100: Cultivating a Culture of Growth and Learning in the Workplace with Elliott Masie

Ep100 Cultivating a Culture of Growth and Learning in the Workplace with Elliott Masie on TalentGrow Show Halelly Azulay

For the 100th episode of The TalentGrow Show (woohoo!), I interviewed Elliott Masie, a provocative speaker, expert in educational technology, and Broadway producer/investor. Elliott has had an interesting and multi-faceted career trajectory, and shares his best advice for leaders who strive to cultivate passionate, engaged, and high-performing teams. He talks about learning processes in the workplace, important trends in talent development and technology, and serious mistakes leaders can make when working with their team. You’ll learn actionable techniques for nurturing your team’s creativity and building a culture of growth in the workplace, so be sure to give this episode a listen! Plus, find out what is the most dangerous word you can say as a leader.


Learning and Big Data Innovator Elliott Masie is on the forefront of changing the world of learning. And, he is one of the leading analysts and researchers on the emerging world of Big Data.  His work has evolved workplace learning—from the introduction of the term e-Learning to personalizing the learning experiences of new employees and senior leaders. His work, research and experimentation in learning—whether focusing on social, collaborative, digital or mobile learning—is reflected in radical changes in how colleges, schools, corporations, religions and associations leverage the new world of knowledge. His new book, Big Learning Data, provides key perspectives on how Big Data will challenge how organizations will gather, process and deploy the amazing range of data being created every day by employees and customers.


  • Halelly recollects how her journey with The TalentGrow Show began over three years ago (1:02)
  • How Elliott achieved success in his multi-faceted career-path, and his advice for people struggling to pursue more than one passion (8:33)
  • Elliott shares how his upbringing contributed to his “no-barriers” outlook today (9:50)
  • What are some surprising or important trends in talent development right now? Elliott talks about storytelling, education, and technology (11:18)
  • Using “curation” to help your team make choices and optimize learning (13:35)
  • Elliott cautions against “dumbing down” learning processes on the way to skills and competencies (14:41)
  • The synthesis of curiosity, rigor, and technology (15:27)
  • As a passionate producer, your first skill is to know and accept that other people know more than you do (17:02)
  • The most dangerous word a leader can say, and what to replace it with (18:06)
  • Elliott shares an example from his own work in Broadway that highlights how a leader can work productively and non-judgmentally with their team (19:17)
  • Halelly puts on the “devil’s advocate” hat with Elliott (20:23)
  • Something you can do to nurture your team’s creativity and productivity (21:30)
  • What’s new and exciting on Elliott’s horizon? (23:55)
  • One specific action you can take as a leader or as a learner to upgrade your effectiveness (25:45)



Episode 100 Elliott Masie

TEASER CLIP: Elliott: The most dangerous word that a leader, a manager, a supervisor or a director or owner, or maybe even a spouse has, is the word “no.” It is amazing how easy it is for us to just say no. And we say no with our words. We say no with our body language. If you switch that around to ask a “how” rather than a “no” – so somebody gives you an idea, and to you it’s crazy, we couldn’t afford it, it would never work – and if I just say, “no,” I’m not going to get another good idea from that person.

[MUSIC] Announcer: Welcome to the TalentGrow Show, where you can get actionable results-oriented insight and advice on how to take your leadership, communication and people skills to the next level and become the kind of leader people want to follow. And now, your host and leadership development strategist, Halelly Azulay.

Halelly: Welcome back TalentGrowers. Do you have your party hats on? I do, because it’s episode 100! I can’t believe this journey so far has been so amazing. I still remember when I first got started, I didn’t even have a podcast and a friend and colleague of mine, Espree Devora, told me, “Just schedule three interviews. Don’t worry about the rest, it’ll fall into place,” and she was so right. I didn’t even know which of those three would be the premier episode – it turned out to be the one with Scott Eblin. Episode 1 was about how not to be overworked and overwhelmed, and now we are here at episode 100. It’s been over three years and a wonderful journey of learning for me, and sharing learning with you. And I hope that you’ve gotten a lot of value if you’ve been along for the ride during this time. If you’re brand new, welcome. I can’t wait to share more actionable leadership insights with you in the future, so that you and those you care about can become the kind of leader people want to follow. So thank you for listening and following along, and here’s to another 100 episodes and more!

And now, to our regularly scheduled programming, this episode, episode 100, features Elliott Masie. He’s an interesting guest. He’s world-renowned in the world of learning. He’s an expert. He holds huge conferences that people attend from all over the world every year, and he really knows a lot about the world of learning and employee development. That’s one of the topics we discuss. But we also talk about how he has a very interesting multi-career path. He’s doing multiple things at the same time, and very successfully, in multiple different arenas. Different streams that are very different one from the other, and you know that fascinates me. So we talk about how to do that. He shares interesting insights that you can put into action right away about how as a leader you can support learning on the part of your employees and create employees that come to work passionate and engaged and high performing. We all want that. I hope that you find this as interesting and actionable as I always do. I’m Halelly Azulay, your leadership development strategist here at TalentGrow, and this is episode 100 of The TalentGrow Show. Here we go.

Okay, TalentGrowers, I’m so happy you’re back, and this week we have my guest Elliott Masie. Elliott Masie is a learning and big data innovator. He’s on the forefront of changing the world of learning, and I’m so happy that he has agreed to come on the TalentGrow Show and share some of his wisdom with us. He’s one of the leading analysts and researchers on the emerging world of big data. His work has evolved workplace learning from the introduction of the term e-learning to personalizing the learning experience of new employees and senior leaders. His work, research, experimentation and learning, whether focusing on social, collaborative, digital or mobile learning, is reflected in radical changes in how colleges, schools, corporates, religions and associations leverage the new world of knowledge. His new book, Big Learning Data, provides key perspectives on how big data will challenge how organizations will gather, process and deploy the amazing range of data being created everyday by employees and customers. In addition to all of this, Elliott is also a producer and an investor in Broadway shows like the Tony Award winning Kinky Boots as well as An American in Paris, Macbeth, Allegiance, Unknown Soldier, SpongeBob the Musical and more. And, on the side, he also owns and races thoroughbred horses. So, I thought that it would be great to have Elliott share with us some of his knowledge and Elliott, welcome to the TalentGrow Show.

Elliott: Well thank you, and when I hear all of that I guess I’ve been growing my talent in one way or the other. I’m glad to be with you and your listeners today.

Halelly: Thank you. You will grow our talent as a result of what you share with us what you do to get all of that done. We always start with the guest’s professional journey. Where did you start and how did you get to where you are today, in a brief form?

Elliott: In a nutshell, I have my whole life had one element that’s always driven me, and that is I’m simultaneously been interested in technology, computers now and when I was younger, radios and Morse code and the like, and the other thing, I’ve always been interested in bringing people together into an experience, a group, to do something. So I was always the person who organized experiences and early in my career, I realized that I could put those two together by focusing on the intersection of how we learn technology and later how we will use technology to help us learn things. So that’s been the driver in my career and even Broadway, which we can get to at some point, is to me just another manifestation. How do you pull together people who are going to sing about Hamilton in a theater and have it become contagious so that all around the world, people want to see that show and the like? It’s always mixing those two.

Halelly: How did you start into this career?

Elliott: On the learning side or the theater side?

Halelly: I guess either one.

Elliott: The learning side started early on, and it really is. I don’t say age – I just hit level 68. I’ve been in the learning field throughout 47 years. My first intervention there was in the mainframe days, where people were now needing to train folks how to operate mainframe computers. Not as programmers, but as what we would call users. I did some work with that and when PCs popped up, I was involved with the very early, first PCs, the very early, first software programs. I helped Microsoft and Novell and IBM and others start their learning programs. When the internet popped its head up, I got intrigued – maybe we could do some learning online? And that’s when I became an advocate of what was called e-learning. As personal technology has evolved, I’ve been very involved in figuring out what does our mobile phone do to an employee at McDonalds or what does a smart voice speaker do for somebody who is trying to build their management skills? So that’s been that pathway.

And Broadway was probably about 12 or 13 years ago, I decided it would be really interesting to take what I know about learning and conferences and the like and apply it to Broadway shows. It was a fun initial small hobby, but it’s now grown to I think about 24 or 25 shows. I’m producing a wonderful new show coming to Broadway called The Prom, by the guy who did Book of Mormon, and I’m also involved in Kerry Washington is going to be doing a drama, the first thing she’s done since ending her role in Scandal on TV.

Halelly: You are an example of one of the guests that makes me begrudge my decision to have a 30-minute format! Because I do want to talk to you for at least three hours. So, give us a little bit more about how you have been able to be so successful with this sort of multi-pronged or multifaceted career path? The traditional or conventional advice is niche down, specialize, pick something and stick in your lane and become deep and knowledgeable in it. You’ve done that, in multiple lanes, so what advice do you offer those who are listening who either have avoided doing so because of the advice they’ve been given, or are in the middle of trying to navigate such a career?

Elliott: I think a lot of it is the language of how you describe yourself. I call myself a producer and I used that word before theater. I always liked to think of myself as a producer. I think of myself as an entrepreneur. I think people can be entrepreneurs even if they’re working for the same company on salary for many years. And I also am project-based. I think of everything as a project. Now, it might be a project that’ll last three years or it might be a project that lasts 30 minutes. I’ve always blown up the barriers as an entrepreneur, as a producer, as a project person. I just kind of look at it as opportunities, realities that I can impact, and there’s one other element that I think is interesting, which is I don’t look for other people to validate that I have the willingness to be successful. Doesn’t mean I have the experience or the competency, but I don’t look for validation of my willingness. I view that there’s almost anything in life I could do. I’ll have to get help, support, I might need training or I might need a certificate or degree, but I don’t view barriers as things that get in my way.

Halelly: That’s a very productive and helpful attitude. Have you always had that or is that something you learned along the way?

Elliott: I think I got it from my parents. My dad was a survivor of Nazi Germany and came to America. My mom had been an ice skater. We grew up in a very working class New York City neighborhood and I remember I asked my father and mother when I was 16, “Are we poor?” Because there was a session at school about these are schools you can go to because you’re poor, and I said, “I don’t know, I better ask them.” We fed you, we housed you. We don’t have a lot of money, but I never called ourselves poor. I think they hammered that into my DNA, that you don’t accept barriers and you don’t accept limitations.

Halelly: Fantastic. So fortunate to have had those kind of parents and good for you for continuing on with that kind of an attitude. So, in the world of learning, since you are an expert on learning technology and learning trends – one of the popular sessions you lead at a conference where we both are frequent speakers, the international conference of the Association for Talent Development, where I recently talked to you and met you and have seen your sessions before, you talk about the big trends that are happening. So we can’t get into all of them, but what do you think are some of the most surprising or most important trends in the world of learning and how people learn that will really change us in the near future or maybe in the longer range way?

Elliott: I think we are more interested in stories than school. I think people are listening to a podcast like this because they want a story. They want to hear a story, and I think a story that comes from an interview between two people is often a rich story. I don’t think we want to go always to school in a traditional sense, even traditional classes. Many of the major organizations are changing their format. NBC Universal now runs labs rather than classes. A lab doesn’t have a projector in the front of the room, it has tables where people work on things. I think another phenomenon is that people are not memorizing anything anymore. They don’t memorize. As long as I can click and find it, do I need to store it? And that may be depressing for some folks, but I think the functional reality is we get navigational or familiarization memory, not memorized memory. So that changes a lot about how we’re learning. The third piece that really turns me on is curiosity. I think learning is a biological reaction to when we’re curious about something. And we now live in a world where we walk around, most of us, with devices. We touch a piece of glass and have our curiosity started to be fulfilled about what that was or what’s that called or how do you do X, Y or Z. So those are some of the trends that are happening, and those are also bluntly challenges because it’s disruptive to the traditional way in which we thought about learning.

Halelly: Yes. So what are some of the things we can do, right now, to help us bridge between what we were used to in the past and helping learners in that kind of a new reality?

Elliott: One of the first things is remember that people, if you’re in the HR or business field, the people who work for you are overwhelmed with too many choices around what they could read, watch, discuss or think about. One of the things we have to do, there’s a fancy word called curation. We need to help our employees optimize and organize what it is they’re going to learn. Very often, I know if I sent you an email with 10 links to video, my bet is you might not click any of them, because 10 is a lot and how do you figure it out? If I sent you one with one or two, you might be more likely. So I think we have to do a better job of recommending and optimizing.

The other piece that we need to do is to realize that people want as they learn to try things. They want to learn by doing. That’s why the word lab comes to mind. The weird part is they actually don’t mind failing on their way to success. Make it rigorous. Give us an opportunity to try it and fail. I actually think we’re at risk that we dumb down a lot of our educational institutions. They’re not as rigorous anymore, and I hope we don’t dumb down our own learning processes on the way to skills and competencies.

Halelly: A lot of people like to blame mobile technology and devices for that, and what you were talking about earlier, that people can easily look up things and therefore they may not be as motivated to learn them deeply because they think there is just sort of something that’s going to fill in the blanks whenever necessary. Do you agree with that or how do you see it?

Elliott: Well, there’s this level of – and I go back to that word, curiosity – and when curiosity works really, really well, it’s also a friend of something I call rigor, where you’re not only being curious, but you’re being rigorous about how you’re approaching it. I think if we have that, and if we have an opportunity for people to dive deeper into things, then I’m not so worried about it that it’s superficial. Because when you see somebody who is curious about something, they got tickets to go to a show or they now have a new project or they hear a rumor that a company is buying their employer, boy, they’re not superficial in their learning. They dive deep to prepare for that. I think the willingness is there if we create and sustain a culture that has both curiosity and rigor.

Halelly: That’s interesting. Yes, because otherwise it’s very shallow and you become very minimally knowledgeable in a lot of different areas rather than specialized. This kind of comes back to what you were doing in your career. You are specialized, highly specialized, but not just in one. You, I think, talking about how you see this through the lens of a producer and that’s sort of the unifying skillset or activity that guides you being involved in all of these different things, in a sense that’s curating. You’re a producer and you curate events and experiences through these different venues?

Elliott: Right. And if you’re passionate as a producer, then your first skill is to realize that other people know it way better than you do. So most of the time as a producer, you’re finding and enticing and contracting or bringing in people who have expertise that you don’t have, but if it all works, then you get the credit that I produced that show or I produced that event or I produced that business result. But I don’t ever worry about bringing in somebody who is smarter than me in any number of areas, because then they just make me and our team smarter by that.

Halelly: That’s a great segue to talking more about leaders as guides of learning, as people developers, because I think that sometimes people in leadership roles don’t realize that I believe that’s probably one of their number one – if not the number one job – they have is to develop others, to get work done through others and help others feel fulfilled and shine and grow. So do you see any mistakes that are commonly made by leaders when it comes to developing their people, and if so, what do you suggest leaders can do to either avoid them in the first place or sidestep them?

Elliott: The most dangerous word that a leader, a manager, a supervisor or a director or owner, or maybe even a spouse has, is the word “no.” It is amazing how easy it is for us to just say no. And we say no with our words. We say no with our body language. If you switch that around to ask a “how” rather than a “no” – so somebody gives you an idea, and to you it’s crazy, we couldn’t afford it, it would never work – and if I just say, “no,” I’m not going to get another good idea from that person. But if I go, “That’s intriguing. Talk to me about how,” it may come out in that how that we can’t afford it, but it will lead its way to something else. I think we have to be enormously wary as leaders of being judges. I’m not a judge. I’m a producer. I’m holding it together.

I think the other thing we need to do is we need to be able to realize that quality comes through multiple cycles. So right now I’m involved in a small way, I’m producing a show called The Cher Show in Chicago. I’ll say it very publicly – we’re in early previews and I went out to it and boy there were a lot of things that I felt needed work. Now, I have a lot of confidence. It’s a great team. Cher herself is on the team, although she has actresses playing her, but my guess is by time the thing opens in Broadway in November, it’s going to be way better. But it got better by going through and having lots of opportunities to get feedback, to try something, to see what failed and the like. So I actually like to build an environment, not grading. I don’t care if I got an A, a B or a C. I just want to continually get feedback of how might we do this thing better, or differently or more creatively or with less sweat.

Halelly: Regular listeners of the show know that sometimes I put on the dreaded devil’s advocate hat, only because in my work of speaking in conferences and facilitating workshops within organizations, I encounter many devil’s advocates, the people who will say the, “Yeah, but,” and if they’re listening, if that pops up in their mind, I want to try to help them get over it. So, with my devil’s advocate hat as a public service, people say, “We have work to do. We have the main thing. We have our main goals to accomplish. We only have so much time. We only have so much money. So every time an employee comes to me with some kind of an idea, that’s really lovely and creative, but it’s extraneous to the core of what we’re supposed to do or I’m worried it will cause them to become sidetracked or waste their time from being able to achieve their main goals. I don’t want to just tell them go ahead and do it.” What do you say to them?

Elliott: I always make the distinction. In the old days of industrial psychology, we talked about time on task. With somebody working, how many hours did they work on that and were they on task? But I look at something else, which is not sort of time on task, but time of intensity on task. Now, if you understand that most work comes from those moments of intensity, and we probably have an awful lot of moments when we look like we’re working but we’re not. We’re looking at the email piece or the spreadsheet or the like. I actually think you need to nurture people by giving them regular projects where they can go and do something new, something different, something provocative, something outrageous, and I never worry that it’s going to decrease the amount of workflow, because bluntly, unless they’re in a frontline customer service thing of taking orders at a fast food counter, generally, people aren’t working at full max for eight hours a day. I’m totally willing to let them do things that might be an hour or two of something different, and I’ve actually found that when you’re passionate … I gave one of my staff, on Thursday, a new portable, immersive, virtual reality set of goggles that just came out. And I gave it to her I think at 2:00 and I got an email from her at 11:30 at night as she was leaving the office, so excited about what she did. Now, I’m not saying my goal is that every person stay until 11:30, but build a culture where that happens occasionally and not only is it okay, but it’s validating that you’re giving them the right mix of things.

Halelly: That’s so important. And when people are doing something that they’re passionate about in their job, they’re obviously much more engaged in their job, they’re appreciative of you as a leader and of the organization that allows for this to happen. I think it creates greater loyalty, greater retention and better morale and a better brand for the organization. I think it just raises everything up.

Elliott: Yup, totally agree with you.

Halelly: Fascinating. Great. I so appreciate that advice, and I love it. Before you give us that one really specific actionable tip, I do want to hear what’s new and exciting for you. I think you might list 20 things because you’re touching so many different things, but what is new and exciting on your horizon?

Elliott: Well, the one thing that has me enormously intrigued, in addition to everything else I’ve done, I’ve taken my conference that I do, my learning conference, and I just made a partnership with a London-based group that runs learning conferences all around the world. I think we have to become more global in learning. I’m looking forward to including colleagues from Germany and China and France and England and Africa. We used to think that the first world, i.e. the U.S. and England and maybe parts of Europe, were the center where all knowledge happens. But the more I travel around the world, the more I am excited to see in Capetown, South Africa, how are they doing learning? What’s happening in the Netherlands in music education at a high school level? I think innovation and learning is happening worldwide, so I made an enormous career decision to partner and shift a lot of my work about our own learning conference, but to really start to look at learning more globally. I approach that not as a learning leader, but as a learner about learning. I can’t wait. I’m going to Rwanda as part of this, e-learning in Africa. I can’t wait to learn from 1,000 people in Africa what they’re doing with mobile devices to do e-learning in street-based markets in Africa. So that’s the big project I’m doing right now in the learning world.

Halelly: Congratulations, I saw that in the news. That’s amazing. And so exciting. And you’re right, it is a smaller world and learning is happening everywhere in so many different ways. What is one specific action that our listeners can take to help grow them, either as learners or as leaders of learners, in their career? Whichever angle you’d like to take.

Elliott: I believe in chapters. That’s why I say I’m level 68 and I’ve got some chapters I’m excited about. Chapters mean that you’re doing what you’re doing and you can imagine more chapters. Now I’ll have chapters until it’s time to transport to a different galaxy. I think what we have to do as we go through those chapters is, first of all, prepare for the next chapter while we’re in the now chapter. So I think it’s always good to think about what is something else I want to do? I think if you can get along the way some type of badge or certification, it might be formally go and get out a Doctorate. I work on a program at Wharton and U Penn, or it might be more Boy Scout-like. I want to work on this thing and I’m going to get a badge because I did some element of it. Finally, a lot of what you might do, this multi-faceted, most people can’t afford to have two jobs or be entrepreneurs, but what I think you can sometimes do is find the not-for-profit service volunteer role, and go in it to do something different than what you do at work. I have a friend, very senior manager, but really, really is enjoying as a volunteer, and is primarily just working in their design area, because they’ve got a graphic background but they don’t get to do it anymore because they’re running a big company. So figure out maybe how you have a chapter that’s not about salary-based benefits, but where there are life benefits that come from that.

Halelly: What’s the reason you recommend the badge? What’s the ultimate purpose of getting a badge?

Elliott: Some of it is that it starts to help identify to other people what you are good at, or what you’ve done. In some cases, it’s just a target for your own aspiration. Now, I probably would love to wear some of my Boy Scout badges. I still have some of them. I think badges, they don’t say, “I’m better than you, and therefore you should hire me to do a job because I have this badge.” But it’s an indication that I’ve gotten along the way, I’ve gone through a rigorous form of validation for that. And now I think we should wear badges around not what only we’ve accomplished, but badges for what we’re learning or what we’re interested in. I work with the State Department, and they did something for a while in Washington where they asked employees on their right collar to wear flags of all the country languages that they spoke, and on their other collar, in a different way, put a language you’re trying to learn. Sure enough, in the lunchroom, people who were learning Portuguese would get together with some other people they didn’t know but had Portuguese flags on their collar, and they would have a Portuguese-based lunch. I think badging helps us connect. I will say, in wrapping up there, I think they need to validated. One of the things that drives me crazy sometimes, I go to LinkedIn and people have validated me who I’ve never met.

Halelly: For skills you don’t have, probably. I get those.

Elliott: Yes. I love a badge, but I think it should be a badge of attainment or project-based, not just thumbs up from some anonymous other person.

Halelly: That’s smart. Good. Elliott, it’s been so much fun talking to you. You are a very interesting and intriguing person and I would love to talk to you more. Maybe we’ll bring you back on the show to hear more about what your next chapter involves, but for now, I know people are going to want to stay in touch and learn more from you. What’s the best way for them to do that?

Elliott: Easiest, my last name is Masie. Go to Masie.com and in it, all the things that I’m doing, you’ll see a link to our Learning 2018 conference. If you want to see what we’re doing in Broadway, you can go to MasieProductions.com. Go see SpongeBob. It’s really good for adults as well as kids.

Halelly: And it got a lot of accolades. Do you hang out, I think you’re on Twitter and LinkedIn?

Elliott: I’m on Twitter and LinkedIn. Instagram, I guess being level 68, I’m not Instagram-ready, but I’ll find a 19-year-old to teach me.

Halelly: That’s right. That’s okay, you can just pick two and stick in there, it’s good. This has been great, and thank you so much. I look forward to learning more from you myself, and thank you again for your time today Elliott.

Elliott: A real pleasure, thank you.

Halelly: Isn’t he a fascinating guy? I just love his story and I love what he’s doing and he’s really making such a positive impact on the world by charting his own path and being a leader. Thank you Elliott for coming on the show, I appreciate you so much. And thank you for listening. I hope that you enjoyed this episode. As you know, I always welcome your feedback, your requests, your comments or anything else you want to say. We’ll link to resources that were mentioned in the show notes page which is on my website, TalentGrow.com/podcast/episode100. That’s also where you can leave comments, you can leave a voice message or anything else you’d like to do to get in touch with me.

It’s been another episode of the TalentGrow Show and I am Halelly Azulay, your leadership development strategist here at TalentGrow. Until the next time, make today great.

Announcer: Thanks for listening to the TalentGrow Show, where we help you develop your talent to become the kind of leader that people want to follow. For more information, visit TalentGrow.com.