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THE SKIP – LEVEL MEETING
How senior executives can get a true sense of their organizations
As a senior executive, you want to know what’s going on at all levels of your organization. It’s great to talk to employees across the company, and keeping an open door to them makes you much more accessible and can give you insights otherwise unattainable.
At the same time, you don’t want your managers to feel that you are bypassing them or making decisions without consulting them first. Nothing erodes their confidence in you more than the feeling that you are undermining their influence and decision-making.
So how can you balance both? How can you gain the benefits of an open-door policy without compromising the respect of your management structure?
One of the tools we have had success with is the “Skip-Level Meeting”, described here.
In a typical use of this tool, you would randomly invite 9 – 11 employees from throughout the organization to have breakfast. You use this as an opportunity to get to know the employees and “sense” the organization. If you are a good listener and not a big talker, you will develop an excellent set of impressions about the concerns of employees, what is working, and what is not.
Such a meeting is a valuable tool to keep in touch with the organization. However it must follow a set of principles in order to work.
The process should be planned with the input of the managers who will essentially be bypassed. The intention of the tool is to sense the organization, not destroy the trust within the management structure. Managers will be uncomfortable with the tool until they are assured about its purpose and have input into its design.
A commitment must be made that you will not make decisions during such meetings and thereby undercut the management structure. To do so is the worst kind of sub-optimal management practice. (The added benefit to listening before is that you will have time to process the information you hear, vs. taking impulsive action that may have unexpected ripple effects throughout the organization – “for every action, there is a reaction”).
This is not a tool to trap or evaluate your direct reports. Everyone must understand that the purpose of the meetings is for you to reach past levels in the organization and develop informal inputs to sense the organization. Share the purpose of the meeting as you begin or in your invitation so that people don’t spend time wondering why they are there.
Skip-level meetings are not for resolving issues, it's all about listening to your sub team's challenges and letting them know that you care. You want to understand obstacles and challenges that prevent them from achieving their targets.
You have to have good listening skills. Employees who spend the whole session being lectured, evaluated, and judged will turn off.
Care must be taken to avoid the appearance of favoritism in the selection of the people that participate. Such perceived favoritism will generate distrust of the process. You might try a rotating and random selection process.
You have to establish ground rules about what and how information you elicit from the meeting will be handled. These ground rules must be shared with appropriate constituents. It is important to avoid the appearance of a witch-hunt.
It is ideal to have a skip meeting once a month or once a quarter, on some predicatble and regular basis.
When the Skip Level meeting is applied thoughtfully and skillfully, it is an excellent source of information about employee’s concerns and often can identify and solve problems, especially communication problems.. The reaction of employees is uniformly positive. When they understand the ground rules, they appreciate that the big boss is willing to spend some valuable time to listen to their views, while still respecting the management structure. This is one of those active communication strategies that forces managers and employees to rethink some old rules about how communication takes place in the organization.
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