How to Maximize Agility By Cascading Expectations

 All organizations are having their agility put to the test.  Let’s agree that Agility is measured by the time it takes to pivot – to absorb new information, decide, and see the impact on the front lines with employees and customers.  

The key to agility is a simple, overlooked leadership behavior – the simple act of Cascading Expectations.  Expecting their direct reports to expect the same of their direct reports… and following up on it.  

Let’s assume most directors and managers want to do well — to be aligned and focused on the right things.  Too often, though, simple decisions and behaviors set and modeled at the top don’t make it the front lines. That’s because there’s a layer of “mud” in every organization where things like information, decisions, and behavioral expectations get stuck and die.  Leaders must intentionally push through it.

One CEO recently, in experiencing the benefits of a slimmer, more focused cadence of team meetings, asked his execs to commit to daily huddles and weekly tactical meetings as well.  But here’s the key, he simply added… “And, once you master it, I want you to ask your direct reports to copy it at the next level too.”  As he follows up and reinforces this expectation, this organization will see greater impact sooner.  

That’s a cascading expectation.  It is simple, because it only requires an extra sentence when you announce it, “…and I expect you to set this expectation with your teams too.” Add a simple accountability question, like, “How is it going?  Are you doing it? Are your people doing it?” and you’ll have confidence it is happening.

Think of the power of this simple extra action.  You can apply this in three powerful, agility-boosting situations:

Creating Clarity at Every Level

You’ve announced the top priority for the company by email and in a town hall.  You truly hope this “Rally Cry” will eliminate misalignment and minimize silos. Don’t leave it to chance. Expect your execs to contextualize it with their functions and adjust their functional priorities… a simple “Stop, Start, Continue” exercise.  Ask them to expect the same of their direct reports, etc. Follow up until you are sure every layer and every individual has had a chance to interact and align with the new company Rally Cry.

Decision-Making at Every Level

You expect your exec team to engage in productive debate before making decisions and to holding one another accountable as peers.  You expect them to give each other input, ask for help, solicit opinions, etc. You know how difficult it can be to foster an environment in which high-quality decisions are made quickly and executive faithfully.  

Cascade the expectation that your leaders foster this environment on the teams they lead as well.  Again, expect them to expect their team leaders to do the same one layer out. This fosters a spirit of decisiveness, action and collaboration at every level.  It will help to provide books and training to learn how to do this well. But don’t just provide training and tools, expect behavior change, and expect them to expect behavior change from their directs.

Connecting at Every Level

In a mid-COVID-19 exec team conversation the CEO decided he wanted leaders to check in with their Work From Home team members at least once a week.  The goal was human. To simply show care and see how they were doing.  He committed to modeling it at the top with his own exec team. To ensure it  would reach the front lines, he set a clear expectation that not only does he want  them doing the same for the teams they lead, he wants them to ensure their direct-reports do this at the next layer.  He was quite clear that he wanted all 12,000 employees to get a “hey, are you ok?” check-in call with their manager once a week until this crisis passes.  The impact of this leadership will be felt in the loyalty and engagement of their employees.

Leadership Action:  Cascading Expectations requires behavior change… pressing into the awkwardness of stating the obvious and following up with direct questions.  But, behavior change is free… even on executive teams and no-cost improvements are welcome these days!  

Make a short list of recent decisions and expectations that you’d expect to flow to the front lines.  Then in your next team meeting, ask next layer out questions:

Question:  Has everyone followed up with their teams about the new budget process?  

Next Layer:  Have you asked your direct reports if they’ve followed up with their directs?

Question:  Have you called your managers this week?  

Next Layer:  Have they called their people?

Question:  Did you hear any challenges from your managers this week?  

Next Layer:  Did they hear any from their teams?  

This simple shift can help you maximize the impact of your decisions by taking another step in ensuring everyone from the CEO to the person on the front-line is aligned and focused on the right things.

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