Skip Level Meetings: Two Essential Ingredients, Part 1

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A few weeks ago I received a call from a colleague who wanted to discuss the pros and cons of Skip Level Meetings. Her company’s new CTO had approached HR for assistance in planning a series of Skip Level Meetings to get to know his new team. The leader had informed his direct reports of his plan and he reported to my friend that everyone thought it was a great idea. However, shortly after meeting with the CTO, my friend noted that one by one each of his direct reports dropped by HR and it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to their concerns about the “Skip Levels” their new boss wanted to conduct with their teams. To the credit of my HR colleague she immediately recognized that there was a significant disconnection between the new leader and his direct team and that the idea of implementing the Skip Level Meetings needed some further evaluation before plunging ahead.

So, my friend wanted to take a step back and talk through some of the fundamentals involved with Skip Level Meetings. After helping her assess the objectives of the new leader and the readiness of the team, I thought it would be a good idea to share some best practices on the HROD Blog.

What is a Skip Level Meeting? In simplest terms a Skip Level Meeting is held between an upper level manager and an employee or group of employees who are more than one level below them in the organization. In other words, the employee(s) are part of the senior leader’s team, but do not directly report to them. The senior leader meets with the employee(s) alone or with a neutral facilitator, but the direct (or “skipped”) manager of the team is not present. The “skipped” manager receives feedback from the meeting through a debriefing with the senior manager and participates in a joint follow-up session with the senior leader and the team.

Technically, a Skip Level Meeting can be an impromptu meeting between a senior leader and a single employee who meets the criteria described above, but for the purpose of this discussion we are talking about a more structured process.

Back to the Basics: The Two Essential Ingredients. As with any HR or OD process, the thoughtful practitioner must take care to ensure that they use the right tool for the right situation. This always requires assessment of the situation and the relevant factors that will either facilitate or sabotage success.  The two essential ingredients that need to be assessed when considering using Skip Level Meetings are as fundamental as it gets: trust and clarity. Trust relates to the confidence the people involved in the process have in each other, while clarity is about having a clear and appropriate purpose backed by a sound, well executed process.

This week we are focusing on questions that will help to assess trust from the different perspectives of the participants in the Skip Level process.  These questions are not intended to be asked and answered directly, but are areas you should tactfully probe as you assess whether or not a Skip Level Meeting is the right approach for a given situation.

Does the “skipped” manager trust that . . .

  • the real purpose of the meeting is clearly stated and that there are no hidden motives?
  • their leader is open to actively listening to the team and gathering information, even if the feedback may challenge some of the leader’s own beliefs or assumptions?
  • the meeting will be well-organized and skillfully facilitated so that the feedback they receive is unbiased, reliable, honest and timely?
  • their team will offer fair and balanced feedback to the leader?


Do the employees who are invited to participate trust that . . .

  • the senior leader conducting the meeting is fair and open to really listening to them?
  • the senior leader supports the “skipped” manager and is not trying to undermine the manager or to protect and defend him/her?
  • their feedback will be taken seriously and that there will be meaningful follow-up?
  • the facilitator will keep the meeting on track and make it a safe place to speak up?
  • the senior leader and facilitator will respect the confidentiality and anonymity of what’s said, while presenting the themes of the feedback in a credible and accurate manner?
  • their fellow team members will respect differences in opinion, the need for open dialogue and each person’s right to confidentiality?


Does the senior leader trust that . . .

  • they have sufficiently thought through and conveyed the purpose of the meeting to the facilitator, manager and employees?
  • the “skipped” manager is supportive of the process and will convey that support to their team?
  • the “skipped” manager is receptive to hearing honest feedback and will follow-up with appropriate actions and dialogue?
  • the employees view this as a constructive avenue for dialogue and will be open and engaged in the process?

If the answer is “yes” to all of the questions posed above, you can feel confident that the team has a good level of trust. Next week we will delve into the purpose of the Skip Level Meeting and why it is essential to clarify the purpose before getting started.

Photo Credit: © Pilarin | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

Lessons from the Biography of a Great Facilitator

Facilitators are often faceless people who work behind the scenes to help teams and individuals work through their choices and come to agreement. Big biographies are usually about the famous players in the more visible positions. Americans always pay more attention to the quarterback than the offensive linemen who make it possible for the quarterback to rack up the yards.

This unfortunate situation will be somewhat remedied in early 2013, when a new biography about one of history’s great facilitators hits the shelves (or e-shelves).

I was fortunate enough to read an advance copy of The Hopkins Touch by David Roll, an outstanding biography of a unique and exceptional person whose existence has been forgotten by many Americans. Harry Hopkins was considered the “man behind the throne” during the FDR years, wielding enormous power and influence in both established and undefined roles, in both domestic and foreign policy. The sources of his success were his crystal clear insight into reality (Churchill called him “Mr. Root of the Matter”), an unusually strong drive and superb facilitation skills. When Hopkins was given an assignment, whether that assignment was getting needed relief into the hands and mouths of the needy or negotiating agreements with men as complex and distrustful as Stalin, he got the thing done. While his education and early experience in social work accounted for some of his loftier ideals, his powerful sense of commitment to the task drove him to his great achievements.

David Roll proves to be an excellent biographer, balancing admiration for the man’s truly great accomplishments with fair criticism of his mistakes. As is appropriate for a biography about a man who worked more behind the scenes than in the public eye, The Hopkins Touch tells the larger story of the major players on whose behalf Hopkins toiled, particularly the Big Three (Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin). While Hopkins is never far away from the narrative, Mr. Roll never allowed himself to be constrained solely to his subject. The stories and background information he provides concerning the titanic personalities of the time are both appropriate and well-researched. Best of all, Mr. Roll managed to write a very readable narrative about a complicated character working in a complex period in world history; the book never feels too heavy or too light.

The relevance of this book to our current period in human history cannot be understated. We live in a time when the political atmosphere is so poisonous and polarized that it seems impossible to get anything accomplished. We could definitely use a skilled facilitator like Harry Hopkins—someone with the skills, dedication and insight to build trust between enemies and guide them to worthy accomplishments.

There are many lessons in the book for those of you who, like me, spend a great deal of our time engaged in the art of facilitation. Here are the lessons I found most relevant:

1. It’s not about you. It’s never about you. It’s always about helping them reach the solutions they want to reach.

2. All successful facilitators have an unyielding commitment to discovering the truth. The skill of a facilitator lies in helping others discover the truth, and to do that, a facilitator can never impose his or her perception of truth on a client.

3. There are times when a facilitator must shift out of neutral to move people out of their stuckness. The key to a successful shift is to remember that it’s not an opportunity for you to vent your frustrations on the stubborn asses you’re dealing with. Remember: it’s not about you.

4. A great facilitator prepares for all possibilities but must remember that the best solutions are invented on the spot through honest dialogue that makes it safe for people to change their minds.

The Hopkins Touch is available for pre-order on Amazon.



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