The traditional office structure gives senior managers an air of mystique: They’re busy running different aspects of the business, so they meet with other senior managers to get high-level updates from each department. Those other senior managers get their information from the managers under them, and those managers funnel their direct teams’ opinions.
But what would happen if team members got to talk to senior managers directly?
Senior managers need insight into how the organization is running, but they have few opportunities to communicate directly with team members. If you want more innovation and excitement for your company, you need to hold skip-level meetings.
The Definition of Skip-Level Meetings
A skip-level meeting is a one-on-one meeting between a team member and any upper-level manager, without the team member’s direct manager present. These meetings allow upper-level managers to gauge their team members’ opinions about their work and any opportunities for improvement, whether that be the work environment itself or particular processes in their department.
These are not normal meetings; they’re spaces where the team member drives the conversation and shares their day-to-day responsibilities alongside their career aspirations. It’s an opportunity to closely examine where a team member is and where they want to grow—and how upper management can support the team member’s goals alongside their direct manager.
Already doing skip-level meetings with your team? Check out these 15 skip-level meeting questions you can use to identify high performers.
Skip-Level Meetings Encourage Open Communication
Skip-level meetings open up the lines of communication to establish trust throughout the company. The skip-level setting allows management to get information they wouldn’t otherwise be privy to, like what they enjoy about the company or what roadblocks they run into, so they can implement solutions that will keep team members around. Through these meetings, you’re also able to check for talented individuals to promote or grow within the company.
We’ve discussed positive intent—how you frame conversations in a supportive way to receive a response and find a solution—which is important to keep in mind as you plan your skip-level meetings. When the meeting is framed as an opportunity for senior managers to learn from team members, team members show up ready to express ideas and discuss their experiences.
4 Tips to Get the Most out of Your Skip-Level Meetings
Team members are eager to engage in these types of open conversations so that they can have a universal sense of the company’s priorities and overall vision. Holding skip-level meetings allows senior management to be accessible and fosters a company culture focused on transparency and growth.
To get the most out of your skip-level meeting, you need to ask great questions. But even with great questions, you can use these four tips to dig even deeper into establishing a quick connection that sets the meeting up for balanced, candid conversations.
1. Keep managers informed
A surprise meeting makes anyone want to run out of the room. Managers need to be aware of skip-level meetings to help establish trust between themselves and their teams.
Sharing the meeting agenda and purpose with team members and their direct managers allows everyone to reflect on their answers instead of feeling “on the spot.” Team members can deeply evaluate their feelings and take notes to bring with them to ensure they cover what they want to say. Team members may even go to their manager to help craft an idea in a way that may gauge interest or find a way to bring up a work issue—which is perfectly fine! The direct manager’s role is to help field questions from their team and encourage their team members to share their thoughts so that open communication can be built throughout the company. To that end, direct managers should not ask team members what they’re going to say or create a “mock meeting”—that defeats the purpose of giving team members to show their potential.
As much as you want to keep your managers informed, remember that skip-level meetings are not meant to collect feedback about managers for their performance reviews: They’re about getting to know the managers’ direct team members and their aspirations to give them the tools they need to do their jobs and foster growth.
2. Share your vision and goals
When you ask a team member what their career goals look like, you don’t want to nod your head and simply say, “That’s great!” This meeting is a conversation, so share your goals, too.
Upper managers have better insight into the company’s objectives and trajectory, so this may be the one chance team members can learn about them in a more personalized way. You can guide the conversation about company vision by asking questions that focus on both your and the team member’s journey to the company, such as:
- What got you interested in this industry?
- Why did you pursue work in a particular department?
- What was your “aha moment” that made you decide to go in one direction of your career over another?
- What made you want to work for this company?
3. Stay With the Big Picture
While you can touch on some granular details, you want to create a space that allows the team member to be objective about their position in the company and their thoughts on processes.
There may be ideas that you don’t agree with, and while you have your reasons, you don’t want the team member to shut down and not share anything. You are there to collect information, and you need to maintain a sense of objectivity. Keep your opinion to yourself: While skip-level meetings are meant to be conversational, they’re also about letting the team member show their sense of expertise and creative/critical thinking skills that will make your company better.
Staying with the big picture allows you to see what changes are possible and what you may have overlooked—especially if multiple team members mention experiencing the same roadblock in their day-to-day routines (and that’s when you can get a bit granular to find a solution!).
4. Meet team members at their level of openness
Your salespeople may be extroverts, and your writers may be introverts; not all team members are not going to open up about everything on their minds. Ask questions that allow team members to open up about themselves as people rather than diving straight into business.
As skip-level meetings happen in a work environment, it’s easy to forget that the meeting is both about and not about work. Some people may have a work persona they put on, so it may take a moment to ease them out of it to gain a sense of who they are behind their work.
Your conversation needs to strike a balance between personal and professional, and you need to consider the amount of depth each question requires (remember, you have only a certain amount of time per meeting and need to cover a range of topics). No one wants to feel as if they’re reinterviewing for the job they already have, nor do they want to feel as if they have to prove themselves as capable to another manager. The right questions in the right order help ease anyone in. So, as you create your agenda, pace your questions to allow for brevity and to look for chances to go deeper into something that wasn’t on the agenda (like your mutual love for WandaVision).
Remember that, while team members have seen the agenda and know what to expect, the way you ask a question may dictate how open they are to respond. If a team member seems a little short about the more personal questions but lights up about work, skip some of the more personal questions. Adapt to what they want to talk about with you—that’s how you’ll get the input you need to make something even better.
Build Trust by Bypassing the Hierarchy
Many companies talk about continuous improvement—and you can’t have that without tending your company’s roots: your team members at the front lines. Once upper management meets with everyone, collect your notes and present your findings. When your team sees how their opinions help shape company procedures and culture, it shows that their ideas are valid and handled with care. It builds their trust and makes them look forward to the next meeting.
Ready to start having better one-on-one conversations?
Learn how with our free guide to improving your one-on-ones.