Cascading Communication
The intentionality with which leaders share information contributes mightily to the performance excellence of the organization
BY JOANN STERNKE/School Administrator, March 2019

JoAnn Sternke (center) led the Pewaukee, Wis., School District to a Baldrige National Quality Award in 2013.
Presidential speech writer and American author James Humes said it so simply: “The art of communication is the language of leadership.”

Communication. We all know how important it is, yet it is so difficult to find time to be mindful about how we communicate. As superintendents, we are so busy responding to situations we don’t give enough proactive thought to what we are saying or writing. It’s like we’re stuck in the “Do” phase of the plan, do, study, act cycle, so busy doing as leaders that we don’t take the needed time to plan or study our communication. We might as well call it the plan, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, study, act cycle.

Because we are so busy, we let intentionality for our communication go by the wayside for more “important” or pressing matters. Yet what’s more important than how we communicate our plans and how we connect these plans to our district mission?

Our communication either builds or erodes trust in our organizations. The choice is in our hands — and the intentionality with which we message and share information is significant in building that trust. Often, we hear that we communicate too late or that people hear of things from us when it’s a “done deal” and they don’t have the chance for input. These can be legitimate concerns raised by parents, employees and the public.

Simple Tactics
These three simple communication tactics help us message and build trust in those we serve. I learned these during my 16 years as superintendent of the Pewaukee School District in Wisconsin and as a partner with Studer Education. Today I coach school district leaders to employ these impactful strategies.

» Key words at key times.
This means intentionally selecting the right thing to say at the right time in the right way. This tactic focuses us on being mindful of the why, what and how of our message. It’s important to clearly articulate the why before the what and how. I have found that leaders often believe in the why so much that they assume others have the same beliefs and understanding.

This should not be assumed. The why of the message is what drives commitment rather than compliance. If we just communicate the what and how when we message, it sounds as if we are barking directions. The why of the message appeals to the heart before the mind. Beginning with the why is the motivator and it is essential to driving execution.

Michael Cady, superintendent in Pewaukee today, takes time to articulate key words at key moments with his board of education to build a more unified understanding of initiatives and strategic planning work. He often gives board members two or three simple key talking points at tax voting time, enabling them to message well with citizens.

Judy Baseman, superintendent in Appleton, Wis., often crafts the essential words during meetings with her school district cabinet. “By focusing on key words at key times and creating them together, we all come to agreement on the message and are more likely to speak a common language about our work. This common language is key for our staff to understand the why, what and how of the important work we do in the name of serving our students.”

The Appleton, Wis., Area School District uses this infographic to show with clarity what words leader choose to articulate the importance of sharing survey results and obtaining input.

» Cascading communication.
Using the Baldrige Framework for Performance Excellence has taught me the importance of being intentional in my communication and to craft my key words at key times, not to one generic audience but specific to the many stakeholder groups we serve in K-12 education.

The Baldrige framework outlines what great organizations focus on to attain performance excellence. The framework asks key questions that, if answered, allow us to better understand our organizations and lead them in continuous improvement. A key component in the Baldrige framework is understanding the varying roles of our many stakeholder groups. Who are our partners? With whom in the community do we collaborate? What are our market segments? Our workforce segments?

By thinking about our many audiences in our communities and within our organizations, we better recognize the audiences of our messages. By answering the questions in the Baldrige framework, I better understood whom we serve.

Cascading communication is a process that defines how all impacted stakeholders will receive aligned and accurate information about a school district decision. Key words at key times is all about what the message is. Cascading is about who will hear it and when. Organizational leaders must plan how information will be relayed to both internal and external stakeholders and determine what level of information is needed by whom at what time. If we are not systematic about this process, it’s confusing for receivers of the information, and it can erode trust. One size doesn’t fit all.

To communicate differently, we must share a common message but make it relevant for each stakeholder group. We need to think about it with an “other centeredness” that asks “what do they need to know?” When you discuss the implementation of standards-based grading, for instance, a board of education needs different detail than what your community expects. Your faculty members who will be implementing a new assessment system will require a higher level of detail.

In addition, it helps to think of cascading messages with a sense of timing. Big school district decisions require a communication plan that clearly outlines who will hear what at what time. This intentionality about messaging and cascading it to all audiences will build clarity and cohesion around the work.

» Rolling out survey results.
Nothing seems more frustrating than completing a survey as a participant and never knowing if anything was done with the results. It’s irritating to commit the time to offer our opinions and never learn if our input even mattered.

School district leaders are using more and more parent satisfaction, employee engagement and community input surveys to determine how well their schools are serving constituents. While these surveys inform our decision making, they also can be a tool to heighten communication, trust and engagement — but only if we take the next key step and roll out the results for input.

Distributing the survey results can’t be the end of the process. It must start a new step of engagement where we bring together those who participated in the survey, roll out the survey results and ask for more input. That’s what makes it a true continuous improvement process.

By sharing survey results in a meeting setting, rather than just in a memo or newsletter, we increase engagement and our opportunity to learn as organizational leaders. Imagine rolling out your results from an employee engagement survey. As part of this process, we would invite faculty and staff and share the data. We would focus in on the top three survey results and probe on what specific actions the organization is taking that are contributing to the higher survey score. Then by asking questions concerning our three lowest scoring areas, we can learn what people want that we aren’t delivering.

Say our lowest score was in holding meetings that are productive and efficient. What could I do as the organizational leader to hold better meetings? Our stance must be one of learner. We can’t be defensive or rationalizing.

As leaders, if we use the survey rollout process as an opportunity to reflect and grow, we will improve our leadership and our school districts. If you think of the plan, do, study, act cycle, taking time to roll out results in a face-to-face setting allows us to enhance the study portion of the cycle more intently. It adds richness to the process by adding a focus group element to the process, which allows us to better make sense of the survey data.

Following the results rollout meeting, it’s important to let people know what actions you will take in light of the survey results — even if it’s a small step. In this way, you are communicating your desire to use the survey results to grow as a leader.

The action step doesn’t need to be major in scope. Say the lowest-scoring survey question was “My leader-led staff meetings make efficient use of time and are productive” and during the rollout meeting you learned that people want more time to engage. Your key action as a leader might be to restructure how time is used in your meetings and deliver 10 minutes of updates and information, thereby allowing for an additional 20 minutes for structured idea sharing and learning.

While the particular action you take is important, it’s equally important to let people know the survey results prompted a change in your leadership and you took action. That’s what builds the trusting relationship.

Communication is the language of leadership. We can build our skills as leaders by being intentional in messaging.

JOANN STERNKE, former superintendent in Pewaukee, Wis., is senior director and coach at Studer Education in Pensacola, Fla. Twitter: @jasternke