls people out of their comfort zone. Small mistakes and errors must be tolerated, encouraged and celebrated !

    The only thing worse than learning from experience, is not learning from it.

    It’s all about matching the right experience to the employee’s development stage.
 If managers know the work environment and the employee they can match the (stretching) experience to the employee. Learning on the job is no longer exclusively individual. The best way to solve complex problems is to collaborate.
    Managers should stimulate peer-learning. Everyone faces the future together. Partnership and pro-active collaboration are key. to learn and to reach common goals faster.

  2. Development through Community Learning (20%)

    Learning is social. People learn with and through others. Effective leaders urge their people to “buddy up” on projects. They can motivate to shadow others and to learn from peers. They can foster collaboration beyond silos. They can stimulate learning through common goals. And last they can invite people to take part in professional networks inside or outside the organization.
    People tend to learn well in an environment that encourages conversation.
    Leaders play an important role in launching and nurturing professional communities. They can ask an engaged employee to even start a community. Learning communities are self steering. Members share professional interest and have similar responsibilities. Sharing best practices and ideas is crucial for development.

  3. Development through coaching (20%)

    Managers do not need to be the best teachers. They need to be great coaches.
    Coaching aims at providing many things like:

    • Individual attention and personal support
    • Improved communication among team members
    • Discovery and development of potential
    • Acceleration and maintenance of positive changes
    • Peek performance from people and teams

    Coaching is not always one-on-one. Managers can also coach teams. Team coaching is right when dealing with real organizational challenges; or when there are complex work issues . The leader should ask reflective questions and listen. He or she encourages the team to take action and to solve the problem.

  4. Development through overall Learning Improvement

    Formal learning (10%)  still has its merits. Leaders boost the impact of formal learning by doing one single thing: Setting clear expectations before the training takes place. This increases  the impact of training immensely. It also makes it much more sustainable. 
Clear expectations will make learning more meaningful for the employee. People are naturally motivated to do things they find meaningful. They will walk the “extra mile”. They will take pride in demonstrating what they’ve learned at work.


Leaders are responsible for developing their people. They spend time on this. They gain time through developing more delegation opportunities. Leaders prepare employees for the daily challenges. They make them more resilient for change. They give them the right opportunities to leave their comfort zone. This is priceless.
70:20:10 is a very interesting model. It brings development into the business and into the workplace. The line manager becomes the driver of people development. Development is no longer the domain of HR alone.
By working together, you can apply the 70. Or you can judge that the 20 is the right approach. Or you can apply both of them together. If you become aware of this, you can become even more pro-active in people development.
You could e.g. simply put the 70:20:10 pyramid on a wall in a meeting room. You can have regular conversations with your people about how to make it come “alive”. You could then coach your people. You can check if they need further 70% or 20% and how to organize this.
That would be truly sustainable. Much more than simply sending them to a training. So are you a 70:20:10 development leader?

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Core Qualities. You cannot be serious ?!

“You cannot be serious ?! You exaggerate !”

John McEnroe
John McEnroe

These world-famous words are from John McEnroe. He shouted them every time he disagreed with the judge on the tennis court.
These are also my words to my best friend when he’s way too impulsive again every time he reduces the upfront planning to garbage again.
How is it possible that we can be so truly convinced that the other one is completely ‘loosing it’? Why do we think that we urgently need to make that clear to him, without questioning ourselves on those moments? Every human being has unique behaviour, styles and preferences. That goes for John McEnroe with his typical style, but also for each one of us. That includes my best friend and myself. Many unique features together cover a gigantic variety, a gigantic collection of differences.
What if we would look at all these differences from a quality – perspective? What would happen if I would not get irritated and shout at my best friend, but instead say:

I admire your ability to make use of the energy of the moment and to open doors already in this stage (even though the planning suggested to wait still for 6 days)” ?

Core Qualities

Management Coach and Consultant Daniel Ofman worked intensively with these kind of questions. He developed an extremely interesting model called the “Ofman Quadrants” or “Core qualities model”. You can find a lot of information about these quadrants and the core qualities on the internet. My purpose here is to share some personal learning and to link them to the model.
You can use this model to find out:

  • what your core qualities are. These are things you do well.
  • which of your behaviors you should avoid (pitfalls).
  • what types of things you should make an effort to do, even though they don’t come naturally to you (challenges).
  • why certain behaviours or characteristics in other people trigger a negative reaction (allergies).

Core Qualities
The model is dynamic :

  • Making too much use of your core qualities leads to a pitfall.
  • Once you’ve identified the pitfalls you can find your challenges. These are potential core qualities that need development. They are the positive opposite of your pitfalls.
  • When you exaggerate your challenge you will find your allergies. Allergies triggers a negative reaction in you. They are the positive opposite of your core qualities.

I like planning things a lot. I am also competent in planning things. But now and then I exaggerate. On those moments on the people around me. Planning gets a kind of ‘holy’ position and becomes the only measure for decisions and actions. When somebody wants to do something or asks for a ‘what’, a ‘how’ or a ‘why’, there’s only one answer for me: look at the planning !
This is clearly a pitfall. Life and reality are of course much more flexible, open, unpredictable and complicated than any planning could cover.
The positive opposite of this pitfall is my challenge. What makes me so sure that the planning is the one and only way forward? Has my friend meant to disrespect the planning on purpose? What was his purpose anyway? What can I learn from his approach? Shouldn’t I become a bit more ‘flexible’ and less a ‘planning addict’ ?
Becoming aware of this challenge is a great though confronting experience. It may lead to an even newer awareness: the one of the allergy. If too many people, and certainly those I care about most, seem to disregard the planning, disrespect all the work done upfront, and finally, do not seem to appreciate my efforts to ‘follow and trust them’ without planning, then I will ‘turn myself off’. I will turn myself completely into a “whatever” – mood. Of course after having shouted “You cannot be serious ?! You exaggerate !”
That basically means that I stop caring about the progress. I am even capable then to throw away ‘my’ planning myself and switch myself off until somebody clearly convinces me of a new approach.
Sounds familiar? I don’t know. What I do know is that going through these quadrants, being fully aware of them at regular moments, has been a very interesting process.


I have learned to be grateful to have pitfalls. There are no core qualities without them !
Your manager appreciates your flexibility which might be due to your lack of structure.
Your ability to resolve problems and make decisions is based on your ‘pushy’ side which is not always appreciated.
I have learned to be aware that criticism I receive may tell me more about my core qualities.
Criticism tells me that I might have gone too far rather than there is a lack of qualities. When you are confronted with a “You cannot be serious ! Don’t be so…”
• Don’t feel obligated to justify and defend yourself immediately.
• Press the “pause” button.
• Concentrate on this question: “Which of my core qualities am I exaggerating?”
Be grateful for people bothering you.
They are the ones showing you what you need most! Perhaps they do it in an extreme way, but they do.
To prove this, let’s turn our friend Ofman the other way around, starting with the allergy. An allergy is the exaggeration of a challenge. If we follow the logic of the quadrants, this challenge is nothing more than a potential core quality to be developed when we are in a pitfall, such as: I am working too much (pitfall), I should take a rest (challenge).
Applied to interpersonal relationships, we see that the people we feel “allergic” to have the attributes we need most. An empathic team leader reporting to a dictatorial division manager may admire the manager’s ability to express his opinion without hesitation, though he may dislike his excessive authority. A dynamic manager with a black-or-white attitude might also learn a lesson in tolerance.
By becoming aware of the true meaning and power of allergies, as triggers for growth and development, we may succeed in  literally ‘skipping’ them from our personal ‘Ofman parcours’. We may succeed in no longer passing through negative emotions that normally enter our system when we are trapped in our allergies.
In my case the pause button is really helping. Whenever I feel emotionally and physically allergic towards someone or something, I really try to pause. This gives room to for consciously focusing on what this person or situation has to offer. What should I develop ?
In this way I discover my challenges. They are in fact a very useful “supplement” to my core qualities. This idea of supplement comes from a blog by Vincent van Vliet.  I liked that notion very much because I indeed feel as if my core qualities together with my challenges make a great team !