The Marcia Conner Interview


Marcia Conner advises executives at some of the world’s largest companies reinventing themselves and their workforce for the future. She aligns social strategies with corporate culture to speed innovation, inform decision-making, and invigorate an organization’s value chain. She is a member of Telefónica’s Innovation Board, writes for Fast Company (click here), and is a fellow of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.

In 2010 she published The New Social Learning (You can download a sample chapter of her book on Social Learning <click here>), and she’s currently working on a new book about ingenuity for organizational transformation.

Abhijit Bhaduri: What would your focus be if you had to design the learning agenda for entry level employees?

Marcia Conner

Marcia Conner: The biggest hurdle for any employee is learning “how things are done around here.” Each new entry level employee should spend time each day capturing the questions he or she has and their best guess at the answer based on their previous experience. Then they should have an opportunity to meet briefly with their supervisor or a seasoned colleague who they can talk with about what they need to learn and how else they might reply or respond. The more seasoned colleague can point out where something is done differently in the organization than might have been suspected, and answer questions that will build a bridge to the new employee’s experience. This can also take place through a new employee group session, but in my experience 1:1 works more effectively because people feel more comfortable asking questions and getting candid feedback. At the end of every week for the first few weeks on the job, there should be some system in place to capture any questions the new employee has that he or she thinks there really is a better way. A team should review those answers and make recommendations to senior leadership, whereby capturing fresh thinking from outside. The aim here is to both help the new employees succeed and also stretch the culture with the new ideas and perspectives of those joining the organizations, even at the most entry levels. This sort of social learning also demonstrates that the organization genuinely listens to people throughout the organization.

Abhijit Bhaduri: What could middle level leaders focus on to stay more relevant?

Marcia Conner: So often, middle level leaders feel trapped between those on the front lines and those in senior leadership positions. To keep relevant, it’s very helpful for people in these ranks, perhaps even more so than at other levels, to build a network outside their immediate organization so they can bring in new ideas and perspectives from others.

Some people may excel in creating a network from people in other parts of the company where they work. Someone in finance, for instance, might offer great context to a sales team they wouldn’t get any other way. Other people may benefit more from people in similar roles in different industries or different roles in the same industry. Each person should work on having a network with at least 10 people, with as much diversity in age, gender, background, industry, and level as possible. If they aim to bring into their work at least one new idea each week, they are sure to meet and exceed that, ensuring they continue to offer new value to those they work with and serve.

Abhijit Bhaduri: For experienced senior leaders, what is the best way for them to stay current and prepared to lead organizations with more millennials and more uncertainty?

Marcia Conner: Every senior leader should identify and work with at least one junior mentor. That person can be a young direct report who he or she meets with weekly to get feedback on how work could be improved for younger workers, or someone from outside the organization like a recent graduate from the same school (or even a niece or nephew) interested in offering ongoing feedback. The purpose should be similar to that of a more experienced executive coach or mentor, asking questions, challenging assumptions, and providing a wider perspective than a senior leader would have on their own. This both supports organizations with more and more Millennials and every organization facing the uncertainty younger people are far more accustomed to every day.
Abhijit Bhaduri: What are the ways to leverage technology to improve learning opportunities in organizations?

Marcia Conner: With the proliferation of easy to use social media tools, employees have access to learning about and from people they might never have known about before. If your organization doesn’t already use enterprise social network tools within your firewall, consider adopting one, and putting a team of new employees on the team to ensure it succeeds even if older employees might not yet see the benefit. (This isn’t an age differentiation, rather a difference between new employees and those who have been there for a long time and don’t seek out different approaches.) Create opportunities for people to get together face to face to talk about what they’ve learned online and to bounce additional ideas off one another. Don’t view this as an opportunity only for informal or ad hoc learning. Consider how subject matter experts can also share information for others to learn from in the moments between other work, not just from a class or formal program.

Abhijit Bhaduri: Five things that individuals can do to remain curious learners.

Marcia Conner:

  1. Make an intentional practice of talking with people of different ages at least once a week. Ask them questions you face at work, even if you can’t convey all the details. You might be very surprised at how they will spark a different approach to addressing a challenge in a way you might never have even considered.
  2. Identify at least 2 topics you know little about, but have always been interested in, to learn more about each year. More frequently or more topics if you can. Set aside at least 4 hours a month, in one block or scattered across the week, to learn more about the topic and ask yourself how what you’re learning might apply to your work. If the topic itself doesn’t apply, perhaps the magazine you’re reading has ads that lead you to sources you might not know about or an approach to an article could be applied to one you’ve been putting off for weeks. The further afield, the better.
  3. Get outside and moving each day. When you’re stuck, physically get a new perspective and generate new energy to fuel all you do.
  4. Identify one project you’re already working on to find and analyze the data behind it. Ask yourself, “how might we measure something important?” and then seek ways to do it. The purpose here isn’t to prove or justify everything, rather think about even creative pursuits in analytic terms. One of my favorite examples is a leader who looked at the eyes of each person as they left a company meeting. 2 out of every 3 had a “twinkle in their eye”, more enthusiastic about the company than when they came into the meeting.
  5. Practice both your question-asking technique and how to get at the answer behind the answer. Both are very useful in maintaining and building your curiosity muscles.


You can followMarcia on twitter at @marciamarcia or on her website:

Read Marcia’s latest post on Fast Company: Time to Build Your BigData Muscles

Watch this TED video on What is Social Learning

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  1. Indu Rao says:

    All I have believed in, and try hard to teach seems to be expressed in shis article. Nicely written .

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