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The Art of the Skip Level Meeting

One of the more effective tools that manager can employ is the use of a skip level meeting. Simply put, a skip level meeting is one where a manager’s manager meets with employees to discuss department concerns, obstacles, opportunities for improvement, etc. with a focus on maintaining and/or improving overall communication. For example, let’s say you have a Manager of Customer Service with 12 direct reports and this manager reports to a Director of Operations. A skip level would involve the Director of Operations meeting with the 12 direct reports of the Manager of Customer Service, without the Manager of Customer Service being present, in effect, “skipping” a level over them.

As mentioned previously, in their purest form, skip levels should be used to either maintain or improve overall communication and build more effective relationships with employees. Skip levels focus on opening and sustaining lines of communication, something which we all can agree is critical to organizational success. However, before going ahead with skip levels, it is important to distinguish what a skip level is (purpose) vs. what it isn’t, when to conduct them and what to discuss.

Skip LevelMost importantly, a skip level meeting is not an opportunity to get “dirt” on a manager. It is not to be used as an opportunity to solicit feedback to put on the manager’s performance review because you have been too lazy to manage them effectively. Treating a skip level this way defeats the whole purpose of the meeting and essentially renders the department level manager redundant and organizationally neutered. In order for skip levels to be effective, there needs to be an environment of trust established – both with the manager of the team and the employees themselves. If, as in the example above, you as the Director of Operations suddenly schedules a skip level meeting, without having spoken to the employees in the months prior, don’t expect them to open up to you! Likewise, don’t expect the manager of these employees to be receptive to the skip level idea either!

If you are conducting a skip level meeting, sit down with the manager of the team first. Explain to them why you are looking to conduct the meeting, what you are going to ask and what you will do with the information you obtain. You need to get the manager’s buy-in; otherwise they will think this is a witch hunt. Ultimately, the goal should be for you provide better coaching to the manager of the department vis-à-vis some of the information you obtain from the skip level. The skip level will also help open up (or keep open) lines of communication with the staff, establish better relationships and allow for a different perspective to be presented and shared. The information you obtain from the skip level can be discussed and shared and through 1:1 coaching, it will allow you to help the department manager be a more effective manager themselves.

Here is a key point – if you, as the manager’s manager, have not had any type of regular contact or visibility with these employees for some time (or at all), you need to start doing that first before holding skip levels. So, get out and walk around, be seen, strike up casual conversations. Do this for several months before scheduling a skip level. Now, assuming that has taken place and you have established some sort of street cred with the staff, you should then make sure to provide an advance communication about the skip levels. Let them know the when/where/what/why in advance. This gives them time to prepare based on the goal(s) of the skip level. It is important you are upfront about the goals – i.e. open/maintain/improve lines of communication, etc.

The types of things you will want to discuss during a skip level meeting with the employees are things like:

  • What works well in the department right now? (i.e. systems, processes, technology, feedback, etc.)
  • What needs improvement and/or what obstacles are preventing them from being successful? (i.e. technology, top level support, more feedback, etc.)
  • What is one thing, as a department, we need to START doing right away to be more successful?
  • What is one thing, as a department, we need to STOP doing right away to be more successful?
  • What is one thing, as a department, we need to make sure we CONTINUE to do in order to be successful?
  • Alternatively, you can ask what they need MORE/LESS of from their manager and yourself in order for them to be successful as a department and in their roles.

Remember, the focus of the skip level meetings always needs to be maintained and feedback kept as objective as possible with a focus on issues NOT people. As the manager’s manager, it is up to you to draw inferences and conclusions from what you obtain in the skip levels and ascertain whether you have people or process issues that need to be addressed. At the conclusion of the skip level, you need to make sure that you follow up with the department manager as soon as possible to discuss the group feedback, what the trends are what the next steps are you both need to take

Just as importantly, if you had takeaways from the skip level, you need to get back to the employees with responses as soon as possible and practicable. This helps cement the trust that has been established, it gives credibility to you and the concept of the skip level and it truly reinforces the intentions of the skip level – to improve communication and build relationships.

What about you? Have you used skip level meetings before? Were they effective? Why did they work or not work? As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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5 Responses

  1. Excellent Article! Very practical and useful advice…

  2. As someone who has used Skip Levels for many years, it is a wonderful tool for management to listen. If upper management uses the time to justify their position, it is a waste of both participants time. This is perhaps the best article I have found online to share that perspective. Well done.

  3. […] most popular post of all time here on The Armchair HR Manager is my one on “The Art of the Skip Level Meeting.” It is by far and away, the most read and shared post I have ever written. It is so far in front […]

  4. […] #1 most read post on The Armchair HR Manager is “The Art of the Skip Level” from July 2014. It has had over 10,000 views on my website along with almost 18,000 views on […]

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