As you move up the ranks of an organization you tend to be less involved in day-to-day operations.
As a result, you lose visibility into issues that slow down or prevent the organization’s progress.
This isn’t a problem in itself; leaders must be sheltered from the day-to-day to some extent. The problem occurs when day-to-day issues aren’t effectively communicated to leadership.
This communication block prevents leaders from fully developing managers and solving issues before they become more costly.
But there are ways around this problem, and one of the most powerful is the skip-level meeting.
In this one-on-one skip-level meeting agenda, Uber’s Michael Brown, Regional General Manager at Uber defines a skip-level like this:
A skip one-on-one meeting is a meeting with managers or senior leaders in the company with those who are in junior positions. This meeting is between a manager or senior leader and a junior-level employee who is not that manager or leader’s direct report.
For example, imagine Chris, a junior employee, reports to his manager, Michelle and Michelle reports to Blanca, a senior manager. In a skip-level meeting, Blanca would meet with Chris to ask questions about (among other things) Chris’s experience as Michelle’s direct report.
Of course, Michelle could (and should) meet with Chris. But that wouldn’t be a skip-level meeting. That would be a simple one-on-one, which is shown in this weekly agenda template.
Finally, though they usually are, skip-level meetings don’t have to be one on one’s.
Skip-level meetings improve communication by enabling information to effectively flow from the lower levels up.
For example, in a more traditional company, communication travels hierarchically, from the top down, which can cause problems. In a Harvard Business Review article, Bruce Harriman details this concept:
Upward communications are poor in most hierarchical organizations because perception downward is poorer than perception upward. Add to that the “filters” of management levels that dilute upward communications. As you go higher, the word gets more garbled, edited, or, even worse, eliminated entirely.
Leaders need to know what’s really happening at the lower levels to make good decisions. They also need this information so they can provide useful feedback to managers. This requires unfiltered perspectives from a broad range of front-line workers.
And that’s where the skip-level meeting comes in.
You’ll need to take a considerate approach to skip-level meetings to make them effective. Otherwise, you may damage relationships with your managers and put their direct reports on edge.
Remember: the primary communication flow should be from direct report to manager to you (the executive or leader). So it’s important to tread carefully.
As with any other meeting, before you dive into your first skip-level, establish the purpose of doing so. This will help you plan and run a more effective meeting.
The Lighthouse blog lists the following potential reasons to have a skip-level meeting:
In addition to benefiting the planning process, establishing and communicating a clear purpose for your skip-level helps you build trust with managers and their reports before the meeting.
Otherwise, managers might feel like you’re undermining their authority or you don’t trust them. And junior-level employees may think they’ve done something wrong.
In either case, these misconceptions make it harder to have an open, honest discussion. So be sure to introduce the idea of skip-level meetings in the right frame.
Let your managers know why you’re holding these meetings and show them how it will benefit them. Finally, set expectations for the direct reports you plan to meet with in advance of your meeting. An easy way to do this is by sending them the agenda for your skip-level.
Beyond setting a clear agenda, effectively running this kind of meeting requires that you 1) build trust and 2) ask good questions.
As an executive or leader, chances are you don’t interact with junior employees daily. And, for them, the stakes of meeting with their boss’s boss may feel especially high.
If they don’t trust you with sensitive information, extracting useful insights will be difficult. So carve out time to build rapport, especially when you’re just starting.
Moreover, what makes a “good” question is often situation-dependent. So much so, that we wrote a separate post about good questions to ask in a skip-level.
For quick inspiration, you can start with Brown’s agenda for a list of questions to ask in a skip-level:
As important as your questions are, don’t forget to make time for the junior employee to add any subjects they’d like to discuss. After all, your goal should be to get their unfiltered perspective.
As a larger portion of the world increasingly moves towards a knowledge economy, communication at work will become even more important.
And that doesn’t mean leaders only need to write and speak well. It also means that leaders need to know how to put the structures and practices—such as skip-level meetings—in place to enable effective communication.
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