Are you feeling out of touch with the rank and file? Or do you want to know what’s really going on in a department or the company? If so, it might be time to add a regularly scheduled skip-level meeting to your arsenal of leadership tools.
A skip-level meeting is simply a meeting where a manager’s manager meets directly with employees, without that manager in attendance.
The benefits of such meetings are obvious: Unfiltered access to information about what’s really going on in the organization – good or bad. Concerns, obstacles, insights and issues – those all come tumbling out if the purpose of the meeting is communicated accurately beforehand and conducted well.
Setting the stage
First, you will need to communicate to your managers that these meetings will take place and your intention behind them. Of course they’re going to be curious about your intent, so the more you explain your desired outcomes, the better.
Establish a list of questions you plan to ask your employees in the skip-level meeting and share those questions with your managers. Corporate America trains employees not to go around their manager, so it’s important your managers express support for these meetings to their team members.
Knowing the questions ahead of time can ease managers’ concerns and eliminate the perception that someone is in trouble. This is especially true if your managers know that these meetings will take place on a regular basis.
Next, send out the invitation. In an email, explain that your employees’ manager won’t be there, share the questions you will pose and ask the employee to think about what they would like to share.
Sample questions include:
- What do you think of the company’s mission/vision?
- Are there roadblocks that prevent better performance?
- Do you have the resources you need?
- What can we, the leadership team, do to help you?
- How do you feel about where the company is going?
You want to set a friendly, open tone for your skip-level meeting, so encourage people to attend but don’t make it mandatory. You want to convey that this is your employee’s opportunity to communicate directly with management, to have input, to be heard.
During the meeting
Another way to show you value your employees’ input and set a positive tone is to offer breakfast or lunch. This isn’t the time to buy the cheapest donuts in town. Making an effort to serve a nice meal sets the impression that you care.
People will naturally be cautious at first, so be prepared to direct the meeting by discussing key initiatives and asking questions until the conversation starts flowing. Talk about how you’re there to learn from them.
Listen carefully, take notes and be careful not to dismiss concerns you feel aren’t important. Remember, employees who see only a narrow slice of the organization may express what seems like a small issue. But what they point out could be indicative of systemic problems.
It’s okay to acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers at your fingertips. Particularly if you’re hearing about a complex issue that affects multiple departments, you will need to go back to analyze and discuss solutions with several people. Employees understand the message if you say, “That’s an interesting idea. I’ll have to do some checking on this.”
Finally, communicate next steps and show respect for everyone’s time by not ending early or late.
During the meeting, employees had the courage to be open and honest with you. Pay back their efforts with follow-up communication.
Immediately after the meeting, send an email expressing your thanks for their time and ideas, and answer any questions that required quick research. Acknowledge that more complicated issues will require additional time. Give an estimated timeline for when you’ll have answers and stick to your promises.
Follow-up will be key to getting employees to communicate with you during future skip-level meetings.
Follow-up also includes taking action on any particular feedback or concerns that need to be addressed. Employees will feel more confident in future discussions if their ideas or comments lead to positive change.
Summing it up
Skip-level meetings can be a powerful tool for leaders seeking honest feedback from employees. By implementing these strategies, you can create a culture of open communication, foster trust and drive continuous improvement within your organization. The key is to approach these meetings with empathy, active listening and a genuine desire to support your team’s growth.
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