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.

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