Organizational leaders sometimes hold skip-level meetings in order to insert themselves into potentially problematic departments or teams that may wrestle with chronic performance problems, stability challenges or ongoing misconduct issues. Likewise, some senior executives prefer to hold these meetings on a regular, rotational basis just to check in with the troops and see how everyone is feeling about the nature of their work, leadership direction and the organization as a whole.
Whatever the reason, it's best to be ready for a team meeting between your boss and your direct reports—without you—so both sides can feel comfortable welcoming the other's feedback and suggestions. Full transparency is critical to the success of this type of leadership intervention.
What Is a Skip-Level Meeting?
Skip-level meetings typically occur in either of the scenarios outlined above—casual touch-base meetings where senior leaders get to hear directly from operational, front-line employees, or a recommended interventional exercise to get feedback from staff members within problematic units, typically regarding turnover, lack of productivity or general employee dissatisfaction.
Executives schedule meetings with team members and exclude the middle management level from participating, and for good reason: The immediate leader's presence may bias results or hinder honest and open feedback. For example, if a corporate vice president wishes to speak with the team members of a certain department, the VP might hold one-on-one meetings with the manager and supervisor but exclude them from small group meetings with the rest of the department—analysts, coordinators, administrative assistants and the like. The group meetings can then serve as focus groups to provide objective feedback and assessments of culture and operations overall.
It's healthy for your immediate supervisor or department head to speak with your team without your being present.
"More often than not, it's simply an informal way for senior leaders to understand how middle management is handling things while gaining a quick pulse on the mood or general satisfaction level of the team," said Marlene Baez, vice president of human resources at CBS Corp. in New York City. "These meetings should be encouraged to ensure full transparency and access to senior management. But it's likewise true that skip-level meetings may occur more frequently when specific challenges within a particular team or department arise, so this proactive exercise becomes all the more important if you suspect your boss may have specific concerns about something going on in your area."
How do you prepare for a skip-level meeting? First, find out your manager's personal philosophy on these meetings. What's critical to her in terms of what she's looking for and what she's hoping to hear? Ask for specific examples of what it looks like when these meetings are done correctly versus incorrectly. Are there any land mines you should be aware of? Are there any other leaders in the organization who do this particularly well that you can emulate or speak with? Then talk to your team and ask many of the same questions—playing the role of executive and asking key questions you believe your boss may ask during the meeting. Here's how to line up both sides proactively.
Discussions with Your Immediate Supervisor
Start by asking your superior if skip-level meetings happen at your organization and, if so, how often. "Skip-level meetings are a bit philosophical," Baez said, "and point to the leader's communication style and willingness to get to know operational employees on a more personal level. Just bringing up the issue with your manager demonstrates your willingness to engage in open and transparent communication with your boss and your team, which is a healthy move for you career-wise and a smart consideration for your boss."
You can also inquire as to what's typically discussed in such meetings and whether your boss would like to schedule any meetings in the near future. This way, you can build your communication plan with your team around the key focus areas that are important to your boss.
Preparing Your Team
What should you expect, and how can you prepare your team for a skip-level meeting? "Staff members may feel a bit uncomfortable or awkward sharing their feedback with their boss's boss," said Petra Hatzesberger, senior vice president of people and culture at Mission Valley Bank in Sun Valley, Calif. "You'll always want to remain one step ahead of the game and prepare your team for sudden, unscheduled requests from your boss to speak with them directly."
To prep your team for the meeting, you might say something like this:
"Everyone, I asked Sara if she tends to hold skip-level meetings with team members within her department, and she said that while it can happen, she doesn't schedule these meetings routinely. I want to take the opportunity to discuss how skip-level meetings work, though, so if you're ever called into one individually or as a group, you'll have a better understanding of how they work, what Sara might be looking for and how to feel comfortable sharing your thoughts in the meeting with her. Full disclosure: I welcomed her to meet with all of you at any time—without my presence, which might unduly influence the conversation.
"The 'skip-level' skips me—the department director—and typically allows Sara to hold one-on-one meetings with the manager and supervisor in addition to group meetings with the rest of the team. When they occur, consider them focus groups or touch-base sessions where she wants to know how you're feeling about the organization as a whole, about working in our department, and about your general level of satisfaction and engagement in your work. She'll likely ask you for suggestions in terms of what we can be doing better as a team, department or company. It's nothing to be afraid of. You've got my advance blessing to be as open and detailed with her as you feel comfortable, and it's typically a healthy intervention that we all learn from.
"Following are the types of specific questions you can expect from her, so allow me to ask you:
- How would you grade our company's senior leadership team in terms of communication and their ability to listen to and address employee concerns?
- How would you grade departmental leadership in terms of communication, team building, respect and inclusiveness?
- On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest, how well would you say we function as a team? Why are we an ? What would make us a 10?
- Do you feel you can do your best work every day? In other words, do you feel like departmental leadership has your back and supports you? What would you recommend we do differently?
- If you could change one thing about the way we operate within our department or on our team, what would your No. 1 recommendation be?
"You get the idea. Senior leaders who care about their workers' experience take the opportunity to speak directly with the individual contributors who make the department hum. To do so fairly and objectively, however, they have to remove the group or team leader. So if that occurs, I encourage you all to provide as much input as possible. No one should feel anything but honored and recognized when asked for their opinions and recommendations for making our team and the organization better and stronger."
Keep the Communication Flowing
Finally, make the above questions part of the talking points you share with your team during weekly staff meetings and quarterly one-on-one reviews.
"Trying to force this at the last minute doesn't work well; it will feel insincere at best and manipulative at worst," Hatzesberger said. "Make speaking about values, culture and experiences at your organization important touch points. Just be careful not to sweep employees' recommendations under the rug. If you're going to ask, you have to be willing to do something about it or else explain why a particular solution isn't tenable."
At their best, skip-level meetings look to unearth concerns or roadblocks that may be hampering performance, so accept them with the positive spirit they intend to create.
On the other hand, if your boss is stepping in because of ongoing problems with the team, try to get ahead of the challenge and enlist your boss's support proactively so she's on your side from the very beginning. Skip-level meetings are only intended to help—not catch anyone "being bad." But it would be shortsighted to assume they'll never happen. Being prepared to proactively address such interventions is smart career management.
Make this part of your strategic communication and team-building plan from the start. You'll hone your proactive leadership skills and become more confident in welcoming and managing such interventions in the future.
Paul Falcone (www.PaulFalconeHR.com) is a regular contributor to SHRM Online. He is CHRO at the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Los Angeles and author of 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees; 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems; 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire; 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews; The Performance Appraisal Toolkit; and 75 Ways for Managers to Hire, Develop, and Keep Great Employees (HarperCollins Leadership, SHRM and AMACOM Books).