The Hardest Part of L&D Work: Meet Massella Dukuly, Learning & Development Leader, Coach and Podcast Host

Massella Dukuly always had a passion for helping others and even had ambitions to become a psychologist. After rerouting her career path, she established herself within the learning and development realm of fast-growth e-commerce and technology start-ups. Her fascination with the impact of learning and development evolved into wanting to learn about what the impact was in other organizations. She now orchestrates up to 30 training sessions per month to 100s of companies and exceptional leaders across the globe as a Coach, Facilitator, and Strategist for LifeLabs Learning. In this role, Massella utilizes her people-focused mindset to educate and inspire growth within others. In her spare time, she is the host of Keeping Score Podcast, a podcast dedicated to empowering individuals to live an engaged life. Her story informs us of the importance of learning and development in the workplace, the impact of intentional time management, and a reminder to always continue growing.

JF: Tell us a little bit about how you got to where you are today. 

Massella Dukuly: I think it all starts with the fact that I really enjoy helping people. In college, I planned to become a psychologist and wanted to help people battling substance abuse. It's grueling work and often not the type of thing that friends and family want to talk about, which can make you feel quite alone. I knew I needed to find something a little more emotionally sustainable. 

"When done well, learning and development not only supports the company but deeply supports the human."

After several years working for fast-growth e-commerce and technology start-ups (Warby Parker and Squarespace), I was fascinated by how a commitment to maintaining a learning culture played in keeping people engaged in their work. I wanted to take things to the next level to understand what businesses do and what it looked like at other organizations. I decided to get my MBA, and eventually, that led me to LifeLabs Learning. The irony is that I had experienced LifeLabs at both of the companies named above, and I knew from those workshops that it was work I found important and meaningful. When done well, learning and development not only supports the company but deeply supports the human - how they view themselves in the workplace and beyond and their ability to thrive. I'm excited that I get to play a part in ensuring that people feel equipped and can be successful in their work.

JF: In your current work, you conduct 20-30 Leadership Development workshops per month to 100s of organizations. How in the world do you keep up your stamina for so much extraversion and engagement in your work?

MD: Energy management is one of the most crucial skillsets for any facilitator, especially at the capacity that I facilitate. We're busy at LifeLabs, which is wonderful, but it requires intentionality. The first thing for me is proactivity around breaks and vacations. I wasn't always good at this, and I'm still not great at it. Slowly but surely, though, I'm getting better. Taking the time out in December or January to pre-determine my week-long breaks throughout the year has been so helpful because those breaks always seem to pop up at precisely the right times.

"It's hard, but I've learned that my inability to have boundaries was a bigger issue than the work itself."

Outside of that, proper sleep hygiene - no phone in the bed, taking magnesium pills (a great, non-drowsy alternative to melatonin), and having boundaries around email and work tasks, in general, have helped me drastically. There's nothing better than truly being work-free on the weekend (not even Sunday night!). It's hard, but I've learned that my inability to have boundaries was a bigger issue than the work itself.

JF: Learning and development can cover such a wide range of topics. Which topics are you're most passionate about? And, what are some of your favorite reads on the subject?

MD: I'm passionate about employee engagement. I'm fascinated by what makes people want to stay at a company and what makes them sustainably excited about their work. There's an interesting balance between the conditions that a company provides and how an employee views themselves and the purpose their work has in their life. Employee engagement is not just something that can be solved by a survey. A good solution requires conversations, which take time and energy, but when done right by managers, it will make a meaningful difference.

A couple of books that I've really enjoyed are "An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization" by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey and "The Coaching Habit" by Michael Bungay Stanier.

"L&D has also been an opportunity to create some meaningful progress in a world that feels quite still as of late."

JF: It's no doubt that 2020 has been a stressful year for the entire world. During this time, you've been able to interact with 100s of people from across a wide variety of organizations. What are the trends that you're seeing in employees, and how do you think L&D work supports them in these challenging times?

MD: In general, people are tired and overwhelmed. There is no real separation between work and home, and for many people, that is damning. What's been beautiful to see is that the time we have together in some of those workshops is the first pause they've had to be honest about the struggles they might be facing. L&D, at least the way we've done it at LifeLabs, has been an avenue for community and connection, which feels so nice in a world of hours of awkward Zoom meetings. L&D has also been an opportunity to create some meaningful progress in a world that feels quite still as of late. Learning something new, having a chance to commit and try one habit for a week before meeting again is a dopamine burst that is much needed when things feel monotonous. 

JF: Early in 2020, you launched a podcast, Keeping Score, to explore what it takes to live an engaged life. What inspired you to launch this podcast, and what are some of the lessons you've learned along the way?

MD: I launched Keeping Score for a few reasons. Firstly, it was an opportunity for me to get my voice into the world and try something new. 

I was also excited about getting to interview people who I found interesting. These are people with unique backgrounds, career paths, or personal stories. I think humans are much more resilient than we tend to give ourselves credit for. It's fascinating to see how some have learned to lean on that resilience to live purposeful and engaging lives that bring them contentment.

"You have to be willing to put things out there even when they're not quite perfect. It's an opportunity to learn and get feedback so that you can make tweaks until you get closer to 100%."

I've learned so much while creating and recording Keeping Score, especially that 80% is truly better than 0%. The 80% rule is also a value we have at LifeLabs. I've always believed it in theory, but as a perfectionist, it's been hard for me in practice. You have to be willing to put things out there even when they're not quite perfect. It's an opportunity to learn and get feedback so that you can make tweaks until you get closer to 100%. I learned this with mics, writing formats and schedules, and even learning how to set my guests up for success, especially while recording remotely. Outside of that, I realized just how much I enjoy building, creating, and teaching myself new things. I had no clue how to record a podcast. YouTube and articles on the internet were the most powerful tools and it felt great to feel myself getting better over time.

"Often, managers understand the value of coaching or giving feedback in theory, but they don't do it enough."

JF: There's a saying: people don't leave their jobs, they leave their managers. You've previously managed others and helped them become strong, successful contributors, and now you train managers on how to be more effective. What do you think are the qualities/skills that most managers lack, and what are a few tips that you'd suggest for gaining self-awareness and skills to become a better manager?

MD: I'd say the thing that managers are lacking is a commitment to practicing their skillsets. Being a manager for 20 years doesn't necessarily make you an effective manager. Often, managers understand the value of coaching or giving feedback in theory, but they don't do it enough. It's not normalized in their relationships with their people, so they miss out on opportune times to use those skills. To build better self-awareness, build in intentionality. Take time to understand what areas you could strengthen; this could look like asking your team for feedback, or if you already have an idea of an area to strengthen, build a plan of execution. For example, if you know that you could be a better coach, you can commit to asking at least three coaching questions in each of your 1-1s. After a week or so, check-in with yourself. Were you successful? What felt good? What was difficult? Do that on repeat. We've got to have a level of accountability if we want to be effective skill builders.

JF: For people who believe that the L&D space might be the right career path for them, give us the inside scoop (from your experience). What's the best and most challenging part of your work?

MD: L&D is such an evolving space of work, and I feel so excited to see where it's going. I'm starting to see people genuinely value it, rather than seeing it as a checkbox item. For me, the best part is making people's lives easier. Being and serving as an example of a great leader can feel like an overwhelming task, especially because most leaders are trying to balance their independent contributor work and people management. I get to help people simplify complexity by helping them build strengths in a few core areas, such as coaching, giving and receiving feedback, and having an effective 1-1 that can make a significant impact in their world of work.

The hardest part about this work is the attitude towards L&D work. Some see it as a checkbox; some see it as just one training. Learning should be a culture that permeates an organization. When it's not, no workshop, speaker, or module will have a lasting impact.

JF: You've been in your current organization for 3.5 years, which is a typical timeframe for people to start thinking about their next move. How are you hoping to learn and grow in the next role you take on, whenever that may be?

MD: When I think about how I'd like to grow in my next role, it comes down to wanting to take the skill sets that I've developed and put them into action. Much of my work is day-to-day execution, which has taught me a lot, but I'm excited to do something larger with that knowledge. I want to get a bit more strategic and build systems that make it easy for people to practice and master the skills we teach.

JF: What do you think are essential topics organizations should be talking and thinking more about right now?

MD: Right now, with so much happening in the world, I think organizations should be talking and thinking about what it means to truly create and sustain an inclusive culture, and how to prevent and manage burnout with a largely remote workforce.

When it comes to inclusion, you might be thinking, "we're already doing that!" but from what I've often seen, the approach is surface level. Perhaps you put out a statement earlier in the year supporting Black Lives Matter, or maybe you donated. Those things do matter, but personal accountability comes down to behavior change. What does inclusion look like at your org? What specific habits will be modeled and practiced by all? How will you handle uncomfortable situations that might arise? No one will be perfect, but I do believe if you're not intentionally being inclusive, there is a good chance you're accidentally being exclusive.

"Pausing to evaluate what's been working and what could be 10% better from a productivity and energy management perspective is essential as we head into 2021."

With the world changing so much, the reality is that life at home and at work, which is the same for most these days, is hectic for so many reasons. It's also a catalyst for extreme burnout. Pausing to evaluate what's been working and what could be 10% better from a productivity and energy management perspective is essential as we head into 2021. As an example, Zoom fatigue is real. While we can't stop all of our meetings, checking in to get a pulse on where you might adjust to help your team manage their energy might be a step that drastically impacts the level of burnout your team will experience.

JF: At Fink Development, we help individuals advance their careers with clarity, confidence, and authenticity. What's one piece of advice you've received in your career that's allowed you to gain more clarity, confidence, or show up with authenticity?

MD: One thing that has stayed with me has been the advice to "follow the things that energize you." It's easy to get fixated on what you're good at or what you'd like to be good at, but the things that energize you are a beautiful red thread that can be a gut check and allow you to determine if where you are and what you're doing are worthwhile.

Contributor Bio: Massella Dukuly is a Coach, Facilitator, and L&D Strategist who has acted as a trusted partner and strategic consultant to exceptional leaders across the globe. She’s also the host of Keeping Score Podcast, interviews and mini-episodes that explore what it takes to live an engaged life.

Connect with Massella via her podcast Keeping Score or LinkedIn