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Why leaders are bad communicators

Every business, nonprofit, and organization in the world needs to rethink — quickly and dramatically — how it communicates to its employees, donors, customers and shareholders.

Why it matters: Communications is now arguably the most important skill for any leader and function inside any organization, big or small.  And most suck at it.

Think about running anything since COVID:

  • Many people are still working from couches or kitchens or coffee shops — and will never return to a physical office to connect and learn. 
  • Every person has more notifications, bells or pings lighting up their phone than ever before. Hence, perpetual distraction. 

So people today are impossible to reach, or motivate, using old comms techniques. They are also needier.

  • Workers are demanding transparency, meaning, attention and connection like never before. They want to know what you are doing beyond making a product or money.
  • Many expect their companies or bosses to behave like idealistic politicians, taking public stands or action on every social debate. They want evidence of heart and humanity. 

Now shift from thinking about internal communications, and consider how leaders and groups connect externally. 

  • A tweet can have more influence than a national TV broadcast.
  • There are a dozen-plus distinct information ecosystems with distinct audiences. Think kids on TikTok, older people on Facebook, conservatives on right-wing podcasts. 
  • A generic press release is useless in this era.

When we sit down with C-suite executives, we often find they're set up for an era that died years ago. They know it — but don't know what to do.

The stakes: That poses a clear and present danger to their culture, productivity and future success. Poor communication leads to shoddy execution, employee distrust and, most notably, lack of alignment.

  • Let this sink in: Almost every leader at every company spends most of their time communicating — yet no one teaches you how to do it efficiently, effectively and profitably.

Here are four quick steps to help fix this: 

1. Have a communicator at your right hand. If you aren't a natural-born communicator, with authentic expertise, your head of comms or marketing is as vital to you as your COO or your CFO.

2. Hire people fluent in modern comms. You need to know how your message on Twitter has to be different for Facebook, for local media, for TV and for YouTube. A few cozy relationships with reporters are useless.

3. Rethink your style. Chances are you talk and write too long, too fancily, too foggily. You need to be smarter, briefer, more real.

4. Listen. It’s the essential ingredient of better communications. It allows you to communicate more transparently and more authentically because you know what words, phrases and ideas land with your audience — and which ones flop. This means more conversations with more people at more levels — your own personal focus group.

The bottom line: If your organization is communicating — internally or externally — with the same tone and cadence you used before this work-from-anywhere era, you're doing it wrong.

This article originally appeared in Axios Finish Line, Axios' nightly newsletter on life, leadership and wellness, and was written by Axios CEO Jim VandeHei. Sign up here.

(Illustration by: Eniola Odetunde/Axios)