What the heck is a skip-level meeting?
In “skip-level” meetings, a higher-level manager meets with an employee, one to one, without the employee’s direct manager present. These meetings may not happen as often as a check-in between direct managers and their team members, but these quarterly or semi-annual meetings give the senior manager a chance to learn more about individual employees. The senior leader gains a better understanding of the day-to-day challenges faced in the trenches, helping establish credibility and trust with the employee. While most often requested by the senior manager to build rapport, an employee may also request a one-to-one skip-level meeting.
If the senior manager works remotely, it’s perfectly fine to set up the meeting via Zoom, Skype, or whichever videoconferencing system works best for both parties. In fact, if the senior-level manager is NEVER on site, it is crucial that junior employees get some face time with them, so make videoconferencing a priority.
What topics are appropriate for skip-level meetings?
Although meant to build good will and understanding, skip-level meetings can be a bit intimidating for the employee, particularly if the senior manager is not on site every day. This is true whether the manager initiates the meeting or whether the employee requests it. What can you do to facilitate a more relaxed and productive 1:1 skip-level meeting? Plan ahead and be clear on your reason and goals for the meeting; set and share the agenda; and do your homework beforehand:
1. Define the purpose ahead of time: Set the right tone—don’t send a vague meeting invite that leaves the team member wondering why they are being called to the “big boss’s” office. Include a loose agenda and be sure it explains that this is more of a getting-to-know you meeting and NOT a disciplinary meeting. Even better, encourage them to add topics to the agenda. Letting them know communication flows both ways can build instant rapport.
2. Remember their name. Okay, we joke. But just a bit. If you are not familiar with this employee, take the time to do a little research. Talk to their direct supervisor (if they are aware of the meeting), learn what projects they’ve worked on, and make note of any major accomplishments they’ve chalked up. This background can inform your discussion, but it also shows the employee that you care enough to know what they do, even if you don’t see them every day.
3. Set ground rules at the start: Let the employee know that anything they share with you is confidential, or at least anonymous. They will be much less forthcoming about the state of things if they are worried about angering their direct manager or co-workers by being disloyal.
4. Share information that encourages and helps: You probably have a good deal more experience in the company or industry than the team member; offering anecdotes from your own work experience as the conversation progresses may provide them with valuable, career-building guidance.
5. Plan your questions in advance: You don’t have to stick to the script—it’s much more productive if you let the team member’s responses and questions lead the discussion—but you should have some thought-provoking questions handy for team members who need more coaxing.
6. Take notes: Show the employee you are genuinely interested in their ideas and take notes on any issues you’d like to pursue. This shows you respect their ideas and input.
It’s not over when it’s over
Following up after a skip-level meeting may be even more critical then scheduling one. Let the employee know you appreciate their time and feedback by sending an email thanking them and, if possible, noting a point or two that you found particularly interesting or an action item that you will be pursuing in the weeks to come. If something results from those efforts, be sure to let the employee know you took their advice.
With just a little advance planning, a skip-level 1:1 meeting is an opportunity to learn more about a junior team member, as well as offer insight into how your organization is functioning on all levels. No matter what is going on in the C-suite, understanding the concerns of the employees who help reach those goals is imperative for any truly effective leader.