Spread True Rumors

This month’s article is from Glenn Lyday, my colleague in San Francisco.  Glenn explores one of the simplest, and often overlooked, tools to help create a healthy and aligned organization: cascading communications. He has a handful of recommendations to ensure that your team communicates consistently coming out of every team meeting.

“Well, this is it. Where great decisions go to die.” My client continued, “Let’s make sure we don’t tell anyone about the important decisions that we’ve made today. Or better yet, let’s all go back and tell each of our teams different things.”   

Fortunately, my client was joking. She had wrapped up the agenda of the meeting 10 minutes early, not to give the team a chance for some team goat-yoga (look it up, it’s a thing), but to take one of the most important steps to ensure the health and alignment of her organization: to clarify Cascading Communications. 

The concept of Cascading Communications isn’t complicated. It is a simple, efficient tool for leaders to communicate messages from the leadership team to the teams they lead, and to ensure that important messages flow from the top of the organization to the next level and beyond. It goes something like this: 
-Our CEO Sharon has a meeting on Monday morning with her direct reports, including Noah.
-Sharon wraps up the agenda discussion with 10 minutes to spare, to align the team on 3-5 bullet points to communicate.
-Noah will then have a meeting with his direct reports, preferably within one to two days of Sharon’s meeting.
-Noah will take the first 10 minutes of his meeting to communicate those 3-5 bullet points from Sharon’s meeting and answer any questions.
-Noah’s peers on the team will do the same thing.
-Next Monday, lather, rinse, and repeat. 

Nearly every leadership team that I’ve worked with has quickly recognized the importance of getting aligned on what to communicate to their direct reports and teams after a meeting. Regular, frequent communication with the next level of teams is an effective way to gain alignment around decisions, direction, and priorities. It’s also an impactful tool to engage employees, because the one thing that every single one of your employees needs in order to be more engaged and do his or her job more effectively is…a Ping-Pong table. No, of course I’m kidding. Every employee needs to understand how the work they’re doing connects to the purpose, strategy, and priorities of the organization.  

And yet, even leadership teams that know it’s important often still don’t cascade consistently, and alignment of the organization suffers. We’ve found that particularly in the remote and distributed world that many of our clients are operating under, effective cascading communications has become even more important. And more difficult. 

So, here are a few practical steps to effectively Cascade Communications from a leadership team to the next level:
End the meeting early. One of my clients calls this the “Last 10/First 10.” Take the last 10 minutes of the leadership team meeting to clarify the handful of messages to communicate (the extroverted teams will need to have some discipline here). Then, the first 10 minutes of the meeting with the next level team should be cascading these messages to those team members. Yes, 20 minutes may sound like time that you currently don’t have. But the return on that investment is massive. 
Cascade quickly. Stale news is kinda like stale tortilla chips. Better than nothing, but it’s waaaay better fresh. Generally, that means communicating to your team in your next meeting, which should be a maximum of 3 days after the leadership team meeting. 
Greater impact = more time. 10 minutes is a great rule of thumb. But the significance of the decision (and the amount by which your team will be impacted by the decision) should determine the time spent on Cascading Communications. Even if it’s relatively straight-forward to communicate (“we closed an office”), it could be critical to spend time with employees to help them through a significant transition. 
3 to 5 bullet points. Even if you haven’t made any earth-shattering decisions in your team meeting, still strive for 3 to 5 bullet points to communicate consistently to your teams. About decisions, about progress towards our goals, about upcoming events, about changes that will impact teams and employees. Don’t walk out of any team meeting with nothing to communicate. 
Include emotion and empathy. You don’t have to be a robot to be consistent in communication with your peers. Unless you are one of those new robot managers that I keep reading about. “I’m excited about our upcoming product launch” or “I know it’s going to be a difficult month, and tough on each of you, as we make it through this re-org.” This does not mean you need to fake anything. You are not Meryl Streep. And your team will sniff out that you’re not really that excited about the 4th re-org this quarter, despite your fake enthusiasm. 
Clarify what “not to say” too. This can often be just as important as clarifying what we should say. Is there anything the team is not ready to communicate? 
Hold your team accountable to cascade. Team leaders must ensure that cascading communications happens. Don’t just assume that your team is doing it well, check in with them, and check in with their employees.  

In The Table Group’s Organizational Health framework, over-communication is essential. That means that All-Hands are still important, as are 1 on 1’s, Slack updates, emails, corporate newsletters, and more. But we have not found a method as efficient and effective in gaining alignment as Cascading Communications. This helps prevent the game of telephone in which we end up with wildly different interpretations (imagine the business equivalent of “I’m flying to New Jersey” translating to “I’m buying a new jersey”). It also eliminates the “Mom said we couldn’t do it, so let’s go ask Dad!” phenomenon, since your teams know that Mom and Dad will be consistently aligned. The quickest way for your employees to see your leadership team as more cohesive is to consistently communicate the same things. 

Patrick Lencioni says that the process of Cascading Communications is your chance as leaders to “spread true rumors.” Otherwise, your teams will fill in the gaps of communication with their own stories. Cascade consistently, and your teams will thank you for it.  

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