Essay: The CMA as a learning community

Dear reader…

Over the past year we have grown a community of 100 members. You know it as the Content Marketing Academy, or the CMA for short.

As you can imagine, an idea grows and changes over the course of a year, and what the CMA was a year ago is very different from what it is now.

That’s why I’m writing this essay, and that’s why I’ve been reading, researching and thinking about the future of the CMA over the past few monthaces

I’ve been having lots of interesting conversations with CMA members, and some of the smartest people I know, about:

  • Leadership
  • How people learn
  • Learning organisations
  • Self-belief and confidence
  • Communication
  • Culture

…and many other aspects of how groups of people come together and learn.

Right now I have a strong and deep feeling that what is happening with the CMA is huge. I want to get these feelings and ideas into black and white.

I need to figure out what we’ve built so I can understand it better. Through this better understanding I can articulate it more clearly, which will help us to have a conversation about it.

What I know right now is that this community is about much more than just ‘content marketing’. It’s not a ‘middle-of-the-road’ membership community; there’s something else at play.

  • What is it that we’re really building here?
  • What does the future look like for the CMA?
  • What’s your role as a member?
  • What’s my role as a facilitator and curator?
  • What’s possible for all of us?

My hope is that this essay opens up an interesting conversation and, as a result, we all lean into it and build the future of the CMA.

This is something I feel I want to do, and I have to do. It’s something that massively interests me, and I care passionately about it.

This isn’t a simple collection of thoughts. I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time debating, arguing, discussing, writing and figuring out what is really happening at the core of the CMA, and why it matters for both you and me, and our future together.

My hope is that you will take the time to read this, think about what I’ve written and let me know how you feel about it.

Thanks for taking the time, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.



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The CMA as a learning community

You joined the CMA to learn about how to build your business in a better way.

You joined to get around like-minded individuals.

You joined for access to different kinds of expertise.

You joined to learn about content marketing.

Whatever your reason(s) for joining, there’s something larger at play that perhaps you haven’t considered before: something far greater and far more powerful than just ‘content marketing’.

But just so there’s no risk of misunderstanding, content marketing is very much at the core of the CMA. You could call it our ‘specialisation’.

My hope is that, by the end of this essay, you will agree that without resources, support, leadership, communication, self-belief and a learning environment, content marketing will only get us so far.

At a fundamental level, every person joins the community because they have the desire to learn something new. They want to change, develop, and grow, and they want to be more successful and grow their business. In short, what everyone has in common is an open mind and thirst for learning.

We are all here to learn.

I think we can safely assume that this is true for everyone who joins the CMA and chooses to stay.

Within the CMA there’s a common understanding that in order for things to change for us we have to grow. And in order to grow we have to learn and be exposed to new ideas, concepts and resources.

The CMA is a collection of learning people: those who understand that learning is critical for building a successful business and who want to be the best they can be.

The CMA is an environment for learning.

The CMA is a learning community.

This essay is about understanding what it means to be a learning community.

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Being a part of something bigger than yourself

The day everything changed for me was 20 September 2011.

That was the day I ended my ten-year career at the University of St Andrews.

Over that ten-year period I had worked on many different projects. I had hired hundreds of people, and fired a few. I had been promoted into a new role every 18 months or so and had learned a lot about management and leadership.

It was around 2006, when I was in my mid-twenties, that I really took my role seriously and started investing my time into the study of leadership and management. My role afforded me the ability to put everything I was learning directly into practice.

In the last three years of my work I strengthened and empowered teams, and my main focus was on helping my team members with individual personal development.

It has to be said that working in a large organisation has its perks, and one major advantage is a learning and development budget. Every single year I was on some sort of certificated course or diploma. I’ll always be grateful for the experiences, skills and knowledge I gained while working there.

With all of this practical and classroom experience it became clear to me that in order for an organisation of any size to be successful it must invest in the development of its people.

Now, that might seem obvious, but although most organisations say they invest in their people, it’s mostly rhetoric.

How many organisations do you know of which place people development at the same level as financial success?

How many organisations truly foster a culture of learning and innovation?

Although you are now a business owner, a freelancer or thinking about starting your own business, you have probably been part of a larger organisation before, or you know someone close to you that is.

A large organisation provides us with:

  • A team
  • A leader
  • A culture
  • A purpose
  • Learning resources and budgets
  • Being a part of something bigger than ourselves.

I used to work with a team of over 100 people, including several levels of management. At our team meetings I recall asking the team, ‘What motivates you to come to work every day?’

Once we got past the comedy answers like ‘my alarm clock’ and ‘the pay cheque’, we got to the real reasons, which included:

  • I like the people I work with.
  • It gives me something to do every day.
  • I enjoy my work.
  • I want to be a good example to my children.

I could go on.

The point is that, although the pay cheque provided motivation on day one, the reason people come back is for something entirely intrinsic; each of them is part of something bigger than themselves, and they stay because they believe in what they are doing.

I fully appreciate that some people are unhappy in their job. However, it’s human nature to be a part of something larger than ourselves, to be a part of something we believe in.

That’s all great when you’re part of a larger organisation. But what happens when you decide to start your own business?

Running your own business provides you with:

  • Freedom to choose what we do with your time
  • The choice to work only on what you love
  • The ability to make your own money on your terms

Which is awesome. But there are a few really important elements missing, which a larger organisation provides:

  • Being a part of something larger than yourself
  • A learning culture
  • Directed learning

That’s why it’s very common for small business owners to join other larger organisations and communities with a shared purpose.

Here are five examples of larger organisations and communities that people have typically joined, or are at least familiar with:

  1. BNI – A business networking community where everyone has a shared objective
  2. Weight Watchers – A health and wellness community where everyone has a shared behaviour
  3. Avon – A network marketing community where everyone has the same intention
  4. University or college – An alumni community where everyone has a common shared identity
  5. Rotary International – A charitable community where everyone has a shared purpose

Being an employee in an organisation where everyone has the same objective or identifying with a political party where everyone has the same point of view are also common examples of communities.

Essentially, it’s all about being around like-minded people with a shared philosophy, or being part of something bigger than yourself, or being able to identify as having something in common with others, or feeling an emotional or strong connection with a community – a place you can ‘hang out’, where you have something in common with those around you.

It’s human nature to have a need or desire to seek a community that you enjoy being a part of and where you can find peer support, recognition and acknowledgment – we’re social animals! Ultimately, the whole community becomes greater than the sum of the people that are a part of it.

You might think that an ‘online membership community’ is different, but exactly the same principles apply, just as in a large organisation of hundreds of people.

There’s a culture, shared vision, leadership, common objectives and goals and a reason to be a part of something bigger than yourself.

Within the CMA there is a common understanding – unwritten rules, a ‘way we do things around here’ – there is a culture.

A culture cannot be created by a single person. In other words, it’s not me that simply ‘creates’ the culture. I certainly have a role in directing and shaping it, but it’s created by the individuals who make up the organisation.

As I go on to discuss later, my role is in fostering and cultivating the environment where learning takes place.

That being said, I think it’s important to have an understanding of what I believe about organisations, learning, and the world in general.

Perhaps you believe in what I believe in?

I believe that:

  • everyone deserves to do what they love every single day.
  • success is predicated on the people we surround ourselves with.
  • everyone’s work is important.
  • in order for one person to be successful, others must be successful too.
  • when you step outside your comfort zone you are at your greatest potential.
  • trust is the most important part of any relationship.
  • a trusted group of people will help you grow.
  • making mistakes is a part of growing.
  • great communication is the key to success.
  • people have more potential and can achieve more than they think.

I believe in:

  • continuous learning and development.
  • great leadership as a philosophy.
  • thinking differently.
  • doing things in a better way.
  • trying new things and taking risks.
  • learning through action.
  • people who believe in themselves first.
  • connecting great people.
  • having a vision.
  • a better future.

Large organisations and communities are fundamentally the same thing: a group of people with a common objective or goal.

Similar to working in a large organisation, where you turn up to work every day, you’re there because of something more than just the pay cheque; you turn up because you believe in something.

When we start on the journey of building our own business there is no large organisation, and we don’t have everything a larger organisation affords us.

This probably means that we’re on our own – we’re making decisions in isolation and we’re not being exposed to new ideas or other people’s thoughts and opinions.

We need to find a way to replace the large organisation, and I believe we can do this by finding a learning organisation and surrounding ourselves with people who allow us to be the best version of ourselves.

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Replacing the large organisation

In a large organisation, people development is inextricably linked to its growth as a whole.

That’s why successful and forward-thinking organisations have training budgets and invest in their people. They know that reliable future profits are predicated upon how much they invest in their team.

Large organisations have access to learning and development budgets, learning resources, world-class thinkers and thought leadership content. Perhaps you’ve worked in one? You’ll know that if you speak to someone who has, they have often taken that access for granted.

What we know to be true is that the way in which leadership look after their people will determine the trajectory of the business.

The same is true in small businesses – your personal development is linked directly to the growth and future success of your business.

However, in our smaller businesses we don’t have the same level of immediate access to learning resources. We have to find that from somewhere else.

Another major difference is that in your small business ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’. In larger organisations this is overcome by leadership, and as an employee you are guided by others; you’re put on training courses and exposed to learning resources as part of the overall experience of being an employee.

In your small businesses it’s not the same; you’re on your own, and it’s up to you to develop that learning path for yourself. You have to decide what’s best for you, and for your team.

All that being said, I think small businesses have the upper hand, particularly where there’s a leadership culture and a willingness to develop a learning culture.

Through learning communities, small businesses:

  • have the ability to create a learning culture similar to that of a large organisation.
  • have the ability to behave like a learning organisation.
  • can learn with people from multiple industries.
  • can tap into expertise outside their own scope of learning.
  • can expose themselves to new ideas, thoughts and content that they would never have found on their own.

As independent business people we have to make the extra effort to invest in ourselves – for the sake of our business and the teams we lead.

We do not have to do this alone. As individuals we can learn in groups and in communities. We can become part of larger learning organisation, just like the Content Marketing Academy, where many business people come together to learn and help others.

To be successful, learning must become a part of your organisational culture, even if you’re a one-person business. As a community we can learn together, learn from each other, share resources, develop ourselves and grow our business. Each of us is a relative expert in our area; we know more about something than others, and that’s exactly how we learn.

The CMA Membership Community is something large organisations crave. Some organisations are spending lots of time, money and effort looking for ways to share and channel internal expertise, and we’ve managed independently to find a way to do exactly that.

What we have is so much better than what larger organisations provide – we have the opportunity to be exposed to content that simply would never have crossed our paths. What’s great about this is that every single person who joins our organisation has the opportunity to grow and develop.

Intelligence and success is not reserved for a small percentage of individuals.

Let’s look at why learning communities are important.

How we learn in groups

A few weeks ago I was at the park with my nine-month-old son, Spencer, where I observed two older children playing on the monkey bars.

A young boy, around seven years old, was attempting the monkey bars for what looked like the first time. He tried a few times but he couldn’t get past the first rung. He kept falling off before even attempting to reach for the second rung. It was clear to me that he couldn’t quite figure out the technique required to move forward. A few moments later, a slightly older girl appeared on the scene. She was much more confident and managed the monkey bars without any hesitation.

What happened next was really interesting.

The younger boy, who had several failed attempts, observed the older girl on the monkey bars and learned two things. First, that it was possible to go all the way to the end of the five rungs, and second, the technique required to do it. He now had a teacher, or a mentor, to help close the learning gap.

This is called the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).

The ZPD for the boy was to go from not being able to do the monkey bars, to getting to the end successfully. In this case the zone was identified, and then a ‘mentor’ arrived to help coach and assist him through the gap to the point where he can do it.

The Zone of Proximal Development, often abbreviated as ZPD, is the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help. (Ref.)

This technique for learning is also referred to as scaffolding. This is where the teacher supports and helps you while you learn something, until you reach the point where you can do it successfully with assistance. At this point they remove the scaffolding so you can perform the activity on your own.
What can we learn from this story?

First, the slightly older girl is not an expert. She only knows a little more that the boy does. For all we know, a few weeks ago the girl might not have been able to do the monkey bars at all.

Perhaps more importantly, it wouldn’t be the same learning experience if the seven-year-old observed me doing the monkey bars. Regardless of whether I can do it or not, I’m a lot older and stronger and the young boy cannot relate to me as an adult.

Second, the younger boy was heavily involved in his own learning. Observing, trying, testing, failing and trying again.

Third, the younger boy built self-belief and confidence from seeing someone else achieve it first, and from observing someone very close to his stage in development.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the boy would probably have learned the monkey bars himself eventually, without help. But it would have taken him a lot longer. So we shouldn’t only consider what you are capable of on your own, but what you are capable of in a social setting: in a learning environment.
What does this tell you about being a member of the CMA?

You are capable of a lot more when you are surrounded by other people who you can learn from and who are relative to your stage of development.

The obvious caveat here is that the student has to actually put the effort in. There’s a lot of persistence and patience required. The ‘facilitator’ doesn’t give you the answer, and you are heavily involved in your learning.

What you’re hopefully starting to understand is that this happens multiple times every single day in the CMA Membership Community.

Every time someone asks the question:

  • How do I…?
  • Where is the…?
  • Why can’t I…?
  • What should I choose…?
  • Where can I find…?
  • What should I do…?

this is the ZPD in practice.

For every question that’s asked in the CMA, someone has an answer. They do not have to be an expert – they just need to know just a little more than you do about that specific area or topic.

Someone provides the scaffolding for you, so you can learn, achieve, and go on to do it yourself – the next thing you know you’re teaching it to someone else!

In my opinion, this is what’s really at the heart of the CMA – learning from other people within your own ZPD.

So what does this mean for every CMA member?

It’s important for us to recognise and identify when someone needs help and is in the ZPD. This helps us understand the importance of asking and answering questions – everyone benefits as a result.

At different times you will take on the role of mentor, teacher or student.

You may feel that asking a question, or answering one, is relatively insignificant, but it’s very powerful. Especially when you take a longer term perspective.

You ask a question, close a small gap, become more confident, ask another question, close another small gap, help someone else with a problem or question, close a small gap, and so on.

Little by little you change, grow, develop and improve.

However, just like going to the gym every day and then looking in the mirror when you get home, you won’t see much difference from one day to the next, but over a 6- or 12-month period you’ll notice a significant change in your growth.

The group setting is much more challenging and rewarding than learning on your own because the students around you challenge you, pushing you to improve faster.

In short, it’s a very effective and efficient way of learning.

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Self-belief and the personal vision

Most people think within the traditional boundaries of their current education, experience, skill set and industry norms. In other words, they stick to ‘normal’ or ‘basic’ ideas, thoughts and aspirations.

In many cases there’s not even a thought about their personal ability to achieve something far greater than they ever thought they could. Some people don’t even dream about their true potential: no dreams, no ambition.

This is where, simply by thinking differently, you can differentiate yourself from most other people.

But when it comes to the personal vision there’s typically some block or barrier, whether it’s thinking ‘I can’t do that’ or believing that some things are only reserved for the ‘gurus’ or ‘experts’ in your industry.

You’ve probably heard something similar hundreds of times. You’ve likely uttered the words yourself.

‘I would like to pursue the profession that I really love but I’ve got to make a living.’

‘I want to grow my businesses but I can’t because I’m a technophobe.’

‘I want to do more video but I’m no good in front of the camera.’

David Bowie captured the essence of this when he said:

If you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you are capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting. (Ref.)

The gap between what you want and what you can achieve is exactly where the energy lies. The challenge for you is to see the gap positively, not negatively.

Ask yourself, ‘What will I become if I achieve my vision?’, or ‘What will I get if I achieve my vision?’.

The reality is that we all have a gap between our current reality and our vision. It’s your relationship with the gap that defines your success.

Let me explain.

Recently a new member emailed me and asked me to cancel her membership. The main reason for cancelling was a fear of technology.

As you know, the first thing you should do when you join the CMA is sign up for Slack, but this was a major barrier for her, especially since it didn’t work first time around.

She felt like a technophobe and, because of this fear, she couldn’t make progress. What’s important to recognise here is that although you or I might think something is easy, the fear is real for the person that is experiencing it.

I could have simply emailed her back and said, ‘OK, thanks for giving it a shot and hopefully I’ll see you in the future.’

I didn’t know this person well, but I knew that if she didn’t do something then she would never change, and she’d be stuck in this position for a long time, perhaps forever.

At the moment I picked up the phone to chat with her I had nothing to lose, and by that point I wasn’t bothered about her being a member or not.

This comes back to what I believe in. Regardless of whether she joined the CMA or not, I knew she had more potential and could achieve more than she thought she could.

For me, the best result from that telephone conversation would be that she would agree to challenge herself and deal with her next barrier – to do whatever it took to get over her fear of technology.

The reason I knew she could do it is because I’ve personally witnessed people overcome identical fears.

The obvious challenge was that she didn’t believe she could do it, and therefore couldn’t see a future where she had conquered this issue, and so she would make very little or no progress.

By the end of our call she was in a completely different place. All she had needed was a little encouragement, and to know that there was someone to support her. I shared a few stories of other people who had overcome the exact same fears as hers, to help her understand that it could be done.

In this case, overcoming the fear of technology would enable her to operate in a technological world and so help grow her business.

This is why self-belief is possibly the best gift you can give someone. After you have the why you can show them the how.

If people don’t believe they can do something then they can’t see what the future looks like and won’t be open to learning. Help someone to believe in their own ability and they’ll see a different and better future for themselves, and so be far more likely to achieve.

It’s also important to understand that if you don’t believe in yourself then you can’t expect others – your customers, your audience, your family – to believe in you.

Everything starts with self-belief and, as a learning community, this is exactly what we all help each other with every single day.

We all have days when we suffer from emotional tension. The reason some people are able to overcome it easily, and without any significant pain, is that they understand that it’s part of the creative process.

You’ve really only got two choices: you either work with it, or you lower your vision. We both know which option is best.

We need to understand that changing our reality takes time, and it’s not what the vision gets us, but what the vision does to us.

When you stretch yourself, you become more.

Through small exposures over a long period of time, things can change in a big way for you, especially if you are open to new ideas and different perspectives. If things go the way you want them to, you’re going to be around for a long time. Get excited about what’s possible for you, enjoy the process, produce, have fun and lean into it.

Our responsibility for learning

As we’ve already seen, our success in life and in business is tied directly to how we learn, what we learn and the rate at which we do it.

As far as responsibilities are concerned, every single one of us is responsible for our own learning, regardless of whether we run our own business or are an employee in a larger organisation.

Each day you should be striving to push yourself out of your comfort zone to learn something new and recognising your own areas of development.

Once we leave school we can no longer expect to be ‘spoon fed’ information: our learning becomes self-directed and we are fully responsible for it. When you leave formal education you are no longer part of a group of people all learning the same thing at the same time. There is no curriculum and there are no prearranged tests, assessments or exam results. There’s nothing to tell you that your learning is right or wrong.

Your learning is dynamic and fluid, and this is why the environment you place yourself in as a business owner becomes crucial for your development. The key differentials will be what you learn, the rate at which you learn, and how you apply that learning.

When it comes to my responsibility in the CMA, the one thing I know for sure is that I cannot make you learn, and nor should I. My responsibility is to foster a learning environment and curate learning resources: it’s entirely up to you how you benefit from the environment, the resources and the community.

You have probably heard the expression ‘you get out what you put in’, and this what we would typically call ‘contribution’ – a really important dynamic in any learning organisation.

Among many things, your contribution comes from:

  • Asking questions
  • Answering questions
  • Providing feedback
  • Challenging ideas and opinions
  • Sharing great resources.

It’s my mission to bring great people together in a place where we can all thrive and be the best version of ourselves.

I know that every single person will benefit as a result:

  • We get smarter
  • We increase our confidence and self-belief
  • We make better decisions
  • We get better at solving problems
  • We overcome challenges

So, when it comes to a learning organisation like the CMA, not only do you have responsibility for your own learning, you have a level of responsibility for others’ learning too.

There are many people doing great things in the CMA, and we’ve got a culture where, when you see someone doing something really well, you don’t feel underwhelmed by your own performance, you feel positively motivated and encouraged to achieve: to do better, to improve yourself.

You acknowledge people for their great work.

Leadership: It’s who we are

Leadership is not reserved for any single position or person in the CMA, or in any organisation for that matter.

The CMA is not all about providing information in a ‘top-down’ style. Everyone is involved, through sharing, responding, asking and taking action. We all have a role to play.

Leadership in the CMA is a philosophy and culture. It’s who we are.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, content marketing doesn’t work without leadership and communication. We are a group of leaders with content marketing at our core, and if we want to truly differentiate then we have to talk about the philosophies of leadership, how we learn and effective communication – as well as content marketing.

It’s the learning environment that we have created that will shape us to become the best versions of ourselves.

We’re all there for each other. Just like brothers and sisters we don’t always agree, but we support each other, elevate each other and understand that everything we do helps each of us grow.

Chris Marr
2 October 2016

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There have been a few key individuals that influenced my thinking and have supported me in not only writing this essay, but in helping me understand how valuable my work is.

Allen Marr – I recall my Dad talking me to my first personal development experience when I was 14. It was a Jack Black ‘Mindstore’ event for children. He has always supported my learning, business projects and has been hugely influential in my personal development. It took me a while to catch on to the importance of self-directed learning, but I got there eventually. Thanks for all your support Dad!

Stuart Graham – Over the course of my whole working career Stuart, my Step-Dad, has influenced my learning in management and leadership. His experience working in high-level management in an international organisation has gifted me with access to a great mind. With specific reference to the CMA, Stuart knew what I was building before I did. Without his influence I wouldn’t have explored ZPD, The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge, or considered the CMA to be a ‘learning organisation’. Stuart helped me to not only see the bigger picture, but supported me in exploring it.

Margaret Graham – My Mum is my confidant. She believes in me, listens to everything I say, supports me in everything I do, and wants me to be happy in my life. She’s always at the end of the phone. As an amazing Granny to Spencer she affords me the time to work on creating my dreams and working on what interests me the most.

Rod McMillan – Since meeting and getting to know Rod over this past 12 months he has become a true advocate of my work and the CMA. I have a huge amount of respect for Rod, and because of Rod’s belief in me I took time out this October to write this essay.

Cara Mackay – Sometimes when you’re so close to something you can’t clearly see the bigger picture. Through working closely together and having lots of in depth conversations, Cara has helped me to understand and appreciate the positive impact that the CMA has on people’s lives and just how important our work is.

Marcus Sheridan – I first discovered Marcus late 2013 /early 2014. In a very short period of time we’ve worked together and become friends. I owe so much to Marcus for his influence, support and wisdom. The CMA wouldn’t be what it is today without Marcus’ support and direction.

When we were having dinner at WCC in May 2016 we had an open discussion about CMA. Everyone there could see what I couldn’t, and it took me a few months to figure it out. A seed was planted that day. Thanks to everyone that attended WCC with Marcus, I know everyone in that room changed that day.

Mark Scheafer and Ann Handley publically recognised the CMA community at TCMA 2016, which gave me a lot of confidence that what we’re doing with CMA is really special.

Thanks to Denise Cowle for proof reading and editing this essay, and an extra thanks to Stuart Graham and Cara Mackay for reading all the drafts and helping direct my thoughts.

Thanks to every single member from the CMA Membership Community for believing in me. Without you, none of this would have been possible.

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About Chris Marr

Chris is the leading voice of the growing Content Marketing movement in the UK. His pioneering work has helped countless organisations grow through content marketing. His drive comes from a desire to help people break free from the world of interruption marketing.