Whether you’ve only ever seen your company’s executives on a commercial or you pass them in the hallway every morning, you’ve still got to be prepared for your next skip level meeting. Karin Hurt, CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders and author of Courageous Cultures, and Todd Dewett, TEDx speaker, coach, and author of Live Hard, have some tips and tricks for turning your next skip-level meeting from a dreaded necessity to an exciting opportunity.
What is a skip-level meeting?
“A skip-level meeting is when a leader or executive meets with the people who report to their direct reports,” Hurt says. “For example, if you’re the VP with Directors reporting to you, a skip-level meeting might be with the managers reporting to your director, or even the front-line employees in your organization.”
“It’s typically about a senior person wanting to engage in fact-finding about an issue, culture, thoughts on a recent or pending decision, input on an ongoing project, mentoring, or some form of feedback exchange,” Dewett adds. “The idea is that with the skipped person not in attendance, a different type of conversation might take place.”
Skip-level meetings don’t happen too often, but they should be consistent.
“Most commonly, they are scheduled by the senior person,” Dewett says. “It varies, but generally a more senior person will have several per quarter, and a more junior person might participate in a few per year.” As an executive at Verizon, Hurt found the sweet spot for skip-level meetings was twice a year per location unless teams needed extra support.
What are the benefits of a skip-level meeting?
Even if your company is small and relationships are more open, a skip-level meeting can still be incredibly beneficial for all parties. Most teams love skip-level meetings, Hurt says, as it gives them a chance to show off all their hard work and gain some recognition for their skills.
“Done well, a skip-level meeting help bolster productivity,” Hurt says. “They ensure everyone has true clarity around what matters most and how their work aligns with the bigger vision.”
Hurt’s research on psychological safety in offices found that 67% of respondents reportedly were not regularly asked for ideas or input. An additional 50% noted that when they did offer ideas, those ideas were never utilized. Skip-level meetings, she says, are an opportunity to change that.
“Skip-level meetings are a great way to show up curious, invite people to share their ideas, and to respond, to let people know how their input is being used.”
“In theory, skip-level meetings should boost productivity indirectly by better informing senior leaders about the reality of culture or how certain decisions or projects are being viewed,” Dewett adds. “For the junior employees, these types of meetings are thought to contribute to a sense of being included and having a voice.”
Expert skip tips
Whether you’re leading or taking part in skip-level meetings, here are some tips about how to take advantage of this opportunity.
1. Begin with a win
Setting the tone for the meeting is especially important when you’re seeing someone you don’t speak to too often. That’s why, in Dewett’s words, you’ve got to begin with a win.
“First, start with something that sets a positive tone,” he says. “That might be a congratulatory comment, a story you or someone else shares, like a video, or a fun announcement.”
“Next, make the first question one of the more answerable ones you plan to ask. Getting them talking is the key, so don’t start with the most difficult or touchy question.”
“Your people want to know that you know what they’re up to,” Hurt adds. “Be sure you do, and tell them.”
2. Come prepared
The next tip applies to every meeting – be sure you come prepared. For a skip-level meeting in particular, you’ve got to know who’s involved, and what role they play in the meeting.
“Everyone knows that the senior person will be asking questions of the junior attendees,” Dewett says. “But it’s always awkward when they ask a question and hear nothing and wait for someone to finally speak up. Instead, distribute the key questions to members who will attend.”
“Have them read the question and begin with their answer. Simple tactics like this build ownership and interest compared to just listening to a senior person as is typically the case.”
“Learn what’s up with the people in the room,” Hurt adds, as having this personal sense of connection is a great way to relay ideas in a way that’s palatable for the other party. “Get their names. Know what’s driving them crazy. Be able to speak articulately about a few of their biggest accomplishments. Resist the urge [to talk too much]. You will learn way more by listening.”
3. Remember your status
Unfortunately, if those conducting a skip-level meeting aren’t careful, they can make others at the meeting feeling uneasy. When you’re the boss’ boss, as a supervisor, you have to be mindful about how you’re coming off to someone whose job may be in your hands.
“Skip-level meetings can back-fire if they turn into opportunities for fear and intimidation,” Hurt says. “I call these [meetings] OCHTC, or ‘oh crap, here they come’.” Meetings like these foster tension and make employees reluctant to be honest with their employers about issues in the company.
“Overall, I would say subordinates experience mild apprehensions due to the social distance between them and the senior person,” Dewett adds, “Depending on their personality and behaviors, the most senior person in the meeting might make others feel very comfortable, or they might make them feel quite intimidated. It really depends.”
4. Have a plan
Lastly, it’s vital in every skip-level meeting to know what issues you’re there for and how to tackle them.
“Give an invitation with a clear purpose and goals,” Dewett says. “Share needed information to be consumed before the meeting, and ask for completion of any work that will be discussed at the meeting. The senior person is smart to find ways to create interaction, such as having portions of the meeting facilitated by someone else in attendance or activities.”
Once you outline where you’ll be going, Hurt says that the best part isn’t the destination but the journey.
“The real magic of skip-level meetings is never planned,” she says. “Even if your team gave you a carefully crafted list of conversation starters, stay real and open to where the conversation may lead.”