A Leadership Lesson with Real ‘Teeth’

Experience is often the best teacher for jobs, or canines, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and author of Lose the Resume, Land the Job.


Everything was going fine as my 18-year-old daughter, Emily, and I rode our beachcomber bicycles along the beach. Then, from out of nowhere, a dog raced toward us. Before I had time to register what was happening, the dog sank his teeth into my leg, just above the ankle.

Fortunately, the dog had his shots and didn’t do any real damage, although I had a Technicolor bruise for a while. During my trek to immediate care and while sitting at home with ice on my leg, I had plenty of time to think.

My realization: This dog-bites-person story is a classic case of 70-20-10.

People learn from experiences—the 70% of the formula—on the job and elsewhere in life. What happens to them and what they encounter, both positive and negative, are the biggest and best sources of “teaching moments” and “lessons learned.” While that makes sense intuitively, I’ve found that people, from recent college graduates to senior executives, consistently underestimate that 70%. Their assumption is that formal learning and training programs account for far more of learning than the 10% in the formula.

The percentage that’s almost completely overlooked is the 20%: learning from other people, especially a mentor or a supportive boss. Your boss also plays a huge role in the 70%, giving you those challenging assignments that lead to invaluable learning experiences. In fact, when people think about their current and future jobs, they often do not pay enough attention to the boss and that person’s impact on their career development. And when it comes to getting a new job, evaluating the boss rarely occurs.

The most important reward from any job—and the one that too few people think about—is what you learn. Continuous learning is important at every level of your career, as you advance and become a leader. The more you learn, the more you will be able to accomplish. As you improve, so will those around you. Eventually, the entire organization will improve.

I have a favorite saying: “Knowledge is what you know. Wisdom is acknowledging what you don’t know. Learning is the bridge between the two.” Riding a bike is well, like riding a bike—once you learn, you never forget. But that dog bite taught me something: I couldn’t be oblivious to the potential hazards and risks, from cars that hug the shoulder and ignore the bike lane or dogs that lunge at human ankles. I never would have learned this lesson from a bicycle safety course (10%) or even from another person (20%). Experience was my best teacher.

I’m getting back on the bike, taking long rides on the weekend. But I’m wiser and glance over my shoulder far more than I used to. My horizon has literally expanded, from the narrow path ahead to what exists all around me.

That’s a lesson for life and leadership—one with some real teeth.