Jim VandeHei
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The Axios Way: How you do it

Lots of great feedback to our post on The Axios Way — some lessons learned starting two media companies. There were requests for us to expand it to cover tricks/techniques that apply to all organizations, not just media startups.

Why it matters: Thanks to the explosion of technology and social media in particular, every industry — and most jobs — are changing faster than ever. This requires a new set of strategies to thrive in this era of transparency, distraction and disruption.

Market manically. For all the whining about technology, you can reach more people, more frequently, with more precision than at any point in humanity.

  • How you do it: If your marketing plan has conventional media only or catch-all "social media" section, destroy it. You need a specific plan for every media ecosystem — Facebook, video, Twitter, TV, email, etc — and to understand it's a different, often radically different, one for each. Make no mistake, it's harder than ever to punch through the noise, so you need a level of brand marketing sophistication most lack.

Think of your brand as a political candidate. You need to be hyper-aware of how you're seen by your core constituencies (employees and customers) and by the broader public.

  • How you do it: Be vigilant for signs of erosion in your base; or failing to respond forcefully to negative attacks; or underutilizing technology to connect with your people in authentic, compelling ways. And don't forget that people love a good narrative. So write and sell one, internally and externally.

Over communicate. In our short-attention-span world, full of cluttered and distracted minds, every leader and manager needs to explain what they're doing and why they're doing it every week, if not every day.

  • How you do it: It's not enough to save it for the staff retreat. Find a simple, clear way to explain what each person is doing, how they'll be measured, and how it fits into your company's larger purpose. And do it often. If not, you will end up with a bunch of distracted, underperforming malcontents.

Speak like a human. What the hell is the difference between "mission" and "values"? Who the hell really cares? What all employees — millennials in particular — want to know is what you're doing and why you're doing it. So just say it that way. (We're in the process of doing just this, and it's been very clarifying).

  • How you do it: Social media thankfully forces authenticity and writing like you would speak in normal settings. Your "what" and "why" should be in this casual language. If you sound like a corporate robot, reboot.

Force-multiply. It's not just that hiring someone better than you makes you better. It encourages that person to do the same. Soon, you have a talent factory. But many leaders/managers are too insecure to hire others who might outshine them. So they hire middling talent, trained to do the same. Soon you have the hot mess of mediocrity with no easy fix.

  • How you do it: You get this right at the very top by obsessing about finding killer executive talent secure enough to hire/empower stars. This is contagious. As for the flip side, get rid of leaders who don't get it.

The tech wolf is at your door. Your job, your company and your industry face imminent threat from new technologies or robots. This threat will worsen.

  • How you do it: Knowing this alone should instantly sharpen your mind and shorten your planning cycles. You don't have the luxury of five-year plans or one-year budgets. Yes, set a North Star. But constantly adapt to keep pace with technologies and swift changes in your marketplace. Tame the tech wolves eyeballing your lunch — before they eat it.

Heed red flags. Bad values are cancer, and it spreads. We look for killer talent with humility, and never compromise on either half.

  • How you do it: Resist the urge to overlook signs that someone won't fit with your culture, even if they're awesome at what they do. In the past, we occasionally averted our gaze from people with bad values but great gifts — and regretted it every single time. The same will likely happen to you, too.
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Trump's 7 months of self-destruction

Evan Vucci / AP

President Trump, with at least two years of full Republican control of government at the national and state levels, has systematically damaged or destroyed his relationship with — well, almost every group or individual essential to success.

This has left him on an island inhabited by a shrinking band of true-believer voters, who can help win an election, but can do nothing to help him exploit the power he's wasting:

  • Yesterday's mass exodus of CEOs from his outside business councils was an unusually abrupt sign of the 210 days of rot and erosion in his support.
  • A vivid demonstration of the sudden abandonment of Trump, via CNN's Brian Stelter: Shep Smith said he couldn't get a single Republican to go on Fox News to defend Trump. On MSNBC, Chuck Todd said he "invited every single Republican senator on this program tonight, all 52," plus a dozen House GOPers. None would do it. On CNN, Kate Bolduan said bookers called 55 Republicans, and only one said yes.
  • Why it matters: Trump's undisciplined and incendiary style has left the most powerful man in the world with few friends — not onein the United States Senate, for instance.

Trump started with a pretty clean slate but has methodically alienated:

  • The public: Gallup has his approval at 34%, down from 46% just after the inauguration.
  • Republican congressional leaders — Senate Majority Mitch McConnell in particular.
  • Every Democrat who could help him do a deal.
  • The media.
  • CEOs.
  • World leaders.
  • Europe.
  • Muslims.
  • Hispanics.
  • African Americans.
  • Military leaders.
  • The intelligence community.
  • His own staff.

And who's happy?

  • Steve Bannon.
  • Saudi Arabia.
  • Breitbart.
  • David Duke.

Be smart: The presidency is a lonely job. But Trump is unusually isolated because he thinks he needs no one besides himself. As one of his most ardent defenders told me: "He's just not as good as he thinks he is. And no one can tell him."

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An awful day for Trump's presidency

President Donald Trump returns to the White House Monday after his vacation in Bedminster, NJ (Alex Brandon / AP).

According to an executive who was involved in today's decision to disband President Trump's top outside business board, the CEOs decided they "couldn't justify the capital they were spending, hoping that this guy can function in a somewhat mature and statesmanlike way."

Trump used a tweet to preemptively shut down his top two business councils as soon as word leaked about the coming snub by the members of the President's Strategic and Policy Forum, chaired by Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman.

The executive told me: "Everyone knew, going in, that this was the way the guy was. They were just hoping that if he got the right people and decisionmaking processes in place, he could grow into the job. He proved he has no capability to do that." Yesterday's presser about Charlottesville was the last straw.

Why it matters … Axios CEO Jim VandeHei just told Nicolle Wallace on MSNBC: "Today is an awful day for the presidency – an awful day. … Hedid have those business leaders, who he needs: He's about to do tax reform! He's about to ask them to spend money, to spend political capital, to spend time to go get tax reform done."

  • "Now he has a massive public rebuke, in a way that we have not seen at any point in the Trump reign. So there's no way for them to spin it. And I think it gets worse: These CEOs are under so much pressure – internally, at home – in their own households."

Go deeper: Full recap on Trump's councils shutting down.

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The Axios Way

Here are some of the lessons learned creating Axios six months ago, and Politico a decade before:

  1. Obsess about your reader/viewer/listener. Their addiction/appreciation equals long-term biz success.
  2. Related to first one: Never do stupid tricks for clicks or ad dollars. Short-term high but long-term buzz kill for biz/consumers.
  3. Make tech/design as important as content or sales. Great content on clunky site, or with cluttered design, is a disservice, bad biz.
  4. People + purpose = killer execution. Sorry: Not all talent is created equal. Huge talent + great values = gold. Go all-in on this type.
  5. If you don't know with precision what your company is doing broadly, and what you are doing personally, run. Clarity of purpose is 🔑.
  6. The beauty/curse of today: You can build a brand faster than ever, but lose your magic just as quick. Play fast, scared and opportunistic.

Sound smart: The one management super-power I would wish for all is this: the self-confidence and judgement to hire people, with killer talent and awesome values, who want your job and can do it better. Do this and the next person they hire will do the same and your company will crush it. Don't do this, and you will have a hot mess of mediocrity. This is the Roy Schwartz Rule — and it's damn good one!

Go deeper ... The Axios Manifesto.

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The Committee to Save America

Sam Jayne / Axios

Here's one of the most intriguing — and consequential — theories circulating inside the White House:

  • The generals, the New Yorkers and Republican congressional leaders see themselves as an unofficial committee to protect Trump and the nation from disaster.
  • This loose alliance is informal.
  • But as one top official told us: "If you see a guy about to stab someone with a knife, you don't need to huddle to decide to grab the knife."

The theory was described to us in a series of private chats with high-ranking officials:

  • The generals — White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — speak frequently, see the world similarly and privately express a sense of duty to help steer Trump. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, is an ally.
  • The New Yorkers, including economic adviser Gary Cohn and Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell (with 25 years of foreign-policy experience), have subsumed some of their personal views to blunt Trump's worst ideas. This crowd is highly skilled at communicating with the president (using visuals and grand positioning) to refine or moderate "America first" provocations. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is also very involved, helping demand a process where POTUS has all the information to make domestic and international economic decisions.
  • Republican congressional leaders won't win any profiles in courage for standing up to Trump. But almost all could move against the president if special counsel Bob Mueller finds crimes, or the president succumbs to radical instincts.
These officials see their successes mostly in terms of bad decisions prevented, rather than accomplishments chalked up:
  • They view their main function as getting real facts to the president, and injecting their belief in the importance of alliances and military relationships around the world.
  • As an example, if Trump had plunged ahead with his thirst for a trade war, the U.S. might not have won China's backing in the U.N. vote last weekend for sanctions against North Korea.
  • These officials pick their battles, knowing that Trump is going to go ahead with some decisions — like renouncing the Paris climate agreement — no matter what.
  • And much of what they do is silent. AP reported that Mattis and Kelly, when he was still Secretary of Homeland Security, "agreed in the earliest weeks of Trump's presidency that one of them should remain in the United States at all times to keep tabs on the orders rapidly emerging from the White House."
  • These officials think Trump deserves a functioning staff, West Wing and process. They say they believe in him, but want the processes in place to give him accurate information and the right options.
  • Outside critics contend that these aides are rationalizing their role as enablers.

Be smart: One of the biggest dangers to Trump's reign is that if Mueller acts or public support plummets, he suddenly could be lonely in his own White House.

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A new Washington syndrome: Trumpression

AP

I'm not a doctor. But I have noticed a growing number of longtime Washingtonians in a prolonged, deep Trump-induced funk. It's ... Trumpression. The daily challenge to "normal" — normal behavior, normal practices, normal responses — is grinding on people's psyches.
Its symptoms include not only anger or Twitter rage, but a genuine concern for the health of our democracy. This is not a Democratic or media condition.
I see it the eyes of people I have known for years, who now work in the White House. For readers who love Trump, you probably love the shock and change. But the accompanying Trumpression is like nothing I have seen in 30 years of doing this.
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Why Trump can't get Congress to do what he wants

Evan Vucci / AP

Presidential power over a party or Congress comes from enough lawmakers needing, fearing or genuinely liking them. Donald Trump has none of this.

Almost four months into office, Trump has been unable to gain leverage over his party, especially in the Senate, much less Congress as a whole.

  • Senate Republicans don't need him. They're pressing ahead with their investigations into Russian interference in the election and pushing sanctions against Vladimir Putin. They're pushing their own health care bill on their own timetable and hardly rushing to Trump's defense. With a very favorable set of 2018 races, it's hard to see a need materializing.
    • I'm told Senate Republicans will also go their own way on tax reform, unconstrained by White House policy priorities or timetable.
  • Most Republicans don't like him. President Obama used a mix of need and genuine affection to jam through Obamacare in his first two years. There are very few Trump Republicans, much less lawmakers who dig their president. They tolerate him and they often vote with him, because Trump has largely embraced conventional GOP ideas. But most think he's blowing it.
  • No one fears him. Not long ago, Republicans worried about a Trump tweet fired their way. No more. And Democrats certainly don't fear a president opposed by most Americans. In fact, as Axios' Jonathan Swan reported in his weekly Sneak Peek newsletter last night, they're ready to effectively shut down the Senate to force a special prosecutor for the Russia probe.
  • Why all this matters: A top GOP lobbyist tells me: "Business feels the agenda is going down the toilet. ... This said, his supporters are hanging in there."

Read more ... N.Y. Times front page, above fold, "Senate G.O.P. Is Edging Back From President," by Jennifer Steinhauer ... WashPost A1, at fold, "Senate GOP wrestling with agenda full of peril," by Sean Sullivan and Kelsey Snell.

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100-day report card: Trump's hits, misses

AP

A quick rundown of President Trump's first three months in office. Day 100 is on Saturday, April 29.

Hits:

  1. Winning confirmation of Justice Gorsuch: Trump did it fast, with little drama and huge consequence. The win tipped the Court, invigorated conservatives, and bought him credibility with the establishment. It's the president's one achievement so far that will outlast him, regardless of what else unfolds.
  2. Pro-business executive orders and regulatory changes: Nothing lifts a presidency (or increases the chance of reelection) more than a rising economy. Trump's early pro-business rhetoric and assault on regulations has boosted many industries. And the market "Trump bump" has given business a new spring in its step.
  3. Encouraging CEOs to think more systematically about American jobs: Businesses talk openly about trying to "bait" a positive tweet from Trump (or insulate themselves from assault) by announcing factory openings or job expansions. These overtures aren't always all that they seem: Some were already in the pipeline, or may never come to fruition. But he has forced huge companies to reckon with the issue.
  4. Operation Normal I: Installing experienced national-security and economic teams, obviating the fears of some Republicans that a Trump Cabinet would have a bit of a clown-car aura.
  5. Operation Normal II: Post-Flynn, establishing a national-security decision-making process that has produced well-executed policies that have been regarded as sensible by mainstream Republicans. This includes the Syria strike, the embrace of NATO and the China state visit.
Misses:
  1. No significant new laws: He has full Republican control of Washington — and little to show for it. In retrospect, some White House aides think they screwed up by rushing into health care, and wish they had plunged into tax reform or an infrastructure package.
  2. Little personal growth in office: His loose style, resistance to structure and amorphous views (and loyalties) leave White House aides insecure, and create internal inefficiencies and blind spots. This chaos contributed to the health-care debacle, provoking weeks of public butt-covering and finger-pointing. To this day, many aides tell us the West Wing reality is even worse than is publicly portrayed.
  3. Failure to articulate a theory of the case, foreign or domestic: International allies and Congressional Republicans are left uncertain of what he believes, and opponents have an opening to define the vacuum on their terms.
  4. Inability to get over it: The president hasn't kicked any of his bad campaign habits, all of which complicate governance — score-settling, name-calling, reckless tweeting, petty grievances, and unnecessary shots at allies and others he will one day need to succeed.
  5. Resistance to reaching out to the 54% of 2016 voters who voted for someone else: Trump's low approval ratings make it harder for Democratic leaders on the Hill to make deals with him. Ditto his continued incitement of the Democratic base.
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Trump 101: How to deal with Donald

Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Top CEOs have a new First Customer. With President Trump taking a hands-on approach to negotiations, here are five tips for surviving and thriving — based on conversations with executives, aides and friends who have battled Trump in private and found some success.

  1. Get to the table, whether you love him or not. Trump is a transactional guy with unformed views on many topics. He frequently seeks advice and occasionally takes it. While it might feel right to buckle to pressure and refuse meetings, you lose your leverage, instantly and profoundly.
  2. Give him something he can call a win. Trump has an elastic view of winning, as seen by his trumpeting of companies announcing new U.S. jobs that were set in motion long before the president won. He NEEDS something to tweet, but often needs the specifics filled in, several business leaders told us. The easiest win is something, anything related to creating American jobs.
  3. Find and exploit common ground — on people, real estate, politics or private aircraft. Trump has been most engaged and open-minded when dealing with aerospace companies (partly because he can talk planes, given that he owns a Boeing 757) and infrastructure execs (because he spent his career building things). He has a surface-level-at-best understanding of most policies, so going in for arcane policy discussions doesn't work.
  4. Know he's a vindictive guy who harbors grudges long beyond the moment. If you refuse to meet with him or put out anti-Trump messages, prepare to suffer revenge. He pays close attention to critics, and his aides hand him printouts of anti-Trump statements made by people or companies they don't like. They have a notional enemies list that gets used for everything from rejecting appointments to key jobs, to deciding who gets a voice in policy debates.
  5. Work Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner. Both men sit it on key meetings, and often get Trump alone afterward to shape reaction and follow-up to interaction. Both are accessible by text and cell, and like playing the role of the Trump whisperer.

Then sit back and pray he doesn't whack you with a Saturday morning tweet.

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The known knowns about Trump

Lazaro Gamio / Axios

As Donald Trump reaches Day 50 of his presidency, halfway to the fabled hundred days, here are some of the "known knowns" about him — certainties we have learned since the inauguration:

  1. Trump is Trump. A wise friend told us that the one guy who's NOT CHANGING is a 70-year-old billionaire with his name on the building. Think about the arc of claiming 6 years ago that President Obama wasn't a U.S. citizen to claiming Saturday that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. Trump might surprise, but he will never change.
  2. He's a media junkie. For all his anti-media tirades, we have never had a president this obsessed with the media. This has been a reality for Trump since the 1980s and will never change. So, brace yourself for twitchy Twitter responses to Fox, the N.Y. Times and "Morning Joe" until this presidency ends.
  3. The Trump show will always be improv. His advisers can make all the plans and give all the advice they want. Trump always has, and always will, go with his gut; usually based on the last person who got him jazzed.
  4. Trump is transactional. He wants to claim wins on creating American jobs, undoing Obamacare and reducing taxes. He likes working people face-to-face or on his cell. And the details are always negotiable.
  5. Chaos isn't a theory, it's a governing reality. Competing factions, widespread insecurity and rivalry promise many more months and years of reality show-worthy stories and governing. The truth is: Trump likes the commotion.
  6. Russia's a problem that won't go away. You have all the ingredients for an investigation that might never, ever end: multiple, mysterious meetings between Trump officials and Russia; some elements of the intelligence community clearly out for payback; congressional probes launched; and the opposition party smelling blood. Ask Bill Clinton how long these dramas drag on.