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Insight: Eight ideas to make your leadership event cascadable

By Steve Quah & Andrew Harvey

How do you effectively cascade the key messages from leadership events to the whole organisation? This is one of several issues that Communications Directors have raised with us recently. These and other such topics are described here. But it’s a question that’s been around for years. Just how do you spread the messages from your high-level events across the whole organisation?

Here’s our thoughts on what could be getting in the way of turning a great leadership event into a great employee cascade.

1. Decide what you mean by cascade, and share the definition

What do you mean by a cascade anyway?

It means whatever we decide it means. And that may be part of the problem. In a true cascade, there persists the idea of each layer of an organisation’s hierarchy briefing their direct reports and so on.

However, as organisations have flattened out and there are fewer management layers to go through, the classic cascade has morphed into a sort of one size fits all approach in many organisations. The senior people get the messages first-hand from the senior leadership team at an event and everyone else gets a briefing. Is that a cascade? We are not so sure. But whatever you do, agree the terminology and stick with it, because it’s confusing. Well we get confused anyway!

2. Don’t cascade a live event

Let’s cut to the chase. In our mind, focusing on how to cascade the content of a leadership event to the wider employee audience might be the wrong approach. It sounds obvious, but you can’t bottle a live event. No matter how well you put the package together, it will always look and feel like second best, especially if your cascade programme in some way ‘reports’ on the event.

A selection of slides, some speaking notes, perhaps a bit of video. A cut down version of the event messages repackaged for the wider audience. That’s the default position for most cascade packages. So why doesn’t it work very well, if at all?

For two main reasons – the content is often uninspiring, and the people delivering it might be as well. Harsh? Perhaps. But the truth is live event content doesn’t easily translate to team meetings and managers doing the cascade often lack either the skills or the knowledge to contextualise vision and strategy for their teams. There, we’ve said it. So, what might help?

3. Focus on messages, not re-purposed content

We find the process works better when the onward communication is considered as a separate challenge in its own right. Decide what you want people to hear and learn about and how you want them to react and behave? The classic approach. Only when you have the answers to those questions should you consider the channels and media. And the chances are that much, if not all, of the assets produced for a leadership live event will not be appropriate. They may be too complex, they may be entirely dependent upon the delivery of the CEO or other leader, or they may simply not address the concerns of people outside of the upper echelons of the business.

Of course, Communication Directors know all this. But we do still find a desire to fit the existing assets into an onward programme, rather than considering what assets we need to help managers deliver a specific set of messages and provide context and interpretation for their teams. So yes, we do think you should create different assets for a cascade. Not just the edited highlights.

4. Put the detail online – but make it newsworthy

OK, it doesn’t work for every organisation, but almost every company we work for has a technically robust intranet at its disposal. And a workforce that, by and large, has access to it. (Field based workers are another story).

So, creating content that addresses all of the important issues that were covered at a leadership event through lively, well produced and succinct articles, interviews, video programmes, explainers, graphics, and other items might be a better approach. Don’t expect the line to do it all through the so-called cascade; provide resources where people can get into the detail for themselves. We all get our news (or a lot of it anyway) online now and we expect to be able to explore what interests us, not to read a newspaper from cover to cover. Why should something as important as your organisation’s strategy, plans and performance be any different?

5. Plan the cascade at the same time as the live event

Many weeks, if not months can go into planning a leadership event. Themes are designed, creative content is produced, presentations are written, videos are made, participative sessions developed, entertainment booked and workshop sessions devised. It sucks in a lot of resource and budget. All in an effort to get it right and land the key messages. And rightly so. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

Why then is the onward communication of the messaging from the event not given the same planning time? It’s just as important isn’t it? Our advice is to develop a mindset that gives equal importance and senior level ownership to the onward communication. We should be having as many meetings and spending just as much time planning and developing the post-event activity as we do the event. And it all needs to start on the same day we start planning your event.

6. Resource it sufficiently

As a creative agency, we seek to make the best use of the budgets available for our clients, whatever they decide is most important to them. But there is often a discrepancy between the resources available to create an effective leadership event and those available for the follow-up. That’s not just an agency asking for more money. But we do think there is an element of unrealistic expectation. Think about whether the budget should be more evenly distributed between the big event and the big cascade. Without the latter, you might be wasting the resources invested in your leadership event.

7. Make the cascade part of the leadership event

At too many leadership team events, the onward communication programme is not properly dealt with as part of the event. If it is spoken off at all, then it may be addressed in a cursory fashion, with perhaps a five-minute presentation from HR about the nuts and bolts – ‘when and where’ and not much else.

Even worse, perhaps, is the announcement that there will be a ‘briefing pack’ in your in-box in a few days. And that’s it. By the time the briefing materials arrives, it’s all that many people can do to remember anything about the conference and what they might say. Does that sound familiar? There is a better way.

A more productive approach could be to devote proper time in the event agenda to the onward communication programme. Why not devote actual session time to preparing managers to deliver important messages and share the vision and strategy with the same degree of care lavished on the rest of the agenda? Instead of the (occasionally) spurious breakout session, why not do a proper session on the onward comms?

This is a win win. Not only does it help managers get it right, it also reinforces their own learnings from the event. The chance to refresh their knowledge and share their interpretations with colleagues means they embed their own understanding as well as practice how to communicate it.

We have seen much better results if peer groups of leaders work together on internalising and preparing their cascades as a team, at the event. It simply works better if you work with colleagues to test your approach and with internal experts to consult to check details and coach you.

So the next time somebody asks ‘what should we do on Day2?’ of the management conference? Here’s your answer. Get everyone working on the onward communication programme.

8. Upskill line managers in delivery

Here’s the elephant in the room. We know from talking to our Communication Director clients, and potential clients, that there is still a skills deficit around communication among line managers in many organisations. When it comes to delivering the strategy story to their teams, there can be a particular problem.

Although they are usually great at delivering operational and departmental briefings, too many line managers are uncomfortable in talking about the big picture and, crucially, in interpreting company-wide strategy and plans into operational realities for their team. It’s easy for us to say that they need to explain ‘what does this mean for me?’ But if doing that requires skills and a level of confidence that they don’t possess it will either not be done or be done badly. So they fall back on to a rather sterile reading of the brief. It’s why the classic team briefing model originally devised by The Industrial Society is now less favoured as both employees and their supervisors/managers got bored with briefings that ticked the box but failed to truly engage those involved.

And finally…

Don’t call it a cascade

This in itself is a barrier to success. It’s a programme, a campaign, a movement even. Not a cascade. A cascade is when you get lots off water (or other liquid) poured on you from a great height. It makes you wet, but doesn’t do much else for the recipient. Perhaps it’s time to turn off the tap.

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