Defined as meetings between an organizational leader and a lower-level employee who does not report directly to that leader, skip-level meetings give executives the opportunity to get to know the people in their companies better. As such, these meetings are particularly helpful in resolving organizational issues, increasing engagement, and gaining new perspectives and insights.
Like any other kind of meeting, however, a skip-level meeting can go awry if not handled properly. That responsibility doesn’t entirely fall on the employees’ shoulders: It is also up to the leader to ensure skip-level meetings fulfill their stated purposes.
Here are eight simple ways for organizational leaders to have more powerful skip-level meetings:
1. Clearly Communicate the Purpose of the Meeting
Employees can be understandably apprehensive about meeting someone who is far senior to them. This discomfort can be an obstacle to effective communication, but you can dispel apprehension simply by telling the employee the purpose of the meeting in advance.
For example, if you are meeting to discuss a problem, knowing this in advance gives the employee time to look at the issue and brainstorm solutions. If the purpose is to learn something from the employee, it gives them a chance to gather their own thoughts. If the purpose is simply to increase engagement, employees can relax knowing the meeting is not disciplinary in nature.
2. Be Prepared
To keep the meeting on track, it helps to prepare in advance. Remember: There’s no shame in going to a meeting with a list of prewritten questions in hand.
The type of preparation you do will depend on the matter at hand. If the meeting is meant to resolve a technical issue, ensure you are familiar enough with relevant processes and/or technologies to comprehend the feedback your employees may give you. If the purpose is to gather feedback about the employee’s direct manager, make sure employee feedback will be kept anonymous. That way, employees will be more forthcoming and less afraid of hostile treatment.
You may also want to do a little research on the employee with whom you are meeting. For example, if the employee recently went through a divorce, asking about their family life may be perceived as insensitive.
3. Create an Environment That Fosters Dialogue
Environments like open-plan offices can inhibit conversations, thanks to the various distractions and the opportunities for eavesdropping by outsiders.
For a better skip-level meeting, try to have the conversation in a private space that is free from distraction. An office that is not in use or a break room that is out of the way would suffice. If the conversation has the potential to be longer, consider treating the employee to breakfast or lunch off site.
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4. Use Meetings Preventatively
Finding out about a toxic leader only after they’ve driven top performers away is not helpful, nor is learning about a technical issue with a product as the deadline looms.
Properly used, skip-level interviews can be preventative measures that bring problems to light before it is too late. That’s why it’s a good idea to hold skip-level meetings on some kind of regular basis. You may also want to hold skip-level meetings at the outset of any major project, initiative, or crunch-time period to head off problems as early as possible.
5. Make Honesty a Priority
When meeting with employees to uncover new information you, as a leader, are not privy to, some of that information may be hard for you to hear. The process you thought was running smoothly may turn out to be held together with duct tape and bubble gum. The leader you thought was doing a great job may actually be a toxic boss running subordinates into the ground. The employee you are talking to might have difficult personal issues impacting their ability to be fully present at work.
Whatever information employees give you, it’s important to react in a way that encourages honesty. Take feedback at face value, listen to the employee as they speak, and use company resources to find a solution.
6. Thank Employees for Their Feedback
Whatever you learned during a skip-level meeting, you now have more knowledge than you had before. Be sure to express your appreciation to the employee who imparted that knowledge to you.
By giving positive feedback in the present, you open the possibility for more productive skip-level meetings in the future. When employees know that you genuinely value their contributions, they will be much more willing to participate and much more forthcoming with vital information.
7. Follow Up With Concrete Action
An employee just gave you information you previously lacked. Make the most of that information as quickly as possible. If a broken process came to light, try to repair it immediately. If news of a toxic leader was shared, get that leader into a meeting to discuss the matter. Refer employees with personal issues to resources that can help them.
Once you’ve taken action, follow up with the employee again. Is the process running more smoothly than it was before? Is the toxic leader acting differently? How is the employee feeling at work? However you set about making changes, ensure the employee sees that the changes are being made.
8. Repeat Often and as Needed
Skip-level meetings are not one time events, and the best leaders continue to meet with subordinates and solicit their feedback regularly. These regular engagements with lower-level employees can boost productivity and workplace morale while catching problems before they become crises. As such, it’s worth using skip-level meetings to your full advantage whenever possible.
Kevin Johnston is a contractor and technical writer working for the Headquarters Marine Corps Talent Management Oversight Directorate. The views expressed within this article are his own.