Leaders Listen: A Process to Assist

Recently several clients have ask for a better way to assist their senior leaders gain a deeper understanding of the ideas, issues, and input from throughout all levels in their organizations. The conversations with them have centered on the need to help them with a process to involve others. Seemingly, there is an understanding that the need exists–so it has been more of a “how to” need.

In working with them, I’ve shared a process I used many times as a manager, mentor, and even now as a coach and advisor to leaders. At its core, it is a structured process to gather input. Yet, it’s more than that. It is a mindset in the leader that there is both a need and structured way to gather input.

In working with them, I have shared the process commonly referred to as “skip level meetings”.

An Overview of Managerial Skip Level Meetings

What is it?

Basically, it is when a higher-level manager meets with employees in-person to discuss organizational issues without the presence of their direct manager.

The purposes include:

  • gain information, perceptions, and ideas on the organization’s effectiveness through honest and unfiltered assessment from front-line employees
  • understand impressions and feelings about the organization, operations, and processes
  • allows employees to speak freely and confidentially

What are the pros and cons?

As with any managerial opportunity, there are potential gains as well as possible pitfalls.  These include:


  • creates stronger bond among employees and managers
  • opens communication channels
  • discover information of future value to the organization
  • gather insight into management operations and behaviors which can be areas for development


  • be aware of hidden agendas, historical information, and previous ‘wounds’
  • caution not to give orders, even inadvertently
  • over-reaction to management feedback and the person delivering the message
  • managers do not understand the purpose and process

How do I do this?

Start off with a plan.  Think about when, how often, and why you will implement skip-level meetings.  Once ready, communicate it first to your managers.  Do so with clarity as to why and how–and listen to their input and concerns. 

Keep in mind the following tips for success:

Consider timing–when during the month, year, quarter will you receive feedback you can use?  This may mean avoiding times that are busier or where emotions are higher.  You want to strive for a ‘regular’ or ‘normal’ time.

Frequency–at a minimum, quarterly is often the optimal schedule.  However, if you are new or the organization is undergoing change you may want to do them monthly. 

Format–consider if you will do it as a group or with each individually.  Besides the obvious timing issues, consider confidentiality and participation.  While there is no correct or best format, you should think about implications.  Should you choose to do it as a group, ensure confidentiality.  When doing it individually, understand not all will be as forthcoming. You may even want to do a hybrid approach such as a group meeting following by individual meetings.  This can be especially helpful during times of change or as a new manager.   And these are always in-person.

Equitable treatment–simply put, include everyone.  Do it with everyone.  For a group setting, include the full team.  If doing individual sessions, be sure not to pick just a few since doing so will have people perceive you are biased.

As to process, consider a typical series of events:

  1. Decide on why, how and when you will implement skip-level meetings
  2. Communicate with your managers and gain their input and ideas
  3. Communicate the plan (why, how, when) to all employees directly from you
  4. Send along any questions or items for them to think about ahead of time, if needed
  5. Conduct the meeting(s)
  6. Communicate with full team (managers and employees) most common themes and any changes

And regardless of format–as a group or individually–build rapport as you begin.  Start with a simple question or even chat about something you have in common.

What could I ask?

Keep in mind the purpose is to solicit honest feedback, gain insight, and gather ideas.  Equally, keep in mind that you should organize the session so they talk more and you listen.  The following are suggested questions:

  • What do you like most about working here? 
  • What’s one thing that is working well for our organization? 
  • How do you hear about if you have done something well?   And from whom?
  • What do you like most about your job? 
  • What things would you change or improve about your job, department or at the organization? 
  • How does your manager recognize you for good performance or a job well done? 
  • What resources, information and support do you need to be more successful in your job? 
  • If you experience a problem or roadblock, where do you go for support and solutions? 
  • If you could change or implement 1 new idea, what would it be?
  • What is something you would like for your manager to know about you yet haven’t told them?
  • What would you like to know about me, our department, our strategy, etc?

In preparing questions and format, ensure the following:

  • Keep questions open–this encourages people to talk
  • Allow for 10 minutes for each question.  This guideline allows for not only time for them to think and respond initially to the question but for you to follow-up with clarification as needed.
  • Prioritize questions.  You’ll likely run out of time so want to ensure most important questions are first.
  • Vary questions as needed to timing of year.  If you’re entering the planning time of the year you may want more questions about new ideas and changes.
  • If you are doing the meeting with the team, consider ways for them to confidentially respond.  This could be using Post-it notes or perhaps having them submit them ahead of time (not via email but through another mechanism). 
  • Always conduct skip-level meetings in a closed, confidential space.  Use a conference room or office.
  • You should take notes.  And in follow-up, include general and common themes.  It’s important to follow-up and follow-through!

Read “A Checklist for 2013 Planning” in my latest newsletter

Normally I use this blog to talk about issues of leadership, organizations, and teamwork.  Through my company, Dynamic Growth Strategies, I also publish a seasonal newsletter that includes tips as well as program announcements.  Recently a client said that I needed to publicize not only my blog but the tips and information on the newsletter–he said you need to combine the two and spread the word.

Well, I originally did not plan to use this blog as a pure marketing tool.  But as he said, “that’s ok, but you also should share what you write in the newsletter–particularly the tips and ideas”. 

So, check out my latest newsletter at the link below.  There’s tips on planning for 2013 along with some other announcement and information.  Enjoy. 


Putting ‘vacate’ back into ‘vacation’

Today marks the end of summer.  As I reflect back on this past season, one thing sticks out as a problem for me.

Have we all forgotten that the word ‘vacation’ comes from the word ‘vacate’?!

This summer I don’t know of anyone who really vacationed.  Sure, they went somewhere but they didn’t really vacate their jobs.  During their time of relaxation they were attached to their phone, computer, etc.  They really didn’t leave work.

Ok, you’re probably saying that I’m some sort of lunatic.  Come on, given the economy it was only prudent to stay connected to the office.  If that is the case, then you’re failing as a leader.

Yes, you are.

A leader must train their team so that they become self-sufficient.  Doing so not only allows for greater commitment, creativity, and loyalty from the team but it also frees up the leader to concentrate on further developing the organization (including their own development).

So why do so many of us believe we have to stay connected when on vacation?  I think it’s actually due to several reasons:

  • Deep-down we don’t believe they can function without us

  • We are the reason—the main reason—for the success of the organization

  • We like to be in control

  • We like to be ‘missed’ so to prove our importance we check-in

  • It’s much easier to keep up on vacation rather than have a pile of messages waiting for you when you return

  • Technology is cool, allowing you to stay connected

Imagine the messages this sends to your team.  The lessons regarding trust, communication, and daily operations remind them, sometimes nonverbally, that they are subservient to you and your knowledge.

Ask yourself, do you shop at Wal-Mart because of Sam Walton?  Do you drive a Ford because of Henry Ford? 

What we can learn from these leaders is that they knew that their legacy was in their leadership.  They created organizations that have sustained the test of time.  They built companies based on collective success rather than personal power.  If they had not, these companies wouldn’t exist today. 

I once had a manager who required me to call in every few days while on vacation.  I was puzzled why she required me to do so since we had worked together for several years, nothing major was happening while I was out, etc. but nonetheless, I called in every other day.  When I got back, I expensed the calls.  She was irate.  I said that I felt it was justified since she required me to do so.  She took the case to HR and Finance.  Interestingly, they both backed me saying that since she required it, the company had to reimburse me.  While I’d like to say I taught her a lesson, she actually taught me a lesson.  From that day on, I learned the value of leadership and trust.

This same lesson was reinforced last year when I advised the leader of one of my nonprofit clients to take the full-month off and not call or log in.  In discussions, I knew that he was beyond a reasonable limit of stress and was no longer effective.  He did so and came back renewed.  Unfortunately, his organization was incensed.  His board called for his resignation and cited his lack of leadership—he abandoned them.  In talking with several members of the board, it became clear that they had unrealistic expectations for him.  Eventually, he left the organization.  All had lost trust.  Sadly, no one came out a winner in this situation.

And don’t forget the ‘other side’ of these lessons.  Just think about the messages you are sending to your family and friends when you spend valuable vacation time with them logging and calling in.  Who is more important?

So let’s all work hard to put the ‘vacate’ back into ‘vacation’.  Show leadership by trusting others.  Model effectiveness by organizing others before you leave.  Use technology rather than be abused by it. © Copyright 2009 Dynamic Growth Strategies.  All rights reserved. 

What leaders should do during tough times

What leaders and companies should do during tough times Recently, several clients asked me to summarize what leaders and managers must do during tough times–like many organizations are currently experiencing.  I did some research on how companies not only survived but thrived during the Depression, researched several sources and business publications, and talked with a few clients I know who have come through tough times in an improved state.  Here, then are 7 things leaders should do during tough times.

1.       Ensure current customers are satisfied

2.       Address aggressively all aspects of their financial management

n  Spend wisely

n  Shed less profitable functions

n  Work with your vendors

3.       Increase your public presence

n  Marketing and PR are critical, be smart

4.       Manage your pipeline and distribution carefully and deliberately

5.       Focus on performance and human capital

n  Keep top talent and actively manage poor performance

n  Build synergistic teams

6.       Invest prudently in R&D– innovate

n  Add new products and services

7.       Become creative in sales

n  Financing

n  Negotiation