Mary Chokani Mphonda - Transform 2 Excel

"Everything I do revolves around a deep passion for improving workplace performance"

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For the fifth in the series, we were thrilled to catch up with Mary Chokani Mphonda, Chief Learning Officer at Transform 2 Excel, a learning and development consulting firm established to transform organisational learning and higher education learning in Africa.

Mary talks us through her key responsibilities as CLO and why everything she does revolves around a deep passion for improving workplace performance. She lets us in on how she balances a busy role with keeping her own development firmly on the agenda and shares some interesting reports to add to our reading list.

We look back on one of Mary’s great career ‘ups’ - and why it still makes her proud to this day, and hear about a tough choice she had to make in her career between work and family (and what happened next).

Mary also shares her dream breakfast and the essential items she can’t get through the working day without…

Mary Chokani Mphonda - Transform 2 Excel

Hi Mary. We're delighted to have you on board for the series. Please could you start by telling us about Transform 2 Excel and what the company does?

Transform 2 Excel was established in 2018. It's a learning and development consulting firm working with corporates, governments, non-governmental organisations and higher education institutions in Africa.

We started our work in Malawi and Botswana and will be expanding into Tanzania and Zambia.

We help organisations in the following areas:

  • Work with them to develop learning strategy that's fully aligned to their business strategy
  • Build high performing L&D teams by empowering their learning professionals with world class skills and capabilities
  • Work with them to build learning academies and a culture of learning
  • Work with Higher Education Institutions to ensure a smooth migration from the traditional classroom format to online learning
  • Deliver custom training via face-to-face and digital learning formats

In a nutshell, what are your key responsibilities as Chief Learning Officer [CLO]?

I work directly with leadership teams in the organisations we work with on learning strategy and building the learning culture.

I'm passionate about improving workplace performance — so all the work that I do revolves around that. I also help organisations set up their L&D function and build up the capabilities of their L&D teams.

We've recently started building more digital courses in-house, so I have taken lead on those projects, too.

Where and how did you start your career in L&D? 

I have an MSc in Instructional Design and Development so I started my career as an Instructional Designer. I quickly progressed to Manager of Instructional Design for Strayer University in Virginia, USA.

In 2014, I resigned from my job after making the decision to relocate back to my home country Malawi.

Mary Chokani Mphonda - Transform 2 Excel

Had you always intended to work in L&D, or did you explore any other routes along the way?

No, I had never intended to work in L&D!

When I moved back to Malawi in 2014, I didn't expect to get a job in my field. Then, one day I noticed an advert in the newspaper and my qualifications ticked all the boxes.

I interviewed for the L&D Manager position and got the job — and that's how I started my journey in L&D. The fascinating thing was that, when I travelled to our Group Head Office in South Africa, people were interested in meeting me because I had studied Instructional Design.

I had training in adult learning theories, unlike most of my colleagues, and this gave me an advantage.

Mary Chokani Mphonda - Transform 2 Excel

How do you keep your skills fresh and keep a focus on your own learning as well as others’?

Learn, learn, learn!

I read lots of L&D reports; recent highlights have included the LinkedIn 2021 Workplace Learning Report and the Deloitte 2021 Global Human Capital Trends: Special Report.

I also undertake certification training and I'm a member of several L&D network groups that share knowledge, including the Chief Learning Officer [CLO] Forum, L&D Shakers, Training Magazine’s Social Network and The Association for Talent Development.

Plus, I attend webinars and conferences, including the Learning Live Conference, Degreed Lens and the Learning Technologies Conference.

In my role as CLO, I help others build their capabilities — so it's essential that I stay on top of the latest trends and innovations and continuously polish my skills.

I'm a Certified Performance Consultant, a Certified Project Management Professional, and a Fellow of the Learning and Performance Institute [LPI].

So, every year I set myself personal goals on what I need to learn — and relearn — in order to stay ahead in my field.

Can you tell us your most memorable career 'up', and 'down'? What did you learn from them?

My most memorable career 'up' was starting my role as L&D Manager back in 2014; it was both exciting and scary! I found myself in a completely new industry and learning new things, and at the same time I was expected to deliver in the role.

What I was able to implement in such a short space of time still makes me proud to this day!

This included:

  • Portfolio Management and delivering training that helped Relationship Managers to improve their numbers. The training was positively received by the RM’s and Business Heads
  • Successfully launching Skills Soft training and rolling out a campaign to increase uptake of the LMS usage in collaboration with the CEO’s office
  • Building strategic alliances with the Finance, Procurement, and Marketing teams that resulted in re-branding and cost saving for the L&D department
  • Leading the new Graduate Development Program Trainees; creating a training plan for them, monitoring their progress and conducting performance evaluations
  • Successfully collaborating efforts to enrol delegates in the Retail Banking Academy programme
  • Implementing an Ethics programme for the entire branch network
  • Securing budget to renovate the training centre; making it more modern, welcoming and functional and purchasing new equipment and collaborating with the Operations team to successfully deliver on this task

Unfortunately, I had to leave my job - and I consider that my career 'down'.

My husband received a posting to the UK, so I had to leave Malawi. I was torn between keeping my job or keeping my family together. I chose keeping my family, and in June 2015 we moved to London.

Mary Chokani Mphonda - Transform 2 Excel

This move afforded me the gift of time and I learned to make the most of it. Initially, I was offered a few consulting opportunities by contacts in my professional network and by those who found my profile online, which led to some short-term L&D projects.

As I was doing this, my mother kept saying to me that, perhaps, this would be the time to establish a consultancy. In 2018, I finally decided to go into L&D consulting full-time, but focusing on countries in Southern Africa.

What advice would you give to anyone looking to start a career in L&D or progress further?

Always be curious! Learn to listen effectively so you can understand the issues in your organisation and master the business language. Be open to receiving feedback, continuously assess your capabilities and keep learning new skills.

Mary Chokani Mphonda - Transform 2 Excel

How has the current pandemic impacted Transform 2 Excel and its work? 

Most of the work we do is in Africa - and therefore not being able to travel really proved to be a challenge. Unfortunately, we lost some key projects because some of our clients couldn't adapt to virtual working.

How do you think the L&D industry will need to adapt and flex to overcome the challenges? 

I think as an industry we have proven that we can adapt and work with agility to overcome challenges.

At Transform 2 Excel, we shifted our work model from travelling to client’s offices to virtual working. We’ve had to cancel important meetings at the last minute due to connectivity issues and power outages where some of the clients are located. We’ve implemented lots of contingency planning to keep us going; and some weeks, we’ve just had to accept that even the contingency plans won’t save the day!

However, looking back at the last 18 months, we take the wins from (1) supporting clients as they transitioned into remote work for the first time and (2) working with managers to build capabilities in order for them to support their teams properly.

When you listen to L&D professionals sharing their success stories on how they worked with speed to support businesses during the pandemic, it's really impressive.

I believe the important thing moving forward is to keep the momentum going; for learning professionals to continue to take the initiative to stay ahead of business challenges and understand how we can help teams and businesses.

With the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, what are your views on returning to face-to-face training?

At some point we will have to return to face-to-face training because people still want that physical connection. However, I would encourage others to continue to make the most of the hybrid training format.

One of the challenges we’ve encountered with face-to-face training is delegates complaining about time - and we’ve had some no-shows as a result. By embracing the hybrid format, you can accommodate everyone’s needs and have a wider reach.

I feel there’s more buy-in from attendees when you have a hybrid format rather than just offering face-to-face training. You can also save a lot on training costs - which is always a plus for the business.

Are you making plans for in-person training or will the changes brought on by the pandemic linger on, with virtual training becoming the 'new normal'?

For now, we are sticking with virtual training, maybe for another year or so.

Who do you look up to or reach out to for inspiration — either in the L&D industry, your networks or in general — and why? 

There are several people in the industry that I admire and look up to. For inspiration, my go-to person varies depending on what's going on at the particular time.

I like L&D Connect on Twitter and their #LDInsight chat every Friday at 8.00 am (GMT) where I learn a lot from other L&D professionals.

I follow people like Laura Overton (an award winning learning analyst) and Donald H. Taylor (a recognised commentator and thinker in the fields of workplace learning and supporting technologies).

I subscribe to the weekly newsletter by Offbeat, co-founded by Lavinia Mehedintu (People Experience Manager) which curates all the current L&D resources.

What's the best advice you've ever been given and why has it remained with you?

A former Director once said to me, "This is a new environment for you, if you are going to succeed you need to understand the business and learn the language." That stayed with me and changed my perspective.

I spent the first month on the job as L&D Manager sitting in different departments, talking to people, asking a lot of questions and learning how things worked.

In my role now, and before we go further with any work for new clients, I go around and talk to different people in that business so that I can understand their world.

I no longer begin in solution mode; I start with getting a good understanding of the business environment first.

What or who motivates you to get out of bed in the morning and get working? 

My passion for helping people do their jobs well — and the satisfaction that comes from knowing that you helped bring that impact.

What are the latest L&D trends and innovations you think we need to know about?

On my radar right now is upskilling and reskilling. COVID-19 has escalated digital transformation and in the markets where we work, we are lagging behind in terms of digital/technology adoption; hence the need to aggressively implement upskilling programs.

What time does your alarm go off? Do you snooze… or leap out of bed?

I have a beautiful 21-month-old girl and she has become my alarm clock in the morning!

Her sleep cycle keeps changing on a weekly basis so some days we are up at 4.00am and some days at 9.00am.

Before her arrival, I would snooze from 8.00am to 8:30am; so I've had to adapt to a new pattern!

Mary Chokani Mphonda - Transform 2 Excel

What would be your dream breakfast and where would you eat it?

Fried eggs, beef sausages, sourdough toast, Malawi Mzuzu Coffee and Malawi Mangoes; eaten while sitting on a balcony at Lake Malawi in Salima.

Mary Chokani Mphonda - Transform 2 Excel

That sounds incredible! What is your actual breakfast and location right now?

I’m in West London and my breakfast is cereal with hot milk, an apple, and a cup of my Malawi coffee.

What are you reading and listening to at the moment?

Lately, I've been reading a lot of McKinsey reports and articles, such as Defining the skills citizens will need in the future world of work’.

I have also gone back to this report a few times because I can relate to the challenges faced by women in these difficult times.

Articles such as this one on Intentional Learning offers some very practical advice and is exactly the type of content I’ve been discussing with some of our clients.

I also came across this article covering insights on Johnson & Johnson’s transformation journey. I was impressed with how they’ve been able to accomplish great results with the focus being on the employee experience.

I have spent a few weeks reading this IFC report – 'Digital Skills in Sub-Saharan Africa Spotlight on Ghana' for one of the projects that we have in the pipeline.

I've also been listening to the following podcasts; The Learning and Development Podcast with David James, Learning Uncut with Michelle Ockers and The Women Talk about Learning Podcast - which amplifies women's voices talking about all things L&D related.

What can’t you get through the day without?

My mobile phone and lots of water!

Mary Chokani Mphonda - Transform 2 Excel

What’s the best part of your job — and the most challenging?

By far, the best part of my job is seeing the L&D teams we work with change from being order-takers to trusted and respected business partners. Also, it's seeing L&D professionals owning their professional development and continuously building their capabilities.

I would say the most challenging part of my role is encouraging others to see things from my point of view. Naturally, I’m a good listener and curious person and I feel these two traits really help me in situations like these. I ask a lot of questions and listen with the intent to understand.

Sometimes, I’ve had to take a few days to process things and then get back to the conversation until we see eye to eye.

What do you do in your spare time / after work?

I really enjoy taking walks to the park with my daughter, cooking and enjoying a nice meal with my husband.

Recently, I cooked some oxtail, roadrunner chicken (free range), and grilled sea bass! I also spend time on the phone catching up with family members in different countries.

Would you like to feature in the series?

Our interviews are conducted by Nicola Greenbrook, a highly experienced HR specialist-turned-writer.

If you would like to chat about your own experiences in Learning & Development, Human Resources, or Talent Acquisition, we would love to hear from you - please use the contact form below and we'll get right back to you.

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