On the Learn to Lead podcast, we spoke with Elliott Masie, who is the president CEO of the MASIE Centre Learning COLLABORATIVE in Saratoga Springs. He was the first analyst to use the term e-learning. Over the past 35 years, he has presented programs, courses, and speeches to over 3.1 million professionals around the world. He is also a Tony-nominated Broadway producer of such shows as An American in Paris, Kinky Boots, and many more.
I want to start with a recent post you made on LinkedIn where you showed a picture of a badge from the first training and learning conference you organized back in 1990. In the post, you said that you, “Love designing events and experiences that bring people together for learning and connection.” What do you love most about the work you get to do designing and producing events?
Well, that word “producing,” that’s my nuclear energy inside. I think the role of people in learning is often to be a producer. Now, sometimes we are the scriptwriter. We build instructional design, and sometimes we are the teacher, the actor, and many times we are coaches and the like.
That role of producer is where you build an environment. It might be a classroom with 30 people, it might be shoulder to shoulder with one, it might be, as we’ve seen in the pandemic, an awful lot of screen time, but there was something that got me at this relatively early age that if you could convene something to bring people together, to bring art, to bring content, to keep it moving, to create a zip code where thousands of people were doing the same job. This is what turned me on as what I do in learning. All my life, I’ve seen my role as a producer.
One thing that you talked about there was a very timely comment about the pandemic. If you think about the pandemic and your role and also the viewpoint that you have on the industry, what caught you by surprise in regards to the move to online learning during the pandemic?
Well, what caught me by surprise, which is actually an impression, a positive impression, was how well, how agilely, how instantaneously people all around the world went to what we call e-learning because e-learning is that we’re using technology to connect and facilitate learning. When we first had the first conversation about that in the early 1990s, we had 85 people from around the world for the first conversation.
I got a call from somebody at the United Nations in the middle of the pandemic saying, “Well, Wikipedia says you were one of the people to help invent the word e-learning. Do you realize there now 3.4 billion people e-learning?” They were. They were connected. I was amazed. Now, having said that, I think we only did half the story, and once again, this is the producer. I think we got people connected. I’m not sure we did the next step, which is so critical, which is design.
An awful lot of people got Zoom fatigue. I don’t think they were they were fatigued with Zoom, I think we’re fatigued with an unchanging format in Zoom. I wish we had had more time and evidence to play with that. We discovered people didn’t want to be on for 90 minutes. They didn’t always want the camera on. In fact, in many instances, people wanted to actually work through, try and even fail in content, but it was an amazing plus, plus, plus for our field to be able to be that right on the edge and facilitate that around the world.
You talk a lot about the power of storytelling as a leader. Who are some of the storytellers that you have interacted with in your career that have really left a resounding impact?
Well, I’ve been blessed. I’ve had speakers and big conferences that I’ve done over 30 years. Michelle Obama, I was her very first paid speech after the White House. While I had worked with her on some educational initiatives in the White House, we came down there, we decided there was no script, we’re doing an interview, much like you’re doing. I asked her to describe how she became a storyteller. She told the story of sitting with her uncle from the south side of Chicago.
Along the way, I’ve had amazing experiences in the acting world. I’ve had John Lithgow. You might know him from a whole variety of things, including he was Winston Churchill in The Crown. John tells a story that ignites your brain, widens your eyes, and opens your heart, and is filled with knowledge. Sir Ken Robinson who passed away who really pioneered in our field personalized learning.
What I’ve even enjoyed are conversations with people who I really deeply disagreed with. I was in Europe and somebody was talking that they really felt you could not do magic online. They said it was flat online. It became a bit of a fight, Matthew, and there were about 90 people in the audience. I said, “How many of you feel a little flat with the comments you’ve just heard?” People put their hands up, but I love, even when the storyteller annoys you, they educate you and they move you. It’s a skill. By the way, it’s what we in the learning field not only do, we have to role model for other people how to be an effective storyteller.
What parts of the way that we work and the way that we learn do you believe have changed permanently as a result of what’s happened over the last 15 months, and what do you think might go back to some of the ways that it was before?
I have been really moved by a recent editorial in New York Times by David Brooks in which he talked about that we really went through a renaissance in work. I think we’ve gone through a renaissance in learning. I think the learner is more independent. They want to be much more in charge of their time, the how, the when. I think the learner, when they aren’t overly stressed, is more curious. I think the learner has actually made some technological advances. I think they are more comfortable that they’re using multiple devices to get at content.
I think the learner is deeply needing something we haven’t always been overt about, Matthew, which is empathy. Empathy is not sympathy. Empathy is recognizing the uniqueness of each person. I think as we tackle new content, whether we are the learning professional or whether we are the learner, empathy is a really large piece of building that. I think we are in a renaissance. I think a lot of classrooms are going to get repurposed.
It doesn’t mean we’re not going to get together, but a friend of mine in Australia is running one of their first learning conferences. It’s at a dude ranch. It’s all outside. I have another friend who is reframing what their classroom is into a lab. I don’t think we’re going to give up face-to-face, but you want to know something, I don’t want to be face-to-face to have you lecture me for 60 minutes. I’d much rather put you on an asynchronous video because I can speak you up and stop you that way. I think the learner independence is higher. I think we’re going to have to become more accountable. I think we’re going to have to do things in a much more agile fashion.
You hit on a little bit in that answer, but what do you think events look like in the future? What makes you excited to plan future events? How do you think they have to change? What do you think still needs to be figured out?
I think we don’t know yet, and it’s not because of the disease state of COVID. I think we have gone through a renaissance. I think that there are parts of events that probably will never be the same. I used to think that the goal was to get 120 breakout sessions of 60 minutes long, where somebody gave 51 minutes of a PowerPoint, said there’ll be lots of time for questions and they weren’t, and then you ran from one to the other. That may yield its way into much more intimate connections and conversations. I think there is a need for people to be inspired by both really well-known speakers but also to be inspired by activities to do things.
I think duration may be much shorter. I’m not sure we’re going to go to– I did a lot of three-and-a-half-day events. I’m not sure they’re going to be that long. I think we are going to figure out how to make an event much more personal for the individual, just as we’re doing with learning. Now things will probably stay the same, there’ll be trade shows because wonderful suppliers like you and others want to be in front of customers, but even as trade shows may change. Our trade shows may end up looking more like immersive laboratories.
Then I think things are getting mobile. I have a fantasy of buying an RV and filling it with cool learning tech and driving around the United States in a circus mode there or filling up a train with learning people and visiting each company along the way. We want to get together, we want to connect, we want to collaborate. I don’t think we want to passively watch or listen.
What does learning and professional development look like for you? Not asking you to describe a normal week, but what do you seek out to develop yourself more as a leader and as a learner?
I need to trigger a word that’s so important, which is curiosity. I think that learning that doesn’t involve curiosity isn’t learning, it’s teaching. I think when somebody is curious, and they might not be curious at the beginning, so you as a coach or a teacher or a designer have to trigger their curiosity. I am so passionate about connecting with curiosity. I am increasingly– I’m the score of 71. You don’t want to say how old you are because people think you’re losing value, but when you go up and score, you get more gain points. At the score of 71, I am really interested in trying, succeeding, or failing quickly at things.
I think we need to also look for things that are modestly magical. That’s a weird thing to say, but I think people want magic. I have an image, Matthew, that someday we’re going to have a non-visual barcode or a QR code on every screen. I can always take my phone and point it there and I’ll pop up magically created content for me in the format I want, in the language I use, in the role that I have. We have to create some magic because people go, “Wow,” when suddenly you connect their curiosity with really good people, really good resources, and bluntly, you don’t make them become a student, you get them to become a better performer at what they do at work.
I want to chat a little bit about credentialing, and specifically there’s a ton of hype around micro-credentialing. Do you believe that micro-credentialing could potentially make university degrees or other advanced education, certificates obsolete someday? Will they live side by side with them, or are they just a passing fad? What do you think about credentialing, and what do you think it looks like in the future?
We’ve had almost 30 years of a dream and a hype about those credentials. I remember going to a badging conference in Denver with 2000 people. I thought we were really there. Somebody got up and said, “I want the learner to be able to go on LinkedIn and say that they learned something yesterday in the afternoon and give themselves a badge.” I was almost nauseous at my seat because, why are we having self-congratulatory badges? Do we need to have a way for a learner to be able to learn and then, in some ways, get trusted assessment that they know something and have a skill? Absolutely.
Do we add those up into two really interesting but difficult elements? Do they become a degree? Well, maybe, but I actually think they may just become part of the fabric of it. Does it give them a brand new job? Maybe it gets them into their interview, but I don’t know. What we need to do if we’re interested in this is to be able to have credentials that are so tough, that only 20% of the people pass the first time they take that assessment because once everybody gets a badge for showing up, it lowers my trust in that.
Do I think we need a very granular way of appraising and stating what people’s skills are, particularly by the way for themselves? When they wake up in the morning, if the system changed overnight, boom, their screen should light up with, “You now need to get better at X.”
I worked with CDC and a number of the largest healthcare providers during the pandemic, how do we, overnight, upgrade everybody’s skills in ICUs to what we learned the night before about COVID? Not to give them a bath, not to get them a new degree, but to really keep them on the edge of knowledge. I still love granularity. I think we ought to have dashboards that show that. I’m not sure they add up to a degree. You know what, the degrees, as we know it, may change a little bit in what their value is. I’m open to it. That’s part of what the renaissance will be.
One question that we get frequently from listeners is some variation of what do you wish you had known when you started out? I’d love to put that question to you. If I was taking you back before the first conference that you planned or early on in your career, what would you tell your younger self? What do you wish you knew before you got started?
Most people know a lot of what we teach them and frame up as being new information. Our egos as instructors are that we want them to be drum roll. I’m now going to change your view of how to create a pivot table or become a leader. I think I wasn’t data-rich enough as I was growing up in the world of learning and development to realize there’s a lot of data out there. If I use it as evidence, it would radically change, compress and focus my learning.
I think we’re better now in words, I’m not sure we’re in deeds. I’m not sure even our learning systems are particularly up to the task of giving us the data that will help Matthew optimize his learning on this topic this afternoon.
You hit on a word that I would have to say, more than any other word, most of our guests have used, and that’s curiosity. What are you the most curious about right now, either in this space or completely outside of this space?
I am very curious how we will develop leaders. We’ve had a view of leadership as being academy-based, and I’ve been part of starting lots of leadership academies. I think we may need to take a shift away and move to, what are the competencies to be a leader? Let’s not skew them that you are ready to to do that after you’ve done 10, 20, 30, 40 years in the field. I’m really curious how we recognize, empower, and trigger leadership in a different way.
The other thing that I’m enormously curious about is reframing white-collar work. We’ve made white-collar work, in many ways, a modern-day version of an industrial model. When you build a Ford model A, you needed all the people online in the factory, but what we found in the pandemic is they don’t have to be, but I’m not sure we’re ready to change what white-collar work is like, office work is like. I think I’m curious to see how we do it.
I’m sitting here in Manhattan and I’m looking out my window at probably 10,000 offices. Literally spaces around me of which half of them are empty right now, not because their people are unemployed, they’re working from home. When they come back, how will we take white-collar workers and allow or push or create new structures for how they work and then build out careers that go from recruitment to retirement in that sense? That’s my huge curiosity.
Well, your comment about leadership and what it means to be a leader is a wonderful spot to shift to the final two rapid-fire questions that I get to ask all of our guests. The first question is this, if you could describe your leadership style, but I just gave you one word, what would that word be?
The final rapid-fire question is this, what is the best piece of advice that you have ever received?
I was fired by my boss at the ripe age of 25 years old when I worked for the New York State Education Department with The Rockefeller Foundation. She turned to me and she said, “You really are not very good as an employee. Go create your own environment and your own company.” She fired me and bluntly I’ve never been an employee since then, and I’ve had a really wonderful life. Somewhere up in heaven, Dr. Vivian Anderson gave me the best advice. I think being really unedited direct with people and giving them those kinds of pieces of feedback are lifelong gifts.