The Lowdown on Top Down

I guess in the end, D-Day turned out alright for the Allies. But you can imagine the troops were a little worried when they heard that Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe, was ordering them to come ashore on a beach spouting withering machine gun fire, mortars and artillery.

So compared to D-Day, any top-down orders you have to implement are child’s play. But of course they’re not. In fact, carrying out a top-down, companywide directive can be one of the most difficult tasks for a manager. Generally, the manager has had no input into what’s going on, has been given a timeline that is not based on reality, and has little idea what he’s really supposed to do. Oh, and his own employees are somewhere between puzzled and hostile to the idea.

Having laid out those sweeping challenges, I’ll divert for a moment to an actual example, in the broadcast industry, of someone who pulled off one of these top-down initiatives.


(click thumbnail)I recently listened to Lauren Zalaznick, president of NBC Universal’s Bravo Media talk about her company’s top-down environmental initiative at December’s iHollywoodForum “Hollywood Goes Green.” On top of having just taken on—in addition to NBCU’s Bravo Media—responsibility for overseeing the company’s newly acquired Oxygen channel, she was also appointed chairman of the NBCU Green Council.

Her marching orders: NBCU’s parent company, General Electric, came out with its “ecomagination” initiative, which NBCU’s head Jeff Zucker introduced as the company’s “Get On Board” campaign.

Now at the time I was listening to Zalaznick, the initial Green Week had been completed, and had been successful. She not-too-faintly hinted that the 10-week run-up period to Green Week was really not enough, though they got it done. But through her whole presentation she was positive about what they got done, and I’m sure she was positive through the 10 weeks of preparation.

Challenge No. 1: Put a happy, and believable, face on it. If you roll your eyes every time you talk about what you and your employees have been asked to do, you’re not going to get much help from those employees. Buy into it and go forward. Expect, and demand, the same from your employees.

As I noted earlier in the column, managers at your level probably had no input into the top-down initiative, and have gotten little guidance as to what’s really expected of them. I’m probably odd, but when instructions are vague or a little confused, I like it best. You have some latitude to improve on the ideas that came from on-high.

I didn’t sit in on any of Zalaznick’s planning sessions for Green Week, but I’ll point out that by the time the week itself happened, “Get On Board” had morphed to “Green Is Universal,” a definite improvement (even if I’m not a marketing guy). I also doubt that anyone at the top thought all the various broadcast and cable network logos would be redrawn with green in them for the week, but that touch added to Green Week overall.


Challenge No. 2: Adapt the top-down orders to fit your own group’s responsibilities. This isn’t a license to diminish what you’re doing. Instead, improve on the instructions that you’ve been given.

I can remember going through some top-down initiatives where a manager decided, “I’ll show them,” and started spending money left and right. I think their idea was make those people up the corporate ladder pay a price for meddling in their business. This is a good way to become a former manager.

Zalaznick noted that GE is very focused on the bottom line, and that the company, down through the NBCU divisions, is very measurement driven. At the end of the day, with advertisers wanting to be colored with the green brush, Green Week made money for the company. It also made measurable steps toward reducing its carbon footprint by, among other things, replacing a quarter of its vehicle fleet with hybrids.

NBCU also nudged its program suppliers to green up their production processes, and will be continuing with more Green Weeks during 2008 and beyond. And all the attention to going green corporately has rubbed off on employees at the company as well, as Zalaznick cited figures on employee participation in their private lives.

Challenge No. 3: Figure out how you’re going to be measured, and measure up to it. If there aren’t stated, measurable goals in the top-down missive, then develop some and measure yourself against them. And don’t overspend.

Once a top-down initiative has been thrown down to your level, it’s going to happen, even if you had no input. So it’s time to get onboard, sell it to your staff, fashion it to fit what you can do best, and do it well.