The Top-Down Effect

The Top-Down Effect has confused and baffled leaders, managers and development consultants for years. It is simple in its form yet produces powerful effects. It is a phenomenon that naturally occurs in the business environment that can either make or break culture and brand strategies. The Top-Down Effect silently strips away the layers of jargon and ideals within a company to reveal the authentic intent and style of those at the top of the organization.

Still confused as to what the Top-Down Effect could be? It’s a tool to measure the real culture and brand of any company or organization. The process is best described using a glass, some ice and a bottle of soda.   So, imagine for a moment that you take a tall chilled glass and place it on the table. Drop as much ice into the glass as it can fit. Twist the cap off the bottle and pour soda into the glass. Slowly. As you pour, notice how the soda trickles down the ice, chilling as it goes. The ice starts to melt as the soda makes its way to the bottom of the glass. The soda collects at the bottom of the glass, and slowly the level rises. Keep pouring until the soda level reaches the rim of the glass. Now take a straw and push one end all the way down to the bottom of the glass - take a sip from the glass. Aaaah! Delicious.

Good job! So, let's look at the analogy of the glass, ice and soda in the light of a printing company opening its doors to the public for the first time. But first, here is a list to explain how the glass, ice and soda relate to the printing company:
  • The Glass: is the business, with all the employees, products and services included. The operations and functions that happen on the inside of the glass we call "culture." Watching what happens from outside, till the point of taking a sip from the glass, we call "brand."  The bottom of the glass represents the lower level employees, i.e.: cleaners, and rises through the structure till we reach the brim which would represent the top leaders of the company. Meet Jack, the founder of the company.
  • Ice Cubes: represent all the policies, operational procedures and politics that happen within a company. These ice cubes are essential to keep the operations running. They offer guidelines and processes for discipline, procedure, rules, and culture within the company structure.  The ice cubes often represent the "ideal" of the business processes.
  • The Soda: represents the ethics, intent, vision and passion of the company leader. This is the real "culture" that drives and fuels the organization, as expressed by the "spirit" of the leader.
  • Sipping the Soda from the glass: represents the engagement between the company and the customer. The ultimate aim is to hear the satisfaction in the customers' voice. Did you notice that we used a straw to sip the soda? Many companies channel engagement with the client away from the management to somewhere near the bottom of the glass. This can sometimes remove the management from what is actually happening down on the factory floor.
  • The Process: Pouring slowly, the soda trickles over the ice, collecting at the bottom. The
    puddle at the bottom of the glass is no longer pure. It is mixed with melted ice. It has become watered down. As the glass fills, so the ice melts diluting the soda. The policies and procedures slowly fade in business to leave a diluted mix of soda and ice (policy and passion).  While we pour the soda into the class from the top, we see the soda collect at the bottom. As we implement processes at the top level of the company, the real result is seen at the lower levels of the company first.

  So, Jack starts a printing company (the glass), and sets up policies and procedures to govern how operations work (the ice). He is passionate about the service and products he provides his clients (the soda). Jack trains his team on how to do the job (slowly pouring the soda). Excitedly, Jack makes sale after sale (sipping from the glass without a straw).  As time goes by, Jack replenishes his company with policies and operational procedures (more ice), but fails to inspire the company with more of his contagious passion. As the company grows, Jack installs more management levels (taller glass) and attempts to control the chaos by implementing more policies (again, more ice!)

Several years later, Jack realizes that he has lost touch with his clients. All the management levels force Jack to deal with strategy rather than dealing with the customers directly (They sip from the bottom of the glass through a straw), and he calls Gillian, a business coach, to help him reconnect. With all the board members sitting waiting to meet her up stairs, Gillian walks into the canteen and strikes up a conversation with the cleaners and machine operators. Jack may think that Gillian is disrespectful to his board, but she needs to get a handle on how the real culture of the company (watered down soda) affects the brand of the company. Glossy brochures and PowerPoint presentations of the boards' ideal and desired strategy wait in the boardroom while Gillian assesses the authenticity of the company's vision. She wants to know - How pure is Jacks message at the bottom of the glass?

Gillian knows the board will have prepared a speech containing all the jargon that they think she wants to hear. But the true measure of the culture and ultimately the brand will be found at the bottom of the glass. The true meaning of the policies and procedures lies at the bottom in what understanding the low level workers and operators have of the big scheme of things. Gillian can quickly assess how authentic and real Jack and his management team have been with the rest of the employees concerning the vision, expectations and achievements of the company.

The Top-Down Effect has proven itself over and over to Gillian in her twenty seven years of leadership development. A sly smile creeps across her face as she listens to the board share their passion and vision. Already knowing what the end result looks like, Gillian easily spots which of the ice cubes have changed the boards "soda" and altered the outcome. Spending time with Jack and his team Gillian witnesses his self awareness, his love for people and for the process. With authentic people sitting at the top, Gillian knows that only a few small tweaks will get Jack back on track and reignite the passion for his business.

The training that Gillian suggests will be implemented at the very top of the company management first. Jack smiles as Gillian slowly pours the soda into a glass full of ice. The Top-Down Effect works whether you intend it to or not. The Top-Down Effect will also communicate the true spirit and intent of the management down to the bottom of the organization, even if it is altered and weak. It will allow the honest leader to assess the authenticity of his intentions, and give credibility to all policies and procedures that are congruent (aligned) to the true vision of the company.

Here are other Articles on Authentic Leadership by the same Author:

  1. Aunthenticity to Self
  2. Authentic Expression
  3. Authentic Leadership - The Dark Horse
  4. So, What is Authentic Leadership

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