Does CEO clarity reduce churn in the workforce? Axios HQ’s Roy Schwartz thinks so.
“Throughout the business world, communications are not managed right now. It’s the Wild, Wild West within organizations.”
When it comes to leadership communication, we’re living in the Wild West.
That’s the view of Roy Schwartz. Anyone who’s ever read a management memo that sprouted more questions than answers may think he’s onto something. It is a little wild to think that the leader of an organization with thousands of employees would send an all-company memo without a strategy for clearly communicating its contents. Perhaps those leaders have a few people preview it for typos–or perhaps not. And yet, that’s what happens in workplaces everywhere. Schwartz says if leaders can master the style of one-to-many communication, there will be positive ripple effects across the organization.
“What’s really sad is that when people sit down and want to communicate something, they just sit down and type,” Schwartz tells The Workback. “They don’t usually format it. They usually don’t put it in a hierarchy. They’re not putting in the time and attention.”
Schwartz urges that the written word—which has become even more critical in the hybrid work era—requires the same thoughtful preparation as one gives a slide deck.
“It would not be seen as unusual if we worked for hours on a PowerPoint presentation. But yet, people do not give it the same care and attention when sending an all-staff email to 5,000 people.”
It’s a growth area for leaders of all levels, but especially for those in the upper echelons of enterprise-sized organizations that have city-sized workforces, Schwartz says.
“That’s the part that I think will change over the next few years,” he continues. “People are going to realize that when you’re sending out emails to thousands of people, you’ve got to spend the time and the effort to think about how you’re communicating it and thinking of the reader, versus just thinking about what you want to convey.”
Axios co-founders from the left to right: Mike Allen, Jim VandeHei, and Roy Schwartz.
Schwartz is the co-author of Smart Brevity, the 2022 book he wrote with Axios and Politico co-founders Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei. From his time on the business side of those media companies, Schwartz has tactical, candid communication tips for leaders that lean on the smart brevity formula used by Axios to reach its audience since the publication launched in early 2017.
Leaders must write compelling subject lines, just like newsletter writers. They need to use six–or fewer–strong words.
Leaders need to be regular in their communication. That means once-a-week regular, not just when disaster strikes or when there’s important news.
Leaders must keep it brief, capturing the essence of what they are trying to say in as few words as possible. At the most, it should all fit on the screen of a phone.
These communication habits are hardly the norm at large enterprises, a fact that Schwartz sees as an opportunity for leaders.
“Throughout the business world, communications are not managed right now,” Schwartz says. “It’s the Wild, Wild West within organizations. Any manager can send anything to their team. And nobody is dictating a format, best practice, or point of view.”
Think about communication as much as you think about strategy.
The focus on improving communication has been growing for centuries: Among his many memorable observations on communication and the importance of clarity, the late German philosopher Johann Goethe (1749-1832) declared this: “No one would talk much in society if they knew how often they misunderstood others.”
Zipping forward a few hundred years, as the rise of technology facilitates more—if not better—communication, leaders have observed, and research has shown clarity is more important than ever.
The statistic below perhaps tells the story most efficiently:
81% of workers say poorly written material wasted their time at work.
Author and researcher Josh Bernoff surveyed 547 workers in 2016 and found 81% of them agreed that poorly written material wasted their time at work. The poor writing was “too long, poorly organized, unclear, filled with jargon, and imprecise,” Bernoff writes in a Harvard Business Review article on his study.
For his part, Schwartz urges leaders to become clearer, better, and more regular communicators. He covers the concepts in Smart Brevity, but he’s also launched Axios HQ, an AI-powered communication tool that guides leaders to write messages in the Axios style. The service, which Schwartz says has 400 business customers, tracks data like anonymized open rates and other metrics, positioning the employee audience as a customer and the leader as the publisher, equipped with analytics tools allowing them to analyze where they must improve. With Axios HQ, Schwartz is essentially applying media’s audience development best practices to the world of internal communications so that executive messages can resonate with more employees.
Below is a conversation with Schwartz, edited for brevity and clarity, about the lessons for leaders he’s learned as a media executive.
Roy Schwartz, co-founder and president of Axios media and CEO of Axios HQ.
What would you say to executives who want to be brief and precise but also want to ensure their ideas stick?
A CEO must communicate much more than has ever been asked of a CEO before. So to meet that need, we recommend setting up a regular communication cadence. Employees should anticipate that something is coming, and we think on at least a once-a-week basis. That actually relieves the pressure of writing a big, long memo about the end of the year.
If you have a regular communication that you send every week, at the same time, on the same day, then you start to establish this cadence and this connection with your employees.
That sounds easy enough. Is that it, then?
The format of how that is delivered is really important. You’ve got to be respectful of people’s time. You’ve got to be efficient. And look, whether you have 500 or 5,000 people, it better be efficient when you’re asking your entire company to read something. Because literally, the entire company is stopping and reading your communication. Or worse, they’re not reading your communication because they know it’s inefficient and do not want to waste their time.
How long should CEO memos take to read?
Try to keep [read time] down to two or three minutes. It’s another really important lesson that we’ve seen. We’ve seen hundreds of examples of it, so if you keep it short and succinct and you keep a regular cadence, your opportunity to engage your audience is much, much higher.
Why don’t you see more CEOs write weekly memos, as your book suggests? And do you think that’s changing?
It’s definitely changing. Most companies have something like this where they communicate with their employees. Still, not all companies are very organized in terms of doing it on a regular cadence or doing it in an organized way where you know what to expect.
Does CEO clarity reduce churn, or employee turnover, in the workforce?
Oh, for sure. I can tell you this: We’ve seen a correlation between churn and open rates. If you don’t open your boss’s email for several weeks in a row, chances are you’re leaving the company because you’re not engaged. You’re not reading your boss’s note. It’s even more impactful if it’s at a manager level. If you’re not reading your direct manager’s communication, I can draw a direct line between that and churn.
I’d be remiss for not asking a communication leader for advice about making slide decks.
It’s too many words on the deck. It’s just too many words. The mistake that people make over and over is that when they’re doing a presentation, they’re loading it up with everything they want to say.
If you’re presenting your deck, you’ll want to prepare it differently than if you’re sending it. Presenters need far fewer words because people cannot read and listen at the same time.
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