May 032012

Skip-Level Meetings

I was talking to a CEO the other day who believed it was “wrong” (literally, his word) to meet directly 1:1 with people in the organization who did not report to him.  I’ve heard from other CEOs in the past that they’re casual or informal or sporadic about this practice, but I’ve never heard someone articulate before that they actively stayed away from it.  The CEO in question’s feeling was that these meetings, which I call Skip-Level Meetings, disempowers managers.

I couldn’t disagree more.  I have found Skip-Level Meetings to be an indispensable part of my management and leadership routine and have done them for years.  If your culture is set up such that you as CEO can’t interact directly and regularly with people in your organization other than the 5-8 people who report to you, you are missing out on great opportunities to learn from and have an impact on those around you.

That said, there is an art to doing these meetings right, in ways that don’t disempower people or encourage chaos.  Some of these themes will echo other things I’ve written in recent posts like Moments of Truth and Scaling Me.  My five rules for doing Skip-Level Meetings are:

  1. Make them predictable.  Have them on a regular schedule, whatever that is.  The schedule doesn’t have to be uniform across all these meetings.  I have some Skip-Levels that I do monthly, some quarterly, some once a year, some “whenever I am in town.”
  2. Use a consistent format.  I always have a few questions I ask people in these meetings – things about their key initiatives, their people, their roadblocks, what I can do to help, what their POV is about the company direction and performance, how they are feeling about their role and growth.  I also expect that people will come with questions or topics for me.  If I have more meaty ad hoc topics, I’ll let the person know ahead of time.
  3. Vary the location.  When I have regular Skip-Levels with a given person, I try to do the occasional one over a meal or drink to make it a little more social.  For remote check-ins, I now always do Skype or Videophone.
  4. Do groups.  Sometimes group skip-levels are fun and really enlightening, either with a full team, or with a cross-section of skip-levels from other teams.  Watching people relate to each other gives you a really different view into team dynamics.
  5. Close the loop.  I almost always check-in with the person’s manager BEFORE AND AFTER a Skip-Level.  Before, I ask what the issues are, if there is anything I should push on or ask.  After, I report back on the meeting, especially if there are things the person and I discussed that are out of scope for the person’s job or goals, so there are no surprises.

 I’m sure there are other things I do as well, but I can’t imagine running the company without this practice.  Doing it often and well EMPOWERS people in the company…I’d argue that managers who feel disempowered by it aren’t managers you necessarily want in your business unless you really run a command-and-control shop.

  • Nick Mehta

    Great post Matt. One thing to add is if someone in a skip level has an issue with their manager or something they want to happen I try to make sure they work it out with their manager first unless it is severe so the manager doesn’t feel disempowered. So I try to make sure the employee doesn’t feel like action items will always come out of the skip level.

    • Matt Blumberg

      That is absolutely the case!

  • Cloughie2012

    Great topic – it scares me to think of how you can run an organisation by thinking it is wrong for people to meet 121 who do not have a line management relationship. It must take ages to get something done!

    Unconfident and insecure managers will certainly feel uncomfortable about their direct reports meeting with other managers. And managers that interfere and undermine other managers will also cause problems if they meet with individuals who are managed by someone else.. However that is a problem with the managers themselves :)

    I speak to many people at many different levels each and every day – sometimes organised, mostly not. Often I will make some suggestions and comments and I am sure that sometimes this will sow a seed or perhaps even shift the direction of an initiative a little. Things change every day and if a manager is managing their people well they will remain informed about how things are moving along. Sometimes I may see something that I feel needs to change I am then very conscious not to push the issue too much and I pick it up with their manager so that I can understand the situation better and then agree with them the right way forward. That allows them to be involved and then lead any change that needs to occur.

    It's really just natural courtesy and common sense.

    • Matt Blumberg

      Exactly!

      • Cloughie2012

        Hey Matt,

        I've decided to write my own series on building awesome plans which is inspired by your 'The Best Laid Plans' series. If you get a chance to keep an eye on the posts over the next couple of weeks, feedback would be awesome.

        Cheers,
        Daniel

        • Matt Blumberg

          Will do!Matt

  • Josh Rutstein

    Matt, what is your approach to building candor in a skip level? As organizations get bigger, the power of lots of good ideas at the base can get shielded by top:down focus on strategy/priorities and manager level budget decisions that shirk proposals. Do you still encourage idea exchange and suggestions that might over-ride a manager's initial decision? I like to think that there are lots of 'windmills' that ground level associates want to chase but are often thwarted because they are not empowered. Do you use skip-levels to gather this info?

    • Matt Blumberg

      Absolutely. The trick is to use the meetings for data collection and encouraging employees to work with their managers to outline the value of the particular windmills, then looping back with the manager after to give him or her a heads up that a windmill is coming. The one thing to avoid is overriding a manager.Matt

  • Lisa Atkins

    Hi Matt, thanks for this, it is very useful. My question is, for a new manager coming into a large hierarchical organisation that doesn't currently do skip levels, what do you recommend stating as your reasons for implementing this new practise within your group? The obvious benefits to me are that you access important information that your reports either were unaware of or didn't see as important to communicate up, either of which sounds like a failing in those managers. What's the best way to describe the benefits in a way that isn't inherently suggesting mistrust of your direct reports? Thanks for any suggestions. Lisa

    • Matt Blumberg

      That’s a great question, Lisa.  If doing skip levels is a real cultural change, then you need to acknowledge that up front and tell your managers that you’re not doing skip levels to check up on them but to make sure you’re in touch with the experience of everyone in the department.  But probably the best thing you can do is to encourage your managers to also do their own skip levels (if you have a multi-layered organization), and to allow them access to your boss as well.

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