Skip Level Meetings: Two Essential Ingredients, Part 2 (Clarity of Purpose)


“Trust is a risk game and leaders have to ante up first.”

—from The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner

Once you are confident that there is a sufficient level of trust among the various people involved in the Skip Level process, you are ready to focus on the second essential ingredient: clarifying the purpose and goals of the Skip Level Meeting.

Before I continue, I want to clarify the goals of this post. This discussion is intended to focus primarily on Skip Level meetings between a group of employees and a senior leader. If you are interested in evaluating the benefits of Skip Level meetings between a senior leader and one individual, Matt Blumberg has a nice post on this topic on his “Only Once” blog.

Why is clarifying the purpose of the meeting(s) so important?  As with most activities in life there are benefits and risks. Defining what the senior leader wants to take away from a Skip Level Meeting allows the facilitator to structure the meeting to accomplish those goals and maximize the benefits while managing the risks. Focusing on the goals from the onset will also help the facilitator draft questions designed to keep the conversation on point. Goals also set realistic expectations for the participants and the manager who will be absent from the meeting. Failing to clarify the purpose and the goals may yield a meandering and unfocused waste of time instead of the honest and focused dialogue you want to achieve.

5 Great Uses for Skip Level Meetings.  Skip Level Meetings can be a powerful tool to gather new insights and information. They can also positively reinforce employee engagement by demonstrating to the team that their senior leaders are listening to them and value their input. Below is a short list of ways we have successfully used Skip Level Meetings. While specific areas of focus will offer unique benefits, every opportunity provides a common benefit: first-hand, unfiltered feedback from the perspectives of people who may be closer to certain organizational realities than leaders at higher levels.

Number 1: Schedule a Skip Level Meeting following a change in an important process, policy or event that has impacted the group. Not only will you gain valuable insight into what went well and identify things that could be improved, you will also be able to:

  • Demonstrate to the team that you care.
  • Clarify any points of confusion and close information gaps.
  • Assess the real impact of the change on the team and its customers.
  • Get a first-hand read on how the change has impacted morale.
  • Reinforce organizational values of openness and transparency.

Number 2: Schedule a meeting with a project team to discuss a current project.  This allows you to:

  • Identify potential obstacles to the project’s success.
  • Identify hidden opportunities that the team may have uncovered.
  • Ensure timelines are realistic and resources are allocated appropriately.

Number 3: Schedule a meeting to discuss key initiatives and processes. This is an excellent opportunity to get a fresh look at the internal workings through the eyes of others. You will also:

  • Get a first-hand view of what is working and what is not working.
  • Gain a better understanding the real problems the team faces and initiate team problem-solving.

Number 4: Schedule a meeting to learn more about the general dynamics with the team and their leader. This will give you the opportunity to:

  • Provide relevant, anonymous feedback to the leader for his or her growth and development.
  • Learn something about how your own leadership impacts the group.
  • Build or reinforce open communication and transparency in the organization by opening communication channels.

Number 5: Schedule Skip Level Meetings as an alternative or an enhancement to the employee engagement survey process. This will:

  • Provide first-hand information and insight into team morale, business issues and general suggestions.
  • Offer a less expensive, yet structured mechanism to gauge employee morale for organizations for whom hiring a custom survey vendor is too expensive.
  • Allow the leader to follow up and get deeper insight into specific areas that have been identified through an engagement survey.

3 Situations When Skip Level Meetings Should Not Be Used. Skip Level Meetings can be valuable experiences, but there are situations when Skip Level Meetings should be avoided. Skip Level Meetings should not be used:

  • As a tactic to gather information to deal with an existing issue.
  • As a tactic to undermine or dig up dirt on the manager.
  • When there is a lack of trust among the participants, confusion about the goals and/or the leadership is not committed to following the process, which includes appropriate follow-up.

Next week we’ll complete the series with a look the the Skip Level process.

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Is America in Decline? A Lesson in Group Problem-Solving

Baseball in TattersIs America in decline? That was the entire content of one of those quickie polls that appear in the sidebar of the Washington Post’s website. “Is America in decline?” Yes or no.

What a stupid question!

For one, the question can only produce one result: an argument. If you answer yes, you’ll be labeled a traitor and will get the love-it-or-leave-it message from a self-proclaimed patriot. If you answer no, you’ll be labeled as a person seriously in denial by those who have reached the opposing conclusion.

When I took a peek at the poll results, the results showed about a 50/50 split. Duh.

The reason why it’s a stupid question is because it’s not a helpful question. The problem of “America” is too big and broad for us to solve. “America” is the result of a billion variables that go into the recipe. If you try to solve the “America problem”, all you’d wind up doing is making a lame attempt to cover up a failed recipe with a few spices in the hope that it might at least turn into something palatable.

Which America are we talking about? North Dakota seems to be doing pretty well. Recent dining experiences have convinced me that American winemakers are on their game. Last weekend’s round of football playoffs were pretty exciting. On the other hand, there’s little question that Congress is broken, that the stock market is more influenced by fear than fact and that there are still far too many people without jobs. By trying to solve the “America problem,” we fail to solve thousands of problems that are within our power to fix. Instead, we waste our time debating a meaningless question that cannot possibly yield a solution.

The other problem with the question is that it allows the person answering the question to sidestep any responsibility for the problem or the solution. “America” becomes an abstraction, something that is beyond me, a problem I did not create and cannot solve. When we break any problem down to its components, we know this cannot be true. If you voted in your congressional election, you bear some responsibility for the sorry state of Congress.

Edward DeBono came up with a simple way to define problems. A problem is simply the difference between what you have and what you want. If you try to apply this model to the “America problem,” you’ll find out pretty quickly that you can’t come up with a problem definition on which everyone will agree. We all have different definitions of what we have and what we want. That alone should tell you that you’re trying to solve the unsolvable.

Until we agree on the problem, we will never agree on the solution. This is why the most important stage of group problem-solving is the first: trying to precisely define the difference between what you have and what you want. Too many groups in business, government and the nonprofit sector operate in crisis mode, reacting to symptoms instead of problems because they haven’t taken the time to clearly define the issue at hand. This leads to poor decision-making, failure and to a decline in the confidence of the group members to solve any problem.

As anyone who has been a human being for any length of time knows, it takes time to figure out what you want and what you don’t want. It requires hard thinking and quality discussion to help a person or a group clarify a goal and avoid potential pitfalls. One way to get there is to reshape DeBono’s model by phrasing the question in the “How can we/Without” format: How can we (get what we want) without (getting what we don’t want). How can we reduce unemployment without increasing the deficit? How can we position this product in the market without cannibalizing sales on other product lines? How can we improve the bottom line without cutting heads? How can we design a compensation program that has real impact without breaking the bank?

Some might read this post and blame our instant gratification, time-sensitive culture for refusing to give us the time we need to clearly define problems. Sorry, but I don’t buy “the culture made me do it” argument. Anyone in a position where they have the opportunity to influence an outcome has the responsibility to take the time to get it right.

Given the seeming enormity of our many problems, taking the time seems like a pretty inexpensive investment.

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No There There


Every now and then a colleague will recommend a book on business that I absolutely have to read. I nod and say something innocuous like “Yeah, sounds interesting,” then immediately put the suggestion out of my mind.

The truth is that most business books are unreadable. They’re usually full of clichés disguised in fresh buzzwords that try to give the reader the impression that whatever the author is saying is both new and revolutionary. The truth is that most business books are devoid of thought. To borrow a quote from Gertrude Stein, there is no there there. When I have to read one, I skip to the end of a chapter and pray that the author has included a summary of his or her five main points.

The quality of writing in the business book genre is astonishingly poor. Most of the business books I have read (or skimmed) go out of their way to insult the intelligence of the average reader. Many are full of sanitized stories with stereotypical characters and dialogue worse than what you’d hear in a soap opera.

Several of the most popular books use the technique of providing us with model companies and model leaders to show us “how things should be done.” In many cases, the company or the leader being celebrated is often exposed a few years later as having some pretty significant weaknesses. For example, In From Good to Great, Jim Collins celebrated Circuit City, a company that wound up firing their more senior employees to save money, which alienated their customers and led them to the bankruptcy they so truly deserved.

Serves Collins right for focusing primarily on the financials.

There are “scholarly” business books, usually published through the Harvard Business Review or the like, that profess to be of higher quality of thought. Although written in better English, they too fall short in the substance department. Their primary purpose is to create audiences for wannabe gurus. As is usually the case with academia, the writer is attempting to prove a hypothesis, so the data you get is skewed to support the hypothesis.

The whole genre is weakened by one fundamental truth: the authors are not disinterested parties trying to educate and inform. They’re trying to sell their wares. Most business books are written to increase the author’s consulting opportunities, speaking engagements or training package sales.

Because business books are promotional tools instead of educational tools, and because the last thing a salesperson wants to do is alienate the customer, business books never look too deeply into the real problems organizations face every day. They never really force us to think differently about the way we do business. They accept the status quo and are designed to give readers a few pointers as to how they can exploit the status quo to their advantage.

The problem with this approach is that the status quo is not going to get you anywhere in a world of perpetual change. Follow the classic wisdom of most business books and you will become a dinosaur overnight, because most business books do nothing to advance your ability to think critically about the unexpected and unknown.

If you truly want to increase your odds for future success, develop your thinking and change-response skills. Look inside and outside the business genre for reading material that will force you to think in new ways about old problems. Read Keith Johnstone’s Impro and take improv theater classes to enhance your ability to deal with both change and changing people. Take a look at Ricardo Semler’s two books, Maverick and The Seven-Day Weekend to learn how it is possible to turn fundamental business assumptions inside out and create workplaces that are distinctly human and outrageously profitable. Go over to TED and check out the videos produced by Ken Robinson to understand what it really means to think differently.

Here’s the truth: you’re smarter than most business books would have you believe. Focus your development efforts on keeping your mind in tip-top shape by providing yourself with constant intellectual challenge . . . challenge you’re more likely to find by listening to your native intelligence than skimming the books in the business section.

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The Three Basic Responsibilities (from Working Choices)

This excerpt is from Working Choices, Bob Mendonsa’s book on life in today’s organizations.

Responsibility is the key to making fully conscious choices. Human beings have three basic responsibilities: responsibility to self, responsibility to others and responsibility to the community.

Responsibility to self is basically being true to yourself. It means following your inner drive to manifest yourself in your own unique way. It is not self-indulgence, although the enjoyment of pleasurable things is not to be dismissed as a source of spiritual nourishment or judged as “selfish.” If you limit your actions to only the self-indulgent, then it is highly unlikely you are being true to yourself or living up to your other responsibilities. Then again, if you never indulge yourself, you will suffer the consequences of excessive self-repression. “Sooner murder an infant in his cradle than nurse an unacted desire,” Blake tells us, arguing that human desire is itself innocent and only made ugly, sick and distorted through years of self-repression. Balance is the key to living up to this and the other two responsibilities.

Responsibility to others means being responsive and respectful to those you know personally. This includes your family, your friends, your workmates, and your neighbors. Responsibility to others does not mean that you have to live up to their expectations or sacrifice yourself to make them happy. Again, balance is critical in living up to the responsibilities of life, and focusing on one at the expense of the other is always a self-destructive act. Responsibility to others involves working together to fulfill mutual needs, the defining quality of any successful relationship. It also means a fundamental respect for human life, including respecting the right of others to make their own choices, as long as those choices do not harm others.

Responsibility to the community is the most difficult of the three because it is the most challenging. This is because in modern society, the definition of community is changing. It used to mean your hometown; now the word can have global implications. Furthermore, communities are by nature fragmented because they are sprouting up all over the place as the result of technological advances. Most of us belong to many communities, from our neighborhood to our poetry circles to our Internet newsgroups. Simply put, a community is a group of people who have chosen to come together out of common interests. This means that for most of us in modern society the workplace is our primary community, for it is the community to which we contribute the greatest amount of time and effort.

Again, it is important that all three responsibilities be attended to in order for a person to feel right with the world. That doesn’t mean that we have to be in perfect balance all the time to be happy. What it means is that over time, we feel better when we nourish all three responsibilities. Sometimes you have to go off somewhere for self-reflection, so at that particular moment you are probably being more responsible to self than to others or to the community. Don’t worry, you can make it up later by attending to your other responsibilities in time.

I should also clarify that this is not intended to be a framework for happiness. Being responsible will not guarantee that you will always get what you want and that everything will work out. This framework is designed to help people process decisions, possibilities and opportunities by making them more understandable. The logic behind this is simple: if we understand the potential consequences of choices, we can make more effective choices. This is not to say that every choice will be effective, for there are always unpredictable variables in anything we do. What the framework does is permit you to make fully conscious choices instead of simply following the program or responding to the various guilt trips being heaped on you from all sides.

Author’s Comment: We’ve used the responsibility framework in several versions of our leadership programs with great success. People seem to be attracted to the concept of achieving balance, a goal that feels like a mirage to many overworked people. What I’ve noticed is that the responsibility to self is the one that people tend to sacrifice first, a choice that transforms a lot of good people into “martyrs for the cause.” You have to remember this: unless you take the time to nourish your soul, you will be left with nothing at all.

How to Make Work Meaningful Again

In Robert Morrow’s novel Ringing True, a group of Seattle twenty-somethings decide to address the sad state of humanity by launching a for-profit religion via cyberspace. The “product” or “bible” of the religion is contained in 12 precepts called “The Numbers,” each of which deals with a unique facet of human existence.

Number 10 talks about work:

The Tenth

It is fair to say that the human race has confused the meaning of work as thoroughly as it has confused the meaning of good and evil. The true nature of work has been further compromised by chaotic designations of financial value. Thus we live in a world where the people who feed us, teach us and protect us earn far less than those who entertain us, those who scheme for power and those willing to exploit innocence.

For many people living in industrialized cultures, work is often disconnected from meaning through specialization and the invisible coercion of the economic system. For many people living in agricultural societies, work is inherently tied to survival. What is ignored in both is that every human being has a unique contribution to make for themselves, for others and for the world. Work does not have to be meaningless: it can be the ultimate expression of responsibility. All forms of responsible work should be honored.

Each person will find their own meaning in their work, and the value of work should be measured not only by how far it advances the human condition but also by how much satisfaction and meaning it brings to the individual doing the work. True work nourishes the human soul.

This certainly appears to be wishful thinking, given the state of the workplace today. Between engagement surveys showing workers checking out of the organizational program and the continuing popularity of Dilbert and The Office, the workplace today doesn’t seem to generate much opportunity to find meaning beyond the daily encounters with the absurd. Cynicism dominates, and the phrase, “It pays the bills,” sums up how many people feel about their jobs.

When Morrow writes, “Each person will find their own meaning in their work,” this is not idealism but an observation of how human consciousness operates. Consciousness always requires an object; we are always conscious of something. As soon as we become conscious of something, we attach meaning to it. Think of an apple and you might think, ‘I’m hungry, or “Adam & Eve,” or “iPhone,” or “I lost a baby tooth biting into an apple.” The next time you see a perfect stranger, pause for a moment and notice all the meanings you attach to that person based on appearance (age, social status, cultural tendencies, etc).

You cannot stop this process in yourself or in another human being. We all seek meaning every minute of every day, even in our dreams. It’s how we interact with our world.

Most organizations fail to grasp this simple truth. Some try to ignore meaning entirely, as if the world would be better off if we all just left our conscious minds at home. Others try to impose meaning through rigid organizational philosophies, policies that demand conformity and status symbols. Some use the onboarding process to indoctrinate people in the “company way;” others use the process to take care of the legal CYA that contaminates the getting-acquainted process with the clear message, “We don’t trust you.” Nearly all organizations ignore the fact that, despite their efforts, each individual is going to interpret the world in his or her unique way.

This leads to the disconnection that dominates organizational life and provides Scott Adams withe fodder for his cartoons. It is a fundamental truth of human communication that I won’t really listen to you unless I feel heard and understood. I’m not going to share what I think or feel unless I have confidence that you really want to hear what I have to say. Unless I sense that you care about my input, I’m going to hear your input as coercion, no matter how nice you say it. This leads to the silly game that dominates organizational cultures everywhere: the game of passive aggression. It leads to meetings where we all follow the corporate line during the meeting, then leave the meeting to seek out like-minded radicals to bitch about what a waste of time it was.

We have heard about the importance of “creating shared meaning” in leadership training courses and communication workshops, but we tend to interpret “shared” as “imposing the company vision on a whole lot of people at roughly the same point in history.” The truth is you can’t “get everyone on the same page” unless you allow them to shape the content of the page.

This means that leaders have to allow every person who belongs to or enters your organization the chance to make a difference. It means you have to change your onboarding processes so that it’s more focused on mutual understanding than indoctrination. It means that leaders and team members should spend more time listening to what current and new team members want out of life and work, then use that information to find ways to help people achieve both personal goals and organizational goals at the same time.

It also means that leaders should use position power intelligently instead of automatically. The vast majority of people who enter the workforce want to find positive meaning and satisfaction in the work they do. They don’t need to be controlled; they need to be inspired to put those best efforts to work for their own good and for the good of the organization. They need good information to make intelligent decisions about their work and they need a good leader who is willing to listen help them think things through.

So much of the absurdity, frustration and pain of modern organizational existence would disappear if we simply recognized that people will attach meaning to their work. If you over-control, withhold information and fail to listen, the meaning they attach to their work will be the same meaning that Scott Adams’ characters attach to their work. If you engage in open and honest dialogue and teach people what they need to know about the organization and its values, the meaning they attach will be much more in sync with what you’re trying to achieve.

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