APU Business Careers Careers & Learning Everyday Scholar Podcast

Executive Leadership Training Improves Communication, Active Listening Skills

Podcast by Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and
Alexa Chilcutt, Executive Education Faculty, Johns Hopkins Carey Business School

The transition from one level of leadership to the next can bring a lot of uncertainty and insecurities. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to Alexa Chilcutt about her experience teaching executive leadership education at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. Learn about three basic communication competencies for executive leaders to help them convey their authentic selves that inspire those they manage and oversee.

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. Today we’re talking to Alexa Chilcutt, Executive Education faculty at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. Our conversation today is about executive leadership and communication. Welcome, Alexa.

Alexa Chilcutt: Welcome. I’m glad to be here.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. This is a great topic because for so many students and people they think about, “Wow, what will my career be like years down the road and what will happen if I become an executive?” And so this is exciting because you deal with executives and you deal with leadership and how they communicate and so this really leads into the first question is: Begin by telling us how you transitioned from teaching at the university level to executive education.

Alexa Chilcutt: I have always really enjoyed the practical application of communication concepts. I’ve worked. I did not go all the way through academia as some people do as far as undergrad, then masters, then Ph.D. I actually got my undergrad and then worked as a development director, so I had a very outward-facing job, got a masters a little later on in advertising and public relations, once again, very applied in that program, and then it rolled into a Ph.D. program, but my mentor was a consultant on the side and did a lot of training and executive programs. I just really leaned into that. I loved teaching professionals, and so I’ve always kept that foot on that side of the fence as well as in academia.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I love that you have a path, which I would describe as very traditional. I think in academia, we think of, “Oh, everybody has a doctorate,” and that’s just not true because doctorates are achievements and they’re an academic achievement, but academic doctorates are really just a credential to allow you to teach in college. And so what you did gave you such a practical applied experience, especially in communication. What do you enjoy about teaching professionals and how are the expectations different at this level of instruction?

Alexa Chilcutt: I do really enjoy teaching professionals. While I love teaching college students, there’s a definite need for all of these skills and concepts. But when you make that transition into teaching people who are really working day-to-day and they’re trying to really submit themselves, be vulnerable to learning new things and professional development, they see themselves as leaders or future leaders. They are hungry for the information in a different way than, let’s say, a typical college student is.

They really want you to focus on the applied, focus on how those skills, whether they’re leadership, leadership communication, team communication, how they can leave that course and immediately apply them back in their work environment or back leading their team. And so I enjoy working with professionals because they do see all of those concepts and skills and the work that we do together and our time as something that’s going to immediately benefit them.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That’s excellent. I like how you said that it will immediately benefit them, because that’s one of the things that, especially when you deal with leadership, rarely is it about the theoretical. It’s about what is going on right now? How can I improve myself? Now, going along that line, do you find that a lot of those people who are in executive education, that they have a constant desire for self-improvement?

Alexa Chilcutt: I do. I think that you have two different types of people who typically are in those courses, right? Let’s say group A is the group that their corporation or their boss has sent them to training. And so sometimes because they’ve been sent, they might have some hesitancy about it or they’re reluctant. Why were they sent to this specific course? Keeping that in mind, to make sure that they see that, “Hey, there are no perfect communicators, right? Everybody is really on a path to constant improvement.”

You have that group and then you have the other group that are self-starters. They’re self-motivated, maybe they’ve got some training budget, and this is how they choose to spend it, or they’re really investing personally because they want to, let’s say, get a business communication certificate from an institution like Johns Hopkins, which has a lot of prestige, so they’re willing to invest in that.

All of these people, though, really what you want to do as an instructor is show them the value of those skills, allow them to see that that everybody is in this together, that we all have to learn and grow or we become stale and stagnant and can’t really achieve the success that is really within our grasp.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I like how you said, “The success that is within our grasp.” I think that’s one of the things that leaders who have achieved a certain amount of success when it comes to leadership have tasted that success. It’s one of those things that, especially in undergraduate education, it’s not taught because it’s very difficult to teach: How do you be successful out in the real world? How do you get noticed? How do you network? There are ways, there are courses in which we go over that in higher education, but it is difficult. Do you find that a lot of the other people in executive education are naturally charismatic or is that more of a stereotype of that type of person?

Alexa Chilcutt: Oh, that’s a great question. It depends on the course, but absolutely not. So many people are reluctant communicators. They know that they need the skills, they see the value in the skills. Maybe they’re cognizant of that needed improvement, they want to be more confident communicators in a networking environment, in that leadership role, working with the team, but that’s why they allow themselves to be in those courses.

I’ll tell you a great example of knowing some people are charismatic and some people are very quiet and reluctant to speak up or to engage or to show their personality is in a public speaking executive education course. That’s really when you see the broad spectrum of personalities. Everybody is there for the same reason. Everyone wants to improve on those skills, but you’re having to work with and tease out all of the personalities and really just work toward, hey, we all have different skillsets. We’re all naturally gifted in some areas and have weaknesses. But from the beginning of this course to the end of this course, that level of confidence is going to increase, that anxiety around the speaking situation will hopefully decrease.

[Podcast: How to Become Better at Public Speaking]

I don’t think that, while we might think that the stereotype of people who submit themselves to executive education are already executives, are already confident leaders, I find that many are mid-management and they’re just really working up to more of an executive level and they know that they need to hone those skills, build those skills, to be seen as more credible in that space.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’m glad you brought that up about mid-management because in any career, unless, I’ll just throw out a theoretical: You’re a super-driven person and you get noticed by a leader, and then for some reason, you just keep on moving up. That’s great, it happens. Or there’s something about your pedigree and it is noticed and that you just naturally move up. Again, that’s great.

But for most people who come from normal backgrounds and normal education, climbing up is very difficult. There’s not always a path, or I should say there’s not a path. Oftentimes, it’s talking to people, it’s figuring things out, it’s trying things out and failing, and going from mid-level leadership to upper leadership is a completely different skillset because in mid-level leadership, you’re still doing the nuts and bolts of performance evaluations and spreadsheets and Zoom meetings and all of those things that make a department or wherever you are work.

Once you get into upper leadership, you’re away from that, and so the leadership focus is much, much different. Do you find that certain mid-level leaders struggle with that transition because they’re stuck in making their departments work, which is good because the departments need to work, but again, it’s a different transition going from mid to upper?

Alexa Chilcutt: The transition from one level of leadership to the next level of leadership is always a little uncertain and people don’t know what’s really expected of them until they get there. Now, if they see someone in a position that they aspire to, then they might recognize that that individual has to communicate to a broader audience or to external stakeholders or to be more in the spotlight and they want to work on those skills because they know that they won’t just be managing on the ground level, that they’ll be elevated to a place where people are seeing them and hearing them, and that they have to elevate their persona, if you will, as a leader.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That’s great. Just for my own personal example, I remember when I went from a regular worker to a manager in which I managed a few people. I was very collaborative. I was talking to them all the time. Then when I went from a manager to a director in which I then managed managers who managed the frontline workers, it was a hard transition because I still wanted to interact with the workers every day and help them, but then that was getting in the way of the manager’s job.

Alexa Chilcutt: That’s such a great point, too, because it’s almost like pulling up. You have to go from 10,000 feet to 20,000 feet to 60,000 feet. And the more that you elevate as a leader, the less, honestly, you have that opportunity to deal interpersonally with every single person. Some of that interaction gets taken away. But then what’s really required of you is that you have to be more of a strategist and you have to see the big picture and how the parts all play in together.

But as a communicator and a leader, it’s really important to understand that now you have to not just direct those people that you have one-on-one interactions with easily, you can walk down the hall and communicate clearly what you need from them or why you’re doing something.

As you rise in leadership, the communication has to be more strategic, too. So, you’re having to communicate in a way that is clear to a lot of people, that is consistent, that is transparent to a certain degree, like why changes are being made, how they were made, how it impacts a larger group of people, what you need from them or what it means to them, and then you had that example of then managing managers. Then you have to communicate to the managers. That becomes your core circle and talking to them about, all right, how are they implementing those changes and what do they need from you.

I love the example of academia. You start out as a faculty member and you do a thing and you do it well. That thing might be teaching and researching or just teaching. Someone sees that you do it well and that you’re a little bit of a thought leader and that people respond positively to you, and then all of a sudden, they make you a department chair.

Now, do you really actually have the skills to become a department chair? I would say that most of the time, no. It’s kind of this, eh, you did that well and you move up. But you see the same thing in organizations. Someone does one job well, and they get elevated to a position that, as you mentioned earlier in college, we’re not necessarily taught a lot about leadership or strategy or professionalism in a way that is really applicable or that students can see how that would really affect them or impact them.  And this is where executive education comes in, people are learning as you go.

That’s the beautiful thing about someone who is emotionally intelligent. We’ve talked about emotional intelligence before where it’s the EQ in balance with the IQ, so you’re smart and you’re really good at doing that thing. But now, can you be self-aware and understand how your interactions with people affect their perceptions or how they work with you? It’s that emotional intelligence, that self-awareness, and willing to self-regulate to improve the social skills that you’re motivated to do that, to subject yourself, or to put yourself in those courses that really help you build those skills along the way.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I love that you talked about emotional intelligence because as a leader, you have to know yourself because when you’re a worker or a faculty member, your success is your own. You work hard, you create projects, you write, you do things. You own that and it’s wonderful. When you become a manager, or like you said, department chair, your success is actually the success of others, and so you have to facilitate and collaborate, and most important, you have to inspire them to do the best possible job they can.

That’s where, when you become a manager or a director, to use the director who manages managers, or the department chair who manages a department, is you have to support your people and you have to inspire them and give them the tools and fully and openly communicate because when they are successful, that’s when you are successful. It’s only when they’re successful can you then be recognized by your peers or by leadership as success. Because if you’re too much in their business, you’re going to start micromanaging them. There’s nothing that people hate more than being told what to do, or if you’re telling an employee what to do and it’s the manager’s job, then you’re jumping over to the manager. Then that manager will not be motivated.

Alexa Chilcutt: If you could see me, you would see that I’m smiling at what you’re saying. It is really about ego in a lot of ways. I think that’s where emotional intelligence comes in, too. When I talk to people about emotional intelligence, I’ll ask them, “Don’t we all know someone who’s incredibly intelligent, has a high IQ, we can all identify those people, but they couldn’t get out of a wet paper bag? They just could not socially navigate the waters and understand how to collaborate well or to lead well.”

That high IQ is wonderful for that thing, right, the teaching, the research, the whatever that makes that individual stand out. But when you shift into a leadership role and the higher you get up in that leadership, you’re correct, the less it really is about you. That’s where that ego shift, right, needs to happen.

That’s also where that learning comes in. You have to be self-aware and open to self-regulation: “Wow. I’m not perfect. I don’t have all the answers. My way isn’t always the right way. How can I be an inspiring leader without dictating what everyone should do? How can I bring the best out in people?” That really is someone who can separate themselves from having to have the spotlight all the time, right?

I was talking to the executive education director, and we were discussing our business communication certificate path and new faculty that we’re bringing on to teach new courses and she was asking me questions and I said, “You know what? This is not about me. I see everything from the consumer’s lens. If we make these great courses for the consumers, then the consumers will take more courses, and that’s a win-win for the instructors, and then it’s win-win for executive education.”

Someone who is a leader and a successful leader has a win-win mentality, not a competing mentality. I think, to go back to, let’s say, sales. You are the top number one salesperson, or the top researcher in your department. That’s a lot about, as you said, personal hard work and then recognition, but it is also an ego kind of trip, and so moving out of that into something that you’re leading people, that’s just where that emotional intelligence comes in and where people really, if they want to learn how to be good leaders, open themselves up to examination, assessment, and continued learning.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. I love that, again, you talked about ego because there’s nothing that inhibits people from not only growing, but from their own success and their own ego because they will be focused on, “How is all of this affecting me?” And again, really, it’s about how am I potentially influencing others to find their own greatness. This leads us to the next question is: Why are executives or rising professionals seeking out courses in communication and leadership?

[Podcast: Why Study Communication?]

Alexa Chilcutt: Communication really is the key to effective leadership. I think a lot of times leaders may think that it’s, as we were talking about earlier, there’s skill, there’s skill that should be leading. But when you think about creating a team, what are the best characteristics of leaders? Leaders are seen as authentic. How do they portray authenticity? They have to build trust and rapport. All of that is through communication. It’s through interpersonal interactions, it’s through the way that they craft messages to even talk about the mission or the goal or the objectives, about processes. How do they build motivation within a team?

Communication really touches everything that a leader does, and so when we think about communication competencies, I look at it in, for a leader and for anyone, in three basic, let’s say, buckets.

The first one is interpersonal and team communication. That’s really about your own communication skills, understanding what the goals of communication are, to create shared meaning, to express understanding, and to convey value and respect to others. That’s absolutely through the way that we communicate.

Then how do you effectively listen, right? How do you connect with people and make them feel like they’re being heard and valued? You’ve got those interpersonal and team communication skills, then you move into written and visual communication skills. Are you writing things clearly? Are you visually in line, are the messages in line and in a way that people can consume them and that they’re easy to digest?

Then the third bucket is really about presentation skills, public speaking, because as a leader rises, as someone rises up, they have that opportunity to influence. That influence comes through opportunities, whether it’s leading a meeting or giving a presentation to stakeholders or internally or externally. And maybe it’s even a motivational team kickoff.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Really, starting with interpersonal, I think, is it. Everything is about the relationship with the person across from you. If you’re a leader, you have a relationship with your directors, the people who lead departments, and you have to have those good relationships.

But even beyond that interpersonal, you have to listen. I’m really glad you mentioned listening when it comes to leadership, because if you watch TV or if you, heaven forbid, watch the news, it’s a bunch of people just talking at each other, talking over each other, and it’s really abysmal. If people would just stop and listen, 90% of our problems would literally be fixed tomorrow.

But, to stop and listen requires the ego to be set to the side. As a leader, really, having those listening skills are just critical to your success. Then when you said writing is, I think, one of the most important skills we should develop as leaders.

Then finally, with the public speaking and presentations, whenever I think of public speaking or talking, when I was just a regular employee, I was overly serious. One day, I started realizing that when I’m talking to other people, especially over the phone or anything like that, I would think, “I can’t hear myself smile,” and so I started saying to myself, “I want to hear myself smile in how I talked.” That really changed how I approached talking to people because that meant every conversation became a positive conversation, I tried to influence them positively while also just enjoying myself.

When you then talk to a group of people, and if they can not only see you smile, but hear you smile, that will only help influence them. It’s not, again, being disingenuous or fake or anything like that, it’s just being interested in other people’s success. That will help other people hear your smile and then they will be more open to whatever your message is.

Alexa Chilcutt: Listening is so key. It’s not anything that people think about really having to improve their skills on because we’re so focused on responding. Look at the barriers of listening. One of them is pre-programmed emotional responses. The other one, which I love, is ambushing. Ambushing has to do with the other person is speaking, but our brain is running so fast that we’re getting ahead of listening to them speaking, because we’re already pre-formulating our response. And so we’re just kind of short-cutting that whole communication interaction opportunity.

That’s an invisible area that people, as you said, if they would learn how to listen better, they would show that they valued and respected people, they would have a better understanding of what people were trying to communicate, really avoid a lot of misunderstandings and conflict. That’s huge.

The other kind of invisible area you talked about, presentations and public speaking and people being overly serious. Because we see that as very social judgment, we’ve put ourselves in a vulnerable place to be up in front of people speaking, and so people can be overly serious. If they get out of their own way and think about, “If I was sitting in the audience’s chair, what would I want to hear?” You really want to hear somebody that sounds like they’re having more of a conversation with you than talking at you through a presentation.

I think both of those are just critical areas that really goes back to authenticity, building trust and rapport, engagement, relationships. There’s so much there that can be unpacked that you’re never there. You can be better, you can have degrees of polish, but there are just no perfect communicators. That’s why we need to work on those skills, open ourselves up to work on them as much as possible, at any level.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I love that. It makes me think of, I’ll just say the last two presidents, Obama and Trump. When you would listen to Obama speak, brilliant speaker, I would say, brilliant orator, can come off as serious. That turns some people off.

Then when you listen to Trump, very charismatic, very off-the-cuff, very entertaining. But, again, that turns some people off. You have these two past presidents that had different ways, different approaches, wildly different, but very effective in different settings. Ideally, what each of them would have done is been able to transition and be able to, obviously be themselves, but be able to transition their styles so they can communicate to 100% of the population.

Alexa Chilcutt: When you’re saying that transitioning, it’s about adapting situationally, like reading the room. Who’s your audience. What is the situation? That is such an emotional intelligence skill. How do you go in and get outside of yourself and put yourself in the other person’s shoes? Think about where you are. What is the situation? What does the situation call for? What kind of tone? What is it that this audience actually wants to hear about?

I loved your examples of Obama and Trump because stylistically, you’re correct, wildly different styles. They attracted different audiences at different times and were good in different situations, but both parties, people could look at, let’s say a criticism of Obama, was that sometimes people would say, “Well, I don’t know how authentic he is because he has a very kind of Baptist preacher-style a lot of the times.” Cadence, he was a great orator, but cadence and he’d have rhythm and dramatic pauses, so you had that kind of thing. Where Trump, because he was so not scripted, that would come across as authentic sometimes, for sure, but then he wasn’t on task, on point. Thinking about adaptability and agility, “agility” is such a key word today in leadership.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: For anybody who’s studying public speaking, if you look at Obama and Trump and you take the best of each, you could have one of the best secrets for success you can imagine of the orator. When we say “orator,” the old fashion, giving a speech, kind of oration.

With Trump, there’s no more authentic way of speaking and just talking to a crowd, almost improvising, but that crowd is engaged. They’ll go along with the ride. Very different. So I think people can look at those two and learn a lot from the past two presidents, who are the presidents for all of us, and take away the politics and learn from them.

Alexa Chilcutt: To your point, showing your personality, not being afraid, to be okay with being, hey, if you’ve got a great sense of humor and you’re a little quirky, know the presentation, understand your audience, know what the message is, understand what you’re trying to get across, have it prepared, all of that. But also be okay with showing who you are in an authentic way because not being so formal, and both of those examples, right, showed their authentic selves, but it’s okay. I think we’ve been told that if we want to be good at public speaking or presenting, that we have to be incredibly formal in that delivery. That’s really not a way to connect and influence an audience.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. Really great conversation today, Alexa. Any final words, any suggested resources for our listeners?

Alexa Chilcutt: As we were discussing emotional intelligence, I wrote down a couple of books that if anybody’s listening and they want to really investigate this, Harvard Business Review has a book. You can find it on Amazon, but it’s the best of emotional intelligence. It’s a blue book and it just, on the front, “[On] Emotional Intelligence.” You can look that up, but it’s by Harvard Business Review. It has articles, the seminal article by Daniel Goldman, “What Makes a Leader,” is in there. It’s really informed by research about what makes successful leaders and how that ties to these elements of emotional intelligence.

Then there’s a, if you will, a pop press book. It’s called “Ego Is the Enemy.” Ego Is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday. Once again, it’s on Amazon. You can find it there. I’ve read it. Really relatable, great personal lessons about ego, how to take your ego out of certain situations and really examine them objectively. Great book. Love that. He has a good series of a lot of books.

Then for the listening, when we were talking about that, Chris Voss, I don’t know if you, Bjorn, have heard of MasterClass series? Chris Voss, I discovered him through a MasterClass that he did. He was a lead hostage negotiator. He’s got a book “Never Split the Difference.” It’s about negotiating, but there’s so much on relating and connecting to people and listening and some skills for listening. But if you don’t want the book and you just want to look up on YouTube, Chris Voss, V-O-S-S, he has a lot of different videos from workshops that he’s led or TED Talks that he’s given her interviews that talk about different active listening methods and ways to really communicate and build trust and rapport with people.

Those would be my suggestions. If anybody wants to start on their own path to continue development, professional learning, those are some great resources to begin with.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Thank you for those absolutely wonderful resources. It’s been a really great conversation today about executive leadership. Really, the takeaway for me is really about knowing yourself, letting your ego go, and just really, really focusing on communication.

There’s nothing more important in life than communication, if it’s in an interpersonal with your spouse, with your friends, with your family, or if at your work, if you’re leading one person, or if you’re leading thousands of people, it’s about trying to communicate. Alexa, thank you so much for being here today.

Alexa Chilcutt: Thank you. I enjoyed it. It was a great conversation.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. Today we’re speaking with Alexa Chilcutt about executive leadership and communication. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. Thank you for listening.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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