Skip-Level Meetings: How to Effectively Utilize Them (with an Agenda Template)

CEOs and senior managers sometimes become isolated in the “good-news cocoon.” - a place where they mostly get to hear the good news and are somewhat alienated from the other things that are happening below the ranks.

However, skip-level meetings can solve this problem. It is a proven solution to bridge the gap between senior managers and employees. In this article, I’ll show you how to do skip-level meetings.

What are skip-level meetings?

It is a meeting between a senior manager and managers' direct reports. “Direct reports” refers to the employees under the manager's supervision. To understand it, picture the hierarchical structure of organizations, large or small. There’s usually a CEO, executive, or director at the top, followed by managers and then other employees.

The employees report directly to the managers - hence the tag “direct reports.” Then the managers answer to the people at the top - CEOs or executives (let’s refer to them as “senior managers”). In this kind of arrangement, the employees often have low interaction with the senior managers. They answer directly to their managers. 

Thus, the idea of skip-meetings is to change the narrative a little bit. As a senior manager, you can descend into the scene to discover what the state of things is by holding one-on-one meetings with your employees. It is an effective way of gathering valuable feedback from your employees and discussing ideas for the organization's growth.

As a senior manager, the purpose of skip-level meetings is to get you out of the good news cocoon. Instead of wallowing in the dark, you can now discover how your employees really feel about their work and the company. You can gather feedback about their managers. You can identify areas of weakness and room for improvement. And believe me, this information is essential for the growth and success of your company.

The Importance of Skip-level Meetings

Skip-level meetings are crucial for the following reasons:

1. They bridge the communication gap:

Senior managers often have low interaction with the employees because they already receive reports from their managers. Hence, there is a communication gap between senior managers and employees. Skip-level meetings help to alleviate this problem. 

Through one-on-one meetings, senior managers can communicate directly with the employees, thus creating an avenue to build trust within the organization's rank and file. Ultimately, healthy relationships across all levels foster the organization's work culture.

2. They can boost employees' motivation:

During skip-level meetings, senior managers discuss several things with employees. This may include the employee’s career goals or prospects, current work challenges, and possibly, promotion opportunities. Senior managers may even go as far as sharing personal career experiences and lessons.

Interactions like this can bolster an employee's morale to do better for themselves and the company. 

3. They help improve an organization's performance:

Feedback is vital to the improvement of any activity. When employees get quality feedback on their work, they can improve themselves. When employers get input from their employees, they can enhance the company's state. It works both ways.

With skip-level meetings, senior managers can collect valuable feedback directly from the employees. When properly utilized, this feedback can ramp up the organization's performance. 

Steps for Skip-level Meetings

There are no hard and fast rules on how to do skip-level meetings. It doesn’t require any technicalities. With these three simple steps that I will show you, you can effectively carry out skip-level meetings with your employees.

1. Speak to your managers:

This is a crucial step for skip-level meetings. Remember that there’s already an organizational structure in place - the managers directly supervise the employees while you manage the managers. Engaging the employees without first communicating your intention with their managers wouldn't be entirely appropriate.

It is important to do this to avoid them thinking that you have a hidden agenda whatsoever. They will also feel respected and valued that you deemed it needful to communicate with them first. A simple mail stating your intention and the mode in which you will be holding the meetings will suffice. Additionally, you can note some of the things you’ll be discussing with the employees in your mail. 

2. Inform the direct reports beforehand:

A senior manager calling an employee into his office out of the blues could give off the idea that something is wrong. This may infuse fear or cause panic in the person. 

So, it is best to inform the employees of your intention to conduct one-on-one meetings with them. This gives them ample time to prepare their minds, and it won’t seem strange if you call someone into your office. As you’ve done with the manager, you can send a general mail informing the direct reports of your intention to meet with them. Subsequently, you can communicate with them one after the other in the manner in which you choose to meet them.

Share some of the things you would like to discuss with the direct report. Also, tell them to prepare some questions for you. That way, the meeting will be conversational, and it won’t feel like an interview.

3. Create a schedule for the meetings:

Now that you’ve adequately communicated your intention to both parties, you can proceed to create a schedule for the skip-level meetings. In what order would you be meeting them? How often is it going to be? What time and day of the week would it happen? These are the kind of questions you should address. 

You should tailor your schedule to suit your availability and that of the direct reports. Yes, you’re the boss, but that doesn’t mean you can call for a meeting abruptly without considering the employee. It would be unfair to do that. Hence, you should decide on a suitable time and day for both parties. You don’t want to seem uninterested in the meeting because you’re carried away by thoughts of other important things that you have to do. 

How To Prepare for A Skip-level Meeting

As a senior manager, you shouldn’t show up for meetings unprepared. Skip-level meetings are not the everyday kind of corporate meeting. They tend to be more personal. This is why you must get ready before you call that employee into your office or jump on that call

A company that surveyed 1,182 managers and 838 employees about one-on-one meetings discovered that 36% of employees believe their managers were “somewhat prepared.” And 40% said their managers were “not prepared” or “not prepared at all.” 

This goes to show that most managers don’t prepare. You shouldn’t contribute to that number. How can you prepare for a skip-level meeting? Let’s find out.

1. Get up to speed with current happenings:

There’s a tendency you may not be aware of the current happenings within the organization. To ask relevant questions, take some time to catch up on the employee's project before the meeting. Get to know the highlights so you can ask meaningful questions. You can ask the managers to brief you.

2. Create an agenda for the meeting:

If you own a large company with many employees, you wouldn’t want to waste so much time on skip-level meetings because there’d be several other things to attend to.

Drafting an agenda for your skip-level meetings would help you manage your time. You would know exactly what questions to ask and how long you can spend with each employee. Set out the things you wish to discuss, share with the employee, and ask that they prepare some questions for you.

Allocate time for each item on your list and work with it. 

Skip-level Meeting Agenda Template

Here is a sample of an agenda for skip-level meetings. You can tailor yours around this.

Personal Connection/Building Rapport (10 minutes): You shouldn't start your skip-level meeting right away with the most profound questions. Chances that the employee will be a little nervous are high, so you may want to ease the tension by building rapport. You can ask the following questions in this regard:

  • Tell me something new you’ve been doing outside work.
  • What part of your role would you consider your favorite?
  • What has inspired you to do something differently recently?

Gathering Feedback on Work and Managers (15 - 20 minutes): Now that you’ve eased into the conversation, you can proceed to ask the more serious questions.

  • Have you been dissatisfied with a decision that the company took lately?
  • In what area do you think we’re lacking as a company?
  • What’s the best part of working with your manager?
  • What do you wish your manager would do more or less of?

Entertaining Questions (5 - 10 minutes): Attend to any questions that the employee may have regarding the company or your career journey. Afterward, thank them for their time and commend them for their contributions to the organization.

Pro Tips for A Successful Skip-level Meeting

Be a listener

Although you’re the anchor of the meeting, strive to do more listening than speaking. The goal is to evaluate the work culture and identify challenges and areas of improvement, so your ears should do more of the work.

Speak to all

Don’t come off as biased by meeting with just a select number of employees. You don’t want to pass a wrong message to others. Try to speak with every direct report.

Do it at least twice

Schedule skip-level meetings with direct reports at least twice a year. If you have a vast employee base, you can do it once.

Take notes

You will be speaking to many people on critical matters. Your brain will not be able to retain all the information for a long time. So, jot things down.