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Skip-Level Meetings: What They Are, and How to Run Them
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Skip-Level Meetings: What They Are, and How to Run Them

A quick skip-level meetings guide for leaders and managers

November 5, 2020
Rob Lennon
Customer Education Lead at Hugo
Marketer and author with experience spanning a diverse 16 years in retail and SaaS startups across healthcare, mar-tech, and ad-tech, and productivity software sectors.

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.

What is a 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.

The Benefits: Why Have a Skip-Level Meeting

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.

Planning and Running a Skip-Level Meeting

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. 

Establishing (and Communicating) the Purpose of Your Skip-Level

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: 

  • Get feedback and insights to help your managers, and their teams, improve.
  • Get a pulse on what’s happening on the front lines you’re layers removed from.
  • Build trust with those lower in your organization so they stay engaged and contributing.
  • Learn where there is dysfunction, insufficient communication, or confusion within parts of your organization.
  • Personally demonstrate you value everyone in your organization.

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.

Attendees

A skip one-on-one meeting is a meeting with managers or senior leaders in the company with those who are in junior positions. It is important not to have the meeting with a direct report in order to get honest and accurate feedback. To be truly effective you must create an environment in which the employee feels comfortable. Ideally, the manager should have a relationship with the individual being interviewed. Remember these sessions are about listening and learning from different perspectives in the organizations. 

Preparation

Managers should come armed with questions about the business based on data they’ve reviewed in advance — both qualitative and quantitative. 

Here are some questions you might want to ask in your one-on-ones:  

  • What is the morale in the office from their point of view?
  • How they are feeling about his or her team?
  • What their manager is doing well and not well?
  • What obstacles are they facing in their job? (If you are their skip-level manager, take steps to unblock these obstacles — it will mean a lot to the person that you took action.)
  • Do you understand the company’s goals and how your team’s goals fit into that picture?
  • Do you feel like you can do things you believe are right for the business?
  • Do you think leadership acts consistently with your values?
  • What would make work better for you?
  • When was the last time you took a vacation?
  • What is your sacred space? Do you feel like you have time for it?

Open Forum

  • Ask the interviewee if there is anything that was not covered above that they would like to add?

Running the Skip-Level Meeting

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:

  • What is the morale in the office from their point of view?
  • How they are feeling about his or her team?
  • What their manager is doing well and not well?
  • What obstacles are they facing in their job? 
  • Do you understand the company’s goals and how your team’s goals fit into that picture?
  • Do you feel like you can do things you believe are right for the business?
  • Do you think leadership acts consistently with your values?
  • What would make work better for you?
  • When was the last time you took a vacation?
  • What is your sacred space? Do you feel like you have time for it?

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.

Ready to Implement Skip-Level Meetings?

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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Rob Lennon
Customer Education Lead at Hugo
Marketer and author with experience spanning a diverse 16 years in retail and SaaS startups across healthcare, mar-tech, and ad-tech, and productivity software sectors.

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