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Skip levels to stay in touch with your teams

Bastiaan Terhorst, 12/1 '21

As you begin to manage managers, it is easy to lose sight of what is happening on the ground. Of course you speak to your direct reports, but generally you rarely speak to the direct reports of your direct reports. Skip level meetings are a way to address this: you ‘skip a level’ and meet with the direct reports of your direct reports. But before I go into more detail about how I’ve used these meetings effectively in the past: why would you want to have these meetings?

Skip level meetings are useful to get a direct signal on how people on the ground are doing, and what is preventing them from being happier and more effective in their work.

Of course you can (and should) discuss these matters with your direct reports, but some things always get lost in translation. I have found skip level meetings useful to get a more nuanced perspectives on issues, which helped me make better decisions than I would have been able to make by just speaking to my direct reports alone. Note that this has nothing to do with the abilities of the manager. It is more to do with language being a rather blunt instrument, and communication being inherently difficult especially when the information being communicated is second-hand.

Another important reason is to build rapport with your wider team, which is increases your influence as a leader. Modern leaders should recognise that the command and control style of leadership of the past has become untenable for knowledge workers, and leadership is exercised with earned influence rather than hierarchical authority.

One-on-one or team skip levels

You can conduct skip levels in a few ways. The biggest difference is between doing them one on one, or speaking to an entire team (without their manager) at once. Naturally the latter is more efficient, at the cost of being less intimate. I favour one on one skip levels because the conversations can be more open and honest than is generally possible in a group setting.

When you plan a skip level – especially if this is something you have not done before – make sure to brief the invitees on the purpose of the meeting, and what is expected of them. Not doing so can cause anxiety which is the opposite of what you want.

Before you step into skip level meeting, be aware of the power imbalance that the other party might be feeling in the meeting. You are their bosses boss, which is intimidating to many people. I would encourage you to make a point of showing up with vulnerability, and opening the meeting with this. Doing so will create an open atmosphere which is conducive to honest conversations.

I personally try and plan at least 2 skip levels per week, and I schedule these as part of my weekly planning session. Some weeks I it is difficult to find time for these meetings, and that is OK. I maintain a spreadsheet with all of my indirect reports where I track when I spoke to them last, which helps me plan the next ones.

Running a skip level meeting

Regardless of whether you run your skip levels one on one or with a whole team at once, it is useful to have a loose structure in mind for the meeting.

As mentioned above, I would encourage you to show your vulnerability first, by opening the meeting and being honest and open about how you are doing both personally and professionally, what has been on your mind lately, and how you would value their perspective to help you improve the organisation. Ask how they are doing, and don’t shy away from investing in small talk. Small talk is an important method to build rapport. Continue by asking open ended questions, shifting the conversation to the team, org, or something else you would like to get their opinion on. Open ended questions – such as those that start with how, what or why – encourage dialogue and allow you to dig deeper into the motivations behind an answer.

“What is one thing we should start doing?” Asking Start/Stop/Continue questions is a great way to use open ended questions and get people’s perspective.

In your skip levels, be cautious to not have conversations that they should really be having with their manager. Whatever you do, never make decisions on matters that the person would normally resolve with their manager. Doing so would undermine their actual manager, which is the last thing you want. When asked, just respectfully point out that this is something they should discuss with their manager, and move on.

More than anything, a skip level is an exercise in active listening. I would encourage you to not try and use them as a forum to push your own agenda – however big the temptation may be. Doing so will risk diminishing your learning through listening.

Good luck with your skip levels!