A couple of weeks ago, a girlfriend called me, and, as soon as I picked up the phone, she yelled, “HOLD ME BACK FROM KILLING THEM!”
I laughed out loud and asked her what was going on. Apparently, a client asked her and her team for a proposal to do some branding work and then turned around and handed it to a friend who “does branding work.”
My friend is one of the foremost experts on branding. She and her team are highly sought after for the work they do with gigantic brands. Some of the brands you have in your home are ones she was behind. She’s incredibly talented.
And yet, her client has a friend who did branding 20 years ago and seems to think this person can do a better job than my friend, who literally does it for the likes of Google, Apple, and Pepsi.
Not Everyone Is a Professional
This happens all the time in the work that we do. Everyone thinks an intern can effectively run a social media strategy because it’s just sending a tweet or posting on Instagram. Right? And writing? Gosh! Everyone does it! How hard can it be? It always makes me roll my eyes when someone says, “Oh, well, our CEO’s wife was in marketing before they started a family, and he wants her to help out with this program.” And their eldest child is in their late 20s. Because nothing has changed at all in the last 30 years.
But the kicker? The one that makes me roll my eyes so far back in my head they may stay there? The executives who think they don’t need communications help because, gosh darn it, they founded a company and built it from the ground up. They are leaders who have garnered lots of respect (in their own minds), and they have successful businesses (sometimes in spite of themselves).
Yes, those leaders are the ones who don’t think they need help, but according to a recent Axios article, most suck at communications.
(Most) Leaders Suck at Communicating
Communications is now the most important skill for any leader inside any organization, big or small. And most suck at it, according to Axios. To prove the point, I asked the Spin Sucks Community for examples of leaders who are bad communicators.
I heard everything from a boss who created an internal committee to help her with online dating and leaders who create false narratives about the people who’ve left the company to those who call meetings and then spend the time together on their phones and those who wanted the PR team to blacklist any reporter who wrote anything negative about them.
There are leaders who handle bad news poorly, such as a former client of ours who sent an email to the entire office one morning that said, “If you have a meeting with HR on your calendar today, you’re being fired.” That was how he announced layoffs before a single person had had their meeting with HR.
Or the research that Ryan Hanser and his team do about the relationship between business and media. They consistently find that 0% of CEOs say they’ve never lied to journalists, while more than 40% of journalists say that’s not true.
Of course, just a week ago, the chief executive of cloud computing startup PagerDuty quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., in her layoff email to staff—and then had to backtrack and apologize.
Not to mention, this new trend of announcing layoffs via email is poor communication and leadership. I understand why they do it—it’s about delivering the news with speed, but it’s always received as cold and unkind. Always.
While you may be a tech firm laying off thousands of employees or a small firm letting go two or three, the communication around it can be handled significantly better.
Examples of Terrible Communications
I heard even more stories about leaders who:
- Criticize colleagues in meetings with their peers
- Those who aren’t respectful of others’ time
- Unrealistic deadlines
- Consistently canceling meetings with your direct reports
- Being tone-deaf to the changes happening in the world
- Having private conversations with employees about which of their peers to fire
- Being terrible at public speaking
- Consistently scheduling All Hands meetings on non-Christian religious holidays
- Never having 1:1 convos with your team or contractors
- Simply not taking the time to improve your skills.
And the biggest one, which I alluded to in the intro is ignoring the professionals in the room because everyone knows how to talk and write. Oy vey.
The Way We Communicate Has Changed
A lot has changed in the last three years. It used to be that business leaders were told not to talk about values or politics or religion with external audiences because it was sure to turn customers—current and prospective—off. So many leaders have spent their entire careers not talking about those things, for fear of losing customers.
But then a pandemic hit, and it changed the way we all think about work. Then we added in remote and hybrid work, combined with trends such as quiet quitting and now quiet hiring. We topped that with a social justice movement. And now leaders are being told, “Forget what you’ve always known. You have to talk about those things now.”
Of course, they don’t know how, and some—especially those we talked about before the break—aren’t getting professional help in learning how; they’re just winging it.
When you think about internal audiences, you have to consider that most are still working from home in some sense and will never return to a physical office to connect and learn. On top of that, every person has more notifications, bells, and pings lighting up their phone, computer, and tablet than ever before. And some (like a good friend of mine) even listen to podcasts while they work (which I totally don’t understand). So we’re in a state of perpetual distraction.
People today are impossible to reach and motivate using the communications techniques of old. They also demand transparency, and they want attention and connection that doesn’t require them to sit in an office all day, every day. Just like customers, many expect bosses to behave like “idealistic politicians,” taking public stands or action on every social debate. They want evidence of heart and humanity.
Enter the Communications Professional
And it’s not just communicating differently internally—or figuring out how to deliver news quickly without relying on email. Leaders have to figure out how to connect externally, as well.
We all know that a tweet can have more influence than any traditional media. There are thousands of places where people get their information, from TikTok and Facebook to podcasts and Reddit.
And most leaders are still focused on what they did pre-2020. The good news is, they know they’re not evolving, but they don’t know what to do about it. This poses a risk to their culture, productivity, hiring, retention, and future success. Poor communication leads to shoddy execution, employee distrust, and—as I found when I asked the Spin Sucks Community for examples—a lack of loyalty.
Enter the communications professional.
The Axios article I referenced earlier has some really great tips. They include:
- A leader should have a communicator at their right hand.
- They should hire people fluent in modern comms.
- They should rethink their style
- And they should listen. Listen to hear, not to respond.
4 Tips to Improve Leadership Communications
If a leader doesn’t have communications expertise—and I’m talking they’ve done it and lived it for a good portion of their career; not that their spouse did it before they started a family 20 years ago—a head of comms is as vital as the COO and CFO. We should be at the right hand of every successful CEO.
Next, they should hire people fluent in modern comms, which means they know how to message on TikTok vs Facebook vs Twitter vs LinkedIn vs TV vs YouTube vs podcasts vs national and local media. This is not the job of an intern. It’s the job of someone who knows how to communicate effectively, using the tools at their disposal.
The CEO who had to apologize for quoting Dr. King in her layoff email? That email was 1600 words! That’s longer than this entire article. We need to teach leaders how to be smarter, briefer, and more real.
I’m an introvert, so I’m naturally a great listener. It’s mostly because I’m really terrible at small talk, but I’m really interested in people. I’m great at asking questions and digging deep with people because it means they get to keep talking, and I don’t have to. But for most people, that doesn’t come naturally. We are wired to listen to respond, not listen to hear. But when we teach our leaders how to listen to hear, they will communicate more transparently and authentically because they’ll know what words, phrases, and ideas land with their audiences—and which ones flop.
The bottom line is that if the organization is using the same tone, cadence, and tools from the pre-pandemic era, it’s all wrong…and a communications professional is desperately needed.