A talk with Pru Retirement's president Chris Marcks on Continuous Learning

As President of Prudential Retirement, Chris Marcks is well known for her work in expanding Prudential’s product portfolio.  What you may not know is that Chris, a self-described bookworm, is a champion of continuous learning and development.  In fact, according to her, you need to be in continuous learning mode to be successful today.  Kurt Metzger, vice president of Talent Management, recently sat down with Chris to get her perspective on why learning is so important and how she makes it a personal priority.

Kurt:  A lot of people think about learning in terms of their formal education.  From a business leader’s perspective, why is it important that it not stop there?

Chris:  I think about how the world changes every day and what a dynamic environment we are in– consumerism, technology, the globalization of the economy.

What you get in school is book learning.  I look at business as the opportunity to apply what you learned in school but, more importantly, to move from the theoretical into the practical.  I tell my team that being a student of the business is an attribute of leadership at any level.

Our customers continue to change– so you really have to be in continuous learning mode to be successful these days.

Kurt:  In my field of leadership development, I used to believe that there was this finite body of knowledge that I could study, get the right degrees and certifications, and achieve mastery at some point.  I don’t think that is possible anymore.  There is too much available, and it is changing so quickly.

Chris:  I completely agree.  There are always new practices, new approaches and new methods, so you are never “done” learning.

Here is one example.  I recently heard a discussion about advances in decoding the human genome.  Think about all of the ramifications of that – from how we price life business or pension risk transfer business.  Suddenly, there is this whole new field opening.

Kurt:  What other ideas are sparking your interest right now?

Chris:  I have been doing a lot of reading on innovation – how you build a culture of innovation and establish innovation practices.  Because things are speeding up, we need to engage our associates in improving their learning agility, and we need to harness their creativity to develop new solutions for clients.

I’m also very interested in brain science.  We have done a lot of work in behavioral finance, which wasn’t even a field that existed when I got my degree in economics.  I actually wish I could go back to school and learn more about it because I see it in action with the participants in our plans.  So I am trying to understand more about how people make decisions, what engages them.  It’s a fascinating topic because money is a very emotional thing.

Kurt:  I like how you talk about the value of reflecting on what you are learning. Seeing how dots connect doesn’t always happen immediately.

Chris:  I had to take securities exams because I am a Registered Representative.  That’s a situation where there is very practical and immediate application of what you learned. 

You have other situations where you are learning things that may not directly relate to what you are doing at the moment.  It may be harder to see the connection, but it is still extremely valuable.  At the least, you are keeping your mind active and agile.  

Kurt:  Can you talk about the value of collaboration and learning from others?

Chris:  One thing that I’ve learned is that I can never know it all, and so I absolutely have to rely on others for their knowledge, and at times, I need them to teach me.  In this company, people are always open to teaching you.  That is unusual based on some of my conversations with friends who work in other places.  It’s one of those differences that I think of as a competitive advantage. 

And it is important to have talent around you that is different from you in background, skills and experiences because then you can leverage their learning too.

Kurt:  How do you find the time to stay current and learn new things?

Chris:  I think you have to be intentional.  I take some time each week just to pause and reflect on what I learned.  Because my kids are grown, I also have some sacred time on the weekend to read.  A lot of time during the week I’m reading material for work, and so the weekends are when I can sit down and read for myself.  I’m reading Ben Bernanke’s biography right now.

When I think about my development plan for the year, I typically pick a couple of points of focus.  Right now I am focusing on innovation.  So I might pick one conference and try and establish meetings with a couple of people who I consider experts over the course of the year.

Kurt:  What other advice do you have on ways to learn?

Chris:  A lot of my learning comes on the job.  For example, I hear my colleagues talk about what’s going on in their businesses and how they are addressing some of their challenges.  I learn about different approaches to solving problems.

When I do site visits, I make sure I spend time with small groups to see how they spend their day.  I learn about what they need to know and how they have to navigate.  I also look at being part of an internal Business Resource Group, being on a Community Engagement Council or doing volunteer work as chances to learn about something different from what you do day to day.  You learn leadership and influencing skills.  Pru is so supportive of spending your time in this way.

The other thing is job shadowing.  For example, spend a day following somebody on the marketing team or sit with an employee from the call center.

Kurt:  What’s the ultimate business impact of being a company that is focused on learning?

Chris:  The smarter we are, the better we are.  I always feel great when I hear a client say “you just have a fabulous team.” That is such high praise.  In this world of change and technology, learning agility is really important.  You can’t do the same thing for forty years like you might have been able to a century ago.  It’s just not that kind of world anymore.

Chris Marcks' Essential Reading List:

  • Emotional Intelligence – Daniel Goleman
  • Good to Great – Jim Collins
  • Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value – Bill George
  • Senior Leader Teams: What It Takes to Make Them Great – Ruth Wageman, Debra A. Nunes, James A. Burruss, and J. Richard Hackman
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team – Patrick Lencioni
  • Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done – Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan
  • Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter – Liz Wiseman


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