Cascading the message down the line

This week, two of our clients each asked the same question: “What are best practices for cascading a leadership message down the line? Somehow my message does not seem to arrive at the front line; it gets stuck in the middle.”

One of the most frequent causes of failure that we see in top leadership communications is a simple lack of intensity and frequency. Lou Gerstner and Gordon Bethune both say it very well (in their books, respectively “Who says elephants can’t dance” and “From worst to first“). You have to repeat and repeat and repeat the message until you are utterly bored and sick of hearing yourself, and most leaders don’t do that – they believe that if they say it very clearly once, then people will know. A rule of thumb is: we have to hear or see or experience your message seven times before it arrives.

The second most frequent cause of failure is lack of “walking the talk”: we say one thing, but we do another; one process (e.g. our strategy cascade) says one thing, another (e.g. our budget process and daily planning realities) says another. Better NOT to send a message than to send it and proceed to contradict it in action – a leadership message that doesn’t align with daily experience will only foster cynicism.

We find that cascades that include bottom-up elements tend to be more effective. E.g., for a strategy cascade: a planning process that includes a specific time/process for lower levels to raise issues and propose solutions, and then works that information back into the top-down part, tends to work better than one that goes straight down from the top. The underlying principle: people are more interested to hear about themselves and their own ideas than about anything else you could possibly want to talk to them about.

The structure for planning a cascade depends on the communication’s objectives, and on disciplined related success metrics. Some options: Just inform; Inform + test understanding; above + receive feedback to improve; above + get commitment statement; above + embed (e.g., in sector plans that trigger budget and initiative reviews). 

When the message must be heard throughout the entire organization, we recommend using multiple media at the same time that reinforce each other, the more specific the better. Examples include personal change stories, video, town hall meetings, game board sessions, gallery walks, magazine interviews, and viral/community building approaches.

Lastly, top team alignment on the strategy and operating model needs to be strong an visible – which sounds like, but is not a no-brainer. If the top team disagrees, this translates down surprisingly effectively without any particular communications effort!