Best Practices for Achieving Talent Success Maturity

A Practical Road Map to Cascading Goals

With insight from

Tim McRay

Tim McRay

Graduate Instructor of Organizational Strategy & Strategic Marketing at Northwood University

Tim McRay began managing people at age 17 and has over 20 years of experience in administration, operational leadership, and executive positions. Tim has successfully filled functional leadership roles with Fortune 100 companies, including Blue Cross-Blue Shield, Citi, and Mercedes-Benz. He is now an independent advisor to companies seeking improvement in organizational strategy, performance, leadership development, and culture.

Tim holds a Bachelor of Business Management degree, an MBA in Marketing, and a Master’s Degree in Leadership Theory. He is an instructor of Organizational Strategy and Strategic Marketing in the DeVoss Graduate School of Business at Northwood University and teaches Business Administration and Human Resource Management at Southern New Hampshire University. Tim has also served as a guest lecturer for the University of Texas at Arlington MBA Program and the University of North Texas Professional Leadership Program.

Tim has previously served as a board member for Junior Achievement of North Texas, the Professional Leadership Program at the University of North Texas, Trumpets for Kids, and the Texas Diversity Council. He is a frequent speaker and contributor to local civic organizations, nonprofits, churches, and small businesses.

In his personal time, Tim is focused on creating time and life experiences for Julie, his wife of over 20 years, and their children Collin and Chloe.

  • Who it’s for: 
    HR, managers
  • What you’ll get: 
    An understanding of what “cascading goals” are, how they benefit an organization, and how to implement them in yours
  • Why you need it: 
    For stronger alignment between strategy and day-to-day tasks
  • When it applies in the talent success process: 
    In the performance evaluation and management stages

Using cascading goals in your organization means the goals flow, or cascade (like a waterfall), from the top levels to the lowest. The key element in any attempt to cascade organizational goals is the alignment between strategy — typically set at the top level — and execution, which takes place through the rest of the organization. An effective cascade of goals flows downward logically, so daily responsibilities have a transparent connection back to the business strategy. This article will address how to get there.

The Importance of Better Priority Alignment

Cascading goals is about aligning strategy and execution. Ideally, this helps employees focus on meaningful priorities every day. This is increasingly important to organizations today. Research from MIT’s Sloan School of Management has shown that 67 percent of managers across more than 11,000 organizations couldn’t name the priorities of their own CEOs.

Percent of managers who can’t name the priorities of their CEOs

On the other hand, research by Bersin by Deloitte has shown that successful priority organization is the sixth (of 22) most-effective aspect of organizational development. Aligning priorities through cascading goals can be a competitive advantage, but the implementation needs to be well thought out to be successful.

Tim McRay

Tim’s Take

Cascading goals sounds great, and generally most people will initially agree with a high level plan. But then there’s the meeting after the meeting in which they’re discussed in more detail, and everyone says, “We need to work on these, but what specifically do we do differently?” and a light bulb turns on, but then that we often get busy again and fall back into normal routines. The first thing I suggest [about implementing cascading goals] do is put TAR on it: Time, Attention and Resources. The thing I warn people about is that cascading doesn’t mean you can just send an email out step away. A lot of leaders lack patience and persistence, and yet that’s what is needed to make sure this process and specific actions are crystal clear when people leave the room. It’s important that they understand what to prioritize and actually do differently. That way, people are going to naturally pay more attention, be able to follow up, and actually see progress. Leaders need to understand where they want to put their time, attention, and resources as business leaders — including financial and human resources — as they cascade goals. And they need to give people the autonomy to achieve those goals.

— Tim McRay, Graduate Instructor of Organizational Strategy & Strategic Marketing at Northwood University

Getting Started with Cascading Goals: The First Two Aspects to Define

Developing and implementing a cascading goals program starts by defining two important aspects of your goals: You need to determine how far down in your hierarchy the goals will cascade, and then you need to determine the overall logistics and operations of cascading goals. This section will walk you through those two aspects.

Determining How Far Down to Cascade Goals

Many companies already cascade goals from the CEO to their direct reports — mostly other C-suite employees. But companies can become concerned about attempting to cascade to the lowest rungs of their organizational charts, because it requires a greater deal of monitoring and logistical support. There’s also the possibility that a game of “telephone” will result, where the meanings of goals shift as they flow down the org chart. It’s a valid concern, especially among larger companies.

One way to get started is by limiting the cascading to the top few levels of management. If you cascade two or three levels below the CEO, your initial efforts at goal cascading are more likely to involve dozens of people than thousands. To help address the challenges of cascading goals down subsequent levels, some talent management thought leaders, such as the Balanced Scorecard Institute, have advocated for pilot programs around cascading goals.

Another method, which can be used in conjunction with the top-level strategy or as an alternative to it, is to target a specific operating unit (such as an office or division) or a functional group (such as sales or product development) and treat them as a pilot group. The right approach for you will depend on your company and the challenges or problems you’re looking to solve. If you’re looking for better general alignment, the top levels of management may be the right place to begin. On the other hand, if you have specific challenges, such as a new product or office, or a recent acquisition to integrate, it may be best to focus on deeper cascading within that narrower channel.

The Operational Logistics of Cascading Goals

One of the most traditional approaches to goal cascading is a top-down model. In this model, the objectives and goals are created by the CEO or company founder. Then supervisors link their specific objectives to the CEO’s objectives and goals. The goals of an individual contributor (non-managerial employee) are then linked to those of their supervisor.

Another approach is “scrum,” or “agile goal setting.” In this model, top senior management aligns their goals to the CEO as a first step. Then the rest of the company has a giant breakout session (which can either be physical or virtual) during which their goals are set based on the high-level alignment that already took place.

Both methods for setting goals — top-down and agile — have pros and cons. The traditional model can be slower. Employees need to wait for the people in the level above them to set goals before the employee can align their goals to them. The scrum method can be time-consuming and difficult to plan for. It can require a multiday breakout to do it successfully.

Tim McRay

Tim’s Take

To effectively cascade a goal some level of teaching, coaching or development will most likely be necessary. So how do we actually do this. Leaders need to teach it, talk it, touch it and test it. Don’t assume someone knows something just because it’s been in your lingo for a while, the employee is tenured or they’ve been successful. Always refresh or reteach the concept. It can be from people who are tenured offering it to someone new to the position. But the point is, you need to teach it and talk it. If it’s important, the team leader or manager needs to talk about it regularly. It’s important to find time to talk about these goals, about real challenges you can talk about and challenges you can touch, that are real and at a tactical level, at regular intervals. And you need to do this before the date goals are due to be achieved. I say that before the “due” date for a goal, we also have “do” dates — the dates when you’re going to focus on the actions needed to achieve that goal. Then you need to test it. Go back and see if the goal had the desired effect. It’s heady and it can be complex. But when you’re committed to action and executing based on these models, that’s where the magic happens.

— Tim McRay, Graduate Instructor of Organizational Strategy & Strategic Marketing at Northwood University

Other Aspects for Cascading Goals

As you’re developing a plan for implementing goal cascading at your organization, keep in mind other aspects of goals and goal alignment that apply throughout the talent management life cycle. Here are some resources to help you:

Building Job Descriptions

Learn more about using goals to build job descriptions that sell.

Recruiting with Roles

Learn more about using goals to recruit better with roles.

Attracting A-players

Learn more about using goals to attract more A-players.

Increasing Performance

Learn more about using goals to increase performance and engagement.

Creating Goals

Explore a simple guide to creating goals.

The overall responsibility for and communication around a cascading goals program typically resides in HR. But each manager participating will need to be trained on execution and desired outcomes. It’s a best practice to create a template or timeline for who exactly does what and when they need to do it.

Cascading Goals