Do you find yourself stuck in the how-tos and day-to-day processes of running your business? In this podcast episode, we interviewed Alexa Chilcutt on the topic of organizational inertia and the importance of taking time to analyze what’s working in your business and what’s not.
Alexa Chilcutt is a communication strategist, published author, and the University of Alabama’s public speaking program director. Listen to this podcast to benefit from her expert insights.
In This Episode, You’ll Learn…
- What organizational inertia is and how to overcome it
- Why you should re-examine processes routinely to discover what’s working and what’s not
- The importance of remaining agile and pivoting when necessary — like the current pandemic causing disruptions to every industry
- Why you shouldn’t promote people just because they are the best at their jobs
- How off-site retreats can improve your company culture
- The importance of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and self-regulation throughout your organization
- Why you shouldn’t allow your business to grow stagnant
- “We all get stuck. We’ve figured out processes that work. And a lot of times buying into those processes that work, that thing has worked for you for us, and so we don’t typically stop to re-examine how well it’s working currently.” – Alexa Chilcut
- “Communication is the key to everything. The way that you clearly communicate, clearly express what you need from others.” – Alexa Chilcut
- “It’s not someone’s technical expertise that translates into success. It’s really about how they communicate vision and goals and objectives and processes and team culture.” – Alexa Chilcut
- “There are no perfect leaders. There are no perfect communicators. We’re all kind of in a process, hopefully of continually polishing ourselves.” – Alexa Chilcut
- “So it’s a lot about coaching and self-awareness, emotional intelligence, self-regulation. Asking how do we create a plan for improving.” – Alexa Chilcut
- “We constantly need to shift and adapt to not fall into a state of entropy. Whether that’s as a leader. Whether that is as an organization or personally, professionally.” – Alexa Chilcut
Links & Resources Mentioned…
- Alexa’s LinkedIn Profile
- Disruptive Leadership: Apple and the Technology of Caring Deeply – Nine Keys to Organizational Excellence and Global Impact by Rich Kao
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Mike O'Neill: Hello and welcome back to the Get Unstuck & On Target Podcast. I'm Mike O'Neil with Bench Builders, and we're speaking with thought leaders to uncover tips to help you break down the barriers that are keeping you or your business stuck.
Joining me today from Tuscaloosa, Alabama is Dr. Alexa Chilcutt — welcome Alexa.
Alexa Chilcutt: Glad to be here, Mike.
Mike O'Neill: I'm so glad you're with us. Let me share with the folks who are listening a little bit about you. Alexa is a communication strategist. She's an author, she's a professor and she serves as the director of the University of Alabama's public speaking program.
If that's not enough, she is also an executive education faculty member with John Hopkins Carey Business School. Alexa was a recent presenter to the association for talent development. And I saw her and just based on how she presented and how clearly she was able to get her ideas across, I thought she'd make a perfect guest for our audience of leaders.
Alexa, let's just jump right in. You've got obviously a very impressive academic background, but we're talking today about how might you, working with clients, help them kind of get unstuck and you, prior, mentioned this notion of inertia and how inertia can have impact on communication and the lack of inertia result in people getting stuck.
Elaborate. What do you mean by that? Please?
Alexa Chilcutt: I believe that inertia and, I will go ahead and just add onto your kind of bio for the audience. One of my favorite topics is leadership and I teach, I've also developed a couple of courses at the University of Alabama. One that is organizational assessment and intervention.
It's a graduate course, which we teach consulting. And another one is leadership and strategic communication that to ch to seniors who are majoring typically in communication studies. And I do a lot of executive education, as you said, and work with leadership and teams doing team retreats. And so the idea of organizational inertia is really this.
We all get stuck in. We've figured out processes that work. And a lot of times then buying into those processes that work, that thing has worked for you for us. And so we don't typically stop to re-examine how well it's working currently and are their needs situationally environmentally with our customers with, you know, we've just had this kind of, global pause here.
That's had to make us re-examine. So inertia is just getting stuck in the how to, and the day-to-day processes without really kind of stopping to re-examine what's working and what isn't working so well. And how do we need to look at things kind of from a fresh perspective?
Mike O'Neill: In preparing for our time together, you and I've had several conversations and I was really drawn to your work with teams.
And, what is it you do to kind of help them assess that. I'll go down the obvious path and we are in the midst of the the COVID pandemic. Under the best of circumstances, you're advising your clients to, don't just take things for granted. Step back and assess. What have you seen? COVID due to a sense of inertia for organizations. What's happened?
Alexa Chilcutt: You know, on some level, if we want to look really positively, I mean, we can say that it has made everybody have to stop.
And obviously first. People were in crisis mode. And I think we're kind of still in crisis mode, but it has allowed organizations, teams, leadership to really take a hard look at the service or product that they're providing, what their customers or clients stated and unstated needs are, and how they're different now than they were six or eight or 10 months ago.
And so it's created this opportunity, if you will, right? It's not, it isn't the best circumstance, but it's created an opportunity for people to really have to have a hard look and reexamination of what they're doing and how they can do things better, more creatively, a pivot. I know that's a word that everybody's kind of overused, right?
And so now we're kind of cringing from that, but, but how are you agile in a way that you can reassess and reallocate your resources. Whether they're people, you know, within the team or the products or services that you provide and really thinking creatively outside of the box. And I think that's something that we've been forced to do is think outside of the box.
So it, on some level, it has been a break in that inertia that was forced rather than strategic. And when I brought up the idea of organizational inertia, It came from this, try not to get glare on it. This magazine of Harvard Business Review on innovation and breaking the code on innovation.
And so it was just a really great article, but it was back in November, December, 2019, pre COVID. And so now really kind of looking at that and then working with teams even before COVID. You know, it's really the idea of you have to stop at. And really kind of be objective and remove yourself from your day to day.
Mike O'Neill: Since you are working with teams and you've said that you have to kind of stop and remove yourself from the day to day, how do you find what is the best way to do that with a team?
Alexa Chilcutt: The best way to do that. And it's so difficult as you. And I were speaking about earlier, I love working with dental offices. It's a little nich. My PhD work was actually in dental leadership and team communication because I come from a family of dentists.
So I have a father who's a retired dentist and a former Georgia Academy of General Dentistry President. But he was an incredibly successful dentist. But then I had an uncle who was a dentist, my father's best childhood friend ended up being dentist. My uncle's brother-in-law was a dentist. And I had to work in the dental office, alongside my mother, you know, kind of growing up.
Later in life when I returned to school, which I was 40 when I got my PhD and had worked in advertising and PR for years.
I was really taking on an applied practical look at everything that I was examining. And so looking at leadership and team communication. When it came time to research something for a year and research, something that had not been researched before I looked back and I thought, okay, why was my father really successful?
And others, not so successful. And realizing that it's not, you and I have had this conversation, it's not someone's technical expertise that translates into success. It's really about how they communicate vision and goals and objectives and processes and team culture. And so that's what I examined. But working with dentists, it's so hard for them, as I think any organization leader, to stop, to take a break from the day to day.
Because when they stop, they know that the money that they're losing from that lack of productivity, even for that day. And so that is what I think is crucial is that people take a timeout and I meet with leaders on the front end of that organization. Find out what their needs are, where are they kind of having barriers or blocks to productivity or culture.
What's going on and their culture in their team. And how can I kind of create a team retreat that gets people back onboard and re-energized, re-imagining what can be done in the day-to-day. Kind of breaking that inertia, and one of the ways that you asked, right?
So how do you do that? Is to have an offsite retreat that is just it's key to have it planned, to have people thinking about it ahead of time. I send out a survey to all of the team members, a couple of weeks in advance, that's anonymous.
They can tell me anything it's very led and directed. So I get a lot of good information and I create that team retreat, specifically for that office. But the getting off site getting in a nice environment, treating them to a day that where they can kind of break away from that inertia and re-imagine, reinvision.
Mike O'Neill: You described working with dentists, but you also work with other technical folks. We've got an audience of leaders, many of which moved into a leadership role in part, because they were so good technically. The assumption was, ah, they'll make a good leader.
And I would think by extension, that would probably also apply to dentists. You could be a great dentist, but how many leadership courses do they get in dental school?
Alexa Chilcutt: They get none.
Mike O'Neill: And so they're thrust into the world and by extension, that is true, almost in many, many other different settings. So what I've heard you say thus far is that COVID has given us an opportunity, if we so choose, to kind of take a collective breath and to assess. But when you're working with teams to help those teams work better, you're finding there is no substitute for going off site.
And what I heard you say is the off-site can be a pleasant experience, but there's homework on the front end and they're going to all work while there. And I know your background is from a communication standpoint, but it sounds as if you're marrying your communication expertise with your interest in leadership.
In what ways have you kind of intertwine your understanding of communication and leadership?
Alexa Chilcutt: That's a great phrase intertwined. I'm sure you would you would agree with this working with teams and leaders. Communication is the key to everything. And communication, the way that you clearly communicate, clearly express what you need from others, that if you can't communicate, you can be the technical expert, whether you're an engineer, as you said, I've worked with other technical people you do as well.
I've worked with a lot of engineers and technical professionals, more in the communication kind of training, but communication is the key to understanding. Creating shared meaning — whether that's creating shared meaning with a colleague or creating shared meaning up or down the organizational ladder.
Or if you're a leader, how are you creating shared meaning with your team and shared meaning about "What is our purpose? What are we here to do? How do we communicate with one another?"
Because how people communicate creates that culture. And as a leader, you really have to, you know, I loved your example of people are just so good at what they do. Then they get promoted into a leadership position. And I'm sure you would agree with me that across the board, just because they're great at the thing that they do and they get promoted doesn't mean that they've gotten any training in leading others.
Is that what you find?
Mike O'Neill: I find that exactly the case and I'm nodding a lot as you're speaking, because the things that you have found that work best with your clients are very much aligned with the kind of things that we find work best.
When you slip off with the group, they have done an anonymous assessment. But that information is used to kind of inform you on how you would lead them through.
How do you take a, I'm assuming this is a one day retreat. How do you help them take what they've learned? And the relationship building that has resulted. And see that it sticks when they go back to their practice, perhaps the very next day. Or if this was on a Friday, on a Monday morning. In what ways do you prepare them for "We've learned something about ourselves. We learned how we work." How do you help it get stuck? How it stick in this case.
Alexa Chilcutt: That is, that is a very valid point because yeah, to that point. I think the whole idea of training were retreats that are kind of a one and done — don't really stick. Right.
And so it does take that pre-work and some post-work. One of the individuals that I've worked with, Debbie Drury from Atlanta, she was from Atlanta. She owned a company that she did a lot of the consulting in-house with the dental offices. And I was kind of that, that person to come in and do the retreat and give kind of the instructions beyond that.
And typically what that would be is, as I said, pre-work we do a lot of assessments, very highly interactive day, where they're coming up with their own solutions. And then creating by the end of that, a team agreement.
But then really holding the leaders accountable. In the next meeting, I would send them an agenda. This is the agenda for the next three or four meetings.
This is how you're going to kind of reiterate these things and having. But I had her to really kind of be the boots on the ground. And so that as you and I've talked about it, I'm kind of transitioning from one position to another.
And so this is something that I want to do more of and more intensively is both leadership retreats and also team retreats. But having time and opportunity to kind of have those built-in followups.
Mike O'Neill: You know, we talked about retreats quite a bit, but in terms of a retreat, if a group comes together and certain individuals aren't really engaged, can that derail the effectiveness of the retreat?
Alexa Chilcutt: You have to have those people, right? I mean, what group doesn't have those people.
So that's really why I love pre-work because, and having someone who knows the backstory and having those conversations with leaders, it's like, talk to me about who are those people?
And sometimes it can be one of the leaders, right? I mean, it can. And so having the conversations on the front end — and I've had this. Where there were three, three in a practice, three dentists. And one of them really was creating a lot of backlash.
And so having a conversation, a real frank conversation on the front end of if you want to invest in this, and if you want this to work, you have to be so engaged in today, but it has to stick with you or nothing. You might as well just throw a check out window.
And the same thing with identifying those people who give us heartburn. I love the heartburn people, right. Because that's a great challenge. And so I'm a firm, and I'm sure you do this as well, I'm a firm believer in when you put teams together to make them not be with each other, be with the group that they would normally gravitate toward.
And so almost playing musical chairs throughout the day and getting them with people that they might actually have issues with and making them do a SWOT analysis together. And just something that engages them cognitively in a way that kind of breaks down.
And I've seen, I've seen it turn in a day, you know, from the prickly pear, who doesn't want to be there to someone who at the end is presenting their ideas.
Mike O'Neill: You know, we've talked thus far primarily about how to work with teams. We now have started talking about that a team improvement effort won't work unless individuals on the team are committed.
But you're going into this pretty much already sensing or knowing which of those you caught on the prickly pears. We've got listeners who are leaders, but they might honestly acknowledge, "You know what? I might be one of those prickly pears."
And if I had the advantage of Dr. Chilcott to kind of helped me improve my effectiveness as a leader, my effectiveness as a communicator, might there be some things that you find that you go to your tool bag, you reach into time and time again and say, "Might we give some thought to" So I'm asking, would you be willing to share maybe some things that you might would be pulling out of your tool bag when you were working with individuals?
Alexa Chilcutt: The first thing really is asking, kind of as you were talking about sensing. So what is within your realm of self-awareness that is going well? And where are you feeling that you've got blockers? And allowing someone to articulate where they believe there are issues. What are the signs?
What's the evidence that you're not being as effective as you could be?
What kind of backlash are you getting from your team? Is there conflict?
What what's going on with that? But then really a communications competence self-assessment that I actually created for the dental school for UAB. And that assessment allows people just very self-reflective way to think about all of the different aspects of communication. Whether it's nonverbal, reading, other people's nonverbal communication, persuading others without becoming aggressive, it a whole kind of litany of "all right, so let's really think about what are your strengths and what are your weaknesses?"
Because there are no perfect leaders. There are no perfect communicators.
We're all kind of in a process hopefully of continually polishing ourselves. And so starting with the communication self assessment, thinking about recognizing negative leadership behaviors.
It's great to start with, what do we not want to do? And why did those things not work? Are you doing any of those things? Before you start telling someone some positive behaviors to adopt. Because if they don't have a framework for negative than the positive doesn't necessarily fit within that framework.
So it's a lot about coaching and self-awareness, emotional intelligence, self-regulation. How do we create a plan for improving.
Mike O'Neill: You know what struck me about you as though you have impressive academic credentials, you're able to convey in a way that I can follow. I don't have a PhD in communication, but I can follow.
And I suspect your students, your colleagues, your clients can also follow. If listeners were following along with us and you want to make sure. If, if nothing else, here's some things I would like to make sure that they heard in our time together, what might be some of those,
Alexa Chilcutt: My mother, a Southern woman, right. Just got great sayings, but she says, they're always just two questions to ask yourself. What am I doing well and what can I do better?
You know, where can I improve? And I think that those basic two question are applied in everything. And ourselves as leaders, what am I doing currently that is not working for me? And that self-awareness and where can I be better?
That's also those two questions apply to breaking that inertia. So what's working and what is not working and why? Why is it not working? Is it because I've adopted or we've adopted a process that worked and it worked well in a moment and maybe now it's not working as well.
We constantly need to shift and adapt to not fall into a state of entropy. Whether that's as a leader. Whether that is as an organization or personally, professionally.
Right. Like what I'm doing today in five years, if you told me I was going to be doing the same exact thing, I've become immediately depressed. I mean, you know, I, I love change and if there's anything that we have to, you know, change is a constant.
So I think thinking about reassessing, where are you, where do you need to be? How are you agile? How do you adapt?
Mike O'Neill: Yeah, it sounds like your, your mom, uh, her advise is sage. And it sounds like you've been able to apply that not only in your personal life, professionally. And that is your encouragement to us is don't just let things remain as is. Be prepared to ask the hard questions.
It might be perfectly okay to just start with, what am I doing well? But then you have to also ask even harder question. And that is it's easy for us to kind of say, well, I can do this and this and this, but they, what could I do or be doing better?
Your challenge to us is be willing to always make improvements. And by extension your challenge to us as leaders is don't let an organization grow stale. Don't let it get stagnant. Don't let inertia stop, but be willing to ask these questions.
This is excellent. I had no question that you'd be a great guest, but what I'm finding is you have surfaced a number of topics that we could spend another 30 minutes on and another 30 minutes on. So you are. You're really good at what you do. And I appreciate your willingness to spend some time with us today.
Alexa, if folks want to get hold of you, how can listeners connect with you online?
Alexa Chilcutt: The easiest way is through LinkedIn. So Alexa Chilcutt. Yeah. And, um, I don't think there are too many Alexa Chilcutts on LinkedIn, but I'm there.
And I am, that is the one platform that I'm actually engaged in at all. And so that's probably the easiest thing as anybody else, I get a lot of. Bombarded with emails. And so LinkedIn is, I know that's a professional avenue and that's how you and I got connected after the ATD training, which was great.
And I would also, as a last recommendation, there's a fantastic book. It's all Disruptive Leadership and you can find it on Amazon. It's by Rich Kao. It focuses on the book, focuses on Steve jobs, Phil Knight, but primarily Steve jobs as a disruptive leader. And how, what are the core components of leadership that any effective leader really needs to embrace?
But the thing with Steve was he was always looking forward. He was always looking at. What is the next thing? What is the next? How are we challenging the status quo? It's an easy read. It's a great read. And so I would highly recommend that for people to find on Amazon.
Mike O'Neill: I appreciate that suggestion. We will put that in the show notes. So when folks download, they'll have access to that the best way for folks to reach you would be on LinkedIn. You're exactly right. You are actually presenting and I sent you a LinkedIn contact.
So while it was fresh on my mind, we did that. So I'm glad we're linked on particularly glad that you were willing to spend some time with us today to share your passion because it comes through loud and clear.
So thank you, Alexa. I also want to thank our listeners for joining us for this episode of Get Unstuck & On Target. We've lined up great thought leaders like Alexa, that I'm sure you'll enjoy getting to know we are uploading the latest episode every Thursday. And so I hope you'll subscribe to this podcast.
And invite other leaders to do the same. The easiest way to subscribe to this podcast is to go to your browser and type unstuck.show. Again, unstuck.show, or you can go to our website, bench-builders.com.So I want to thank you for joining us. I hope you've picked up some tips that will help you get unstuck and on target. Until next time.