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:
- Decide on why, how and when you will implement skip-level meetings
- Communicate with your managers and gain their input and ideas
- Communicate the plan (why, how, when) to all employees directly from you
- Send along any questions or items for them to think about ahead of time, if needed
- Conduct the meeting(s)
- 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!