Mixing Professional Practice with Pedagogy in Business Communication Courses

Cynthia Alt shares her consulting expertise with Sabrina Pasztor

Sabrina Pasztor recently had the opportunity to speak with ABC member, Dr. Cynthia Heller Alt. Cynthia has over 26 years’ experience consulting including owning Alt Consulting, since 2000.  In addition to her professional work, she has been an Adjunct Professor at Alliant International University (2007-2011) and since 2014 at the University of Southern California in Business Communication and, more recently, Management and Organizational Development. Our discussion centered on the criticality of communication in the organizational and academic environment, and where businesses and academia must intersect to improve communication structures and processes in both environments.

Sabrina: Cynthia, tell us more about your professional background.

Cynthia: As far as my education is concerned, I have a doctorate in industrial organizational psychology, which was heavily focused on the balance between human interactions with the structures and systems needed for employees to be most effective. My consulting practice ranges from measuring and assessing – for example, through surveys, productivity levels, employee performance, communication effectiveness – to goal setting, which includes strategic direction, business alignment, leadership development, training and team building, and communication alignment.

I started Alt Consulting in 2000. Prior to that, I was Vice President of Organizational Development for Bankers’ Trust for the mortgage services group, which had 500 employees with a majority in California and the rest in New York. My practice evolved when Deutsche Bank acquired Bankers’ Trust, and the organizational development role was made irrelevant. This gave me the opportunity to reflect on life and what I wanted, thus, I launched Alt Consulting.

On the academic side, I had previously taught graduate students at Alliant International University for nearly five years, focusing on business perspectives (covering all areas of running a business). I also taught leadership, training development, and consulting skills. Two of my Alliant students were in the Talent Management group at the University of Southern California (USC) and, in 2014 convinced me to look at instructional opportunities at USC. I moved to teaching at USC in the department of business communication: communication strategy in business (covering communication topics from job search to presentation skills), and as of last year, added teaching classes in management and organization strategy.

Sabrina: before we get into questions about your field, could you share some of the challenges and rewards of starting a consultancy firm? What are the emerging niches for business and professional communication researchers to participate in such work?

Cynthia: Building your own consulting firm really rests in your ability to build relationships.  The majority (95%) of my clients come from word of mouth.  Someone who I had worked with previously either reaches out again or suggests me to a new person.  Relationship building is all about communication.  The other aspect is your credibility which again rests in your ability to clearly communicate your capabilities and then meet (and exceed) those commitments.

The biggest reward I have from my work is when my name is passed on to a new client. 

Someone looking to move into this space needs to realize that new clients buy these services based on relationship not marketing materials or websites.  There is a need to spend time building those relationships whether it is lunches or touch base meetings.

Sabrina: How long have you been a member of the Association for Business Communication?

Cynthia: I joined ABC in 2014 as part of my starting to teach at USC. I also have been a member of the Society for Industrial Organization Practitioners (SIOP), the American Psychology Association (APA), Association  for Training and Development (ATD), and Worldwide Association of Business Coaches (WABC) for over twenty years.

Sabrina: Where do you see communication fitting in to your academic work?

CA: Particularly in leadership, training development, and consulting, there is a huge aspect of communication that students need to understand and learn. As a consultant or anyone interacting in an organization of any kind – including higher education – you need to be able to communicate why you’re the best for the job, based on clearly articulating your client’s needs (with a clear elevator pitch or concise proposal writing). You must be able to describe why this client’s initiative (what they are trying to achieve) is relevant, where the organization is “at”, who you are, why you are able to provide services, recommendations and solutions that will address the organization’s strategies.

Another aspect of communication students must learn is communication planning: Who are your stakeholders? What do they know about your initiatives? Who are the early adopters? On the fence? Resistors? Why are the resistors concerned? Do they know about the initiative, but misunderstand, need more clarity, or are wedded to not liking it given institutional memory?  Strategic communication plans allow a student to design and develop information that meets your audience’s needs in a just in time fashion.

Sabrina: Could you also speak to the differences in communication purposes and styles in the diverse academic and professional niches you occupy through your affiliations with the Society for Industrial Organization Practitioners (SIOP), the American Psychology Association (APA), Training and Development Association (ATD), and Worldwide Association of Business Coaches (WABC)?

Cynthia:  I keep my memberships up with these four associations since they each represent a different fraction of my professional life.  SIOP is to keep the measurement and assessment side of my work.  They provide the research support and new methods when I am assessing organizations.  APA is to keep up with psychology overall.  Some of the articles I use with my communication class comes from their database.  I do a fair amount of training with clients as well as USC.  ATD is focused on training and new training tools and approaches, their website and readings provide insights.  Finally, WABC provides perspective for those clients I coach.  It is one of the few associations that has an application process for membership – they require years of experience in the business world as well as with coaching and letters of recommendation.  All four have the requirements to provide support and mentoring with new members or students.  Of the four, ATD provides the most and consistent communication to its members.  I get regular emails with links as well as a monthly magazine.

Sabrina: What about your client work? What are communication challenges organizations face?

Cynthia: The top three challenges facing clients link directly to communication.

First, organizations are  concerned that if they communicate what their long-term vision is, and there are, by necessity, changes to that over time, employees will no longer trust or buy-in to the vision (“it’s just another leader-driven initiative, like every other one”). I tell organizations that employees are going to hold you accountable no matter what, as they should. Therefore, leaders need to communicate the long-term vision, and communicate what must shift and change over time. Strategic planning used to be a 3-5 year horizon; it’s now, on average, 18 months to two years. Employees need to be informed that nimbleness and responsiveness to changing landscapes are necessary.

Second, communicating intermittently or rarely is a problem. Organizations must strategically communicate at key points along the way of any initiative (which is why communication planning is a skill):  What is the long-term outcome, what has been done, where we are currently, what is the next step.  Communication needs to be consistent and branded so employees easily know that this communication is about that initiative.

Third, communication needs to be linked to positive behaviors instead of rewarding old behaviors. 99% of the time when I get calls from organizations who are experiencing employees not doing the new behaviors that were expected, I ask two questions: what have you communicated about this, and what employee behaviors are you rewarding?

Poor internal communication processes are significant. Here’s an example of what communications can do for an organization: one of my clients was an insurance company/organization with an 83-year old history. They had an outdated mission, but no clear vision or strategic goals that could be articulated by any of the levels. They were attempting to incorporate a large-scale organizational initiative, with little success, because employees did not clearly understand the “why, how, and what” of the initiative: there was no clear communication on what I call “short-term” and “long-term line of sight”, so employees could link their daily work to what leaders were communicating was critical over the short-term vs. long-term. One of the first steps we did was update and create the necessary structures (vision, mission, and strategic goals) and then created a communication plan that included updates on the work as well as transparent ways to measure performance.

A lot of times, organizations fail to give the long-term, so employees may feel that management initiatives are coming out of nowhere: the analogy I use is employees are in the last row of the family station wagon, facing backwards, while the car moves forward – and all they can see is where they have been, vs. where they are going. Organizations must communicate the long-term vision and link it cohesively to short-term goals and communication, so employees can understand both and move towards overall objectives.

Sabrina: Could you also speak to this question from the perspective of employees?

Cynthia: I have noticed that employees tend to have the same issues regardless of the industry in which they reside. They want authority over decisions, mastery of skills to perform to the highest level possible, and to know their purpose or “value add”. One way to do this is through training and communication. Eighty-five percent of employees leave because of internal issues with their managers – typically related to communications. It’s interesting that communication is framed as a “soft skill” — yet they are typically the reasons that organizations are sued. I have never heard of anyone suing an organization over an incorrect line item in an EXCEL spreadsheet. But communication? How we interact and talk to each other, communicate with clients, customers, colleagues, communication from leadership – that will make a company succeed or fail.

Sabrina: In the sort of work you do, how much of the communication takes place face-to-face and how much is through other means?

Cynthia: I am old school and believe it is important to build relationships face-to-face.  Now, with that said, I do about 40% of my coaching using SKYPE.  It is the next best thing to being in person.  I have worked with clients across the US as well as some international using this format.  Coaching over the phone leads to the coachee multi-tasking and not getting the full benefit from coaching. 

One best practice I have implemented with my clients is to send an email following a phone call listing agreements and timelines.  I also use different font sizes and colors to make sure key information in emails is seen.

Sabrina: What keeps you connected with your students? 

Cynthia: I love the interaction. With clients, you never talk theory: it’s all practical application. With students, you get to discuss theories and use examples of how they play out: I bring examples back to the classroom from my client work. This helps ground me (keeps me up-to-date with changes to theories and approaches) and helps the students (seeing what really happens in organizations).

In business communication class, I focus on impression management and using that to create your brand and get the outcomes you want. That could be during the process of trying to get a job in written form (resumes, cover letters), in interview settings, or – once on the job – performing and behaving in a way that gives you the results you want. I focus on developing their leadership perspective (how do you communicate the same topic to different audiences – individuals, teams, large groups), diversity and inclusion, ethical behavior and communication tactics to support that, team and group communication and behaviors, and performance management.

Sabrina: What are the most rewarding parts of your career?

Cynthia: When I get either students or clients contacting me after the fact to tell me the impact I’ve made on them. I just had a client in the middle of coaching leave his organization, and he said it was because of our coaching, which got him to rethink his alignment in the company. I had asked him what type of leader he wanted to be and how he could become it at the current organization.  After his analysis, he realized he could not. Because of that, he pursued a job offer with another company that was a better match for him and his leadership style.

I just had a student who had graduated about two years ago and he reached out to me to tell me he was in management training program, which was teaching the participants how to do elevator pitches and presentations, and he said the internal trainer told him he was so polished, “no wonder he went to USC!” My student shared that he was so strong because of the techniques we’d practiced in class, and that everything I taught “has made a huge impact” on him.

99% of my clients are word-of-mouth; told about me through other clients who have previously used my services. This is so rewarding, because it demonstrates the need for this work and my success in assisting clients. One way I am active with business development for my company is I provide ten hours of coaching transition coaching (to job changers, or individuals deciding whether to stay or leave an organization) for free, with the caveat that once they are inside the new organization, they introduce me to Human Resources so I can connect and present service opportunities. I have secured several of my larger clients this way.

Sabrina: You’ve done research in your past. If you were to do research now, what would you examine and why? 

Cynthia: I would look at three topics. First, generational communication differences – this is first-time in history we have five different generational demographics in the workplace, and each generation communicates and wants communication differently. How do we assess this? What is most effective by generation? The most problematic? What can each group do differently to solve that?

A second topic, which goes back to research I did as an undergraduate, is the difference in the way that men and women communicate as managers. How do they push employees to high levels of performance, how employees’ perceive the effectiveness of their communication.

Finally, building off of the last topic, I would focus on the difference on gender and ethnicity play in the way that leaders communicate within organizations and to outside stakeholders.  Why are women and minorities seen negatively when they use approaches that have worked historically with white males?  Is a new leadership communication style evolving as the make-up of leaders change?

Sabrina: From your experience of consulting, what advice would you give the instructors of business and professional communication? What would prepare their students best for the workplace?

Cynthia: The realization that communication is key to one’s success.  This one skill will result in building your personal brand, credibility, and impression management.  Learning how to be clear and succinct as well as asking questions for clarification are two important aspects.  The final aspect is that for as much time as I spend time helping executives how to communicate with the younger generations, students need to realize they need to learn the skills to do the same.  The most important meeting a new employee can have is the first one with his/her new boss where they discuss expectations as well as the preferred communication channel.

Sabrina: Anything else you’d like to add?

Cynthia: Communication is the one thing that as humans we think we’re great at because we communicate since day one. But it is hardest skill to learn to do well. Everyone needs to be an active participant in the communication process whether you are sending or receiving it. If there is a miscommunication, all involved with the communication is responsible to address it and fix it.  Everyone needs to learn this as a formal skill!

Recommended Citation: Sabrina Pastor with Cynthia Alt. (2019). Mixing Professional Practice with Pedagogy in Business Communication Courses. Western ABC Bulletin, 1.2.