Skip level meetings can improve employee engagement and organisational transparency. This HR professional tells us how.
When you go on leave for a long period of time, you might start to worry that the organisation you return to isn’t quite the same as the one you left.
For Liz Jamieson CPHR, head of recruitment at Amazon Operations Australia, those fears weren’t entirely unfounded. While she was on parental leave, her direct manager moved into a different role and their replacement was based in Poland.
Thankfully, Jamieson had someone looking out for her. Before going on leave, she was having skip level meetings with her manager’s boss – the person two levels above her. When the manager left, the skip level boss helped connect Jamieson with her new manager even while Jamieson was still on leave.
In an organisation as large as Amazon, Jamieson could have been lost among the hundreds of employees in her department. But because skip level meetings are part of its talent development approach, Jamieson was on the radar of a senior employee.
“There could have been a risk there in terms of how long it would take us to get up to speed with each other, but this way we had an intermediary who could facilitate that connection and soften the introduction,” she says.
Jamieson has been on all sides of skip level meetings. Not only has she had them with her boss’s boss, she has also been the more senior member of the meeting. She’s also been the one skipped in the middle. She’s therefore well placed to bring a variety of perspectives to the topic, and provide advice on how to run skip level meetings.
Why have a skip level meeting?
Skip level meetings can serve a few functions and provide benefits for the employee, says Jamieson.
For one, they give insight into more senior roles.
“You [communicate with] your manager day in, day out, so you usually develop an understanding of the skills required for that role fairly quickly,” says Jamieson.
“The best piece of work advice I was ever given is to aim for two roles above your position, and creating a connection with that person is crucial to actually achieving that.”
“[Skip level meetings] help you build extra relationships, and you do not know when they might come in handy. It’s like networking and increasing communication in one.”
Employees are unlikely to uncover any groundbreaking secrets speaking to their boss’s boss, she says, but sometimes even the senior person reiterating what the manager has previously told the employee can be helpful.
“I think when the employee gets a chance to see something through the eyes of a director or more senior employee, it can provide a new perspective.”
Skip level meetings also create a level of transparency in your organisation as it allows a junior employee to gain insight into how senior employees work, says Jamieson. A higher level of transparency will also help to generate greater trust in the organisation and its people.
“[As the senior member] it’s not enough to just have these meetings. If you want to improve employee engagement, they need to feel heard. That means doing what you say you’re going to do.” Liz Jamieson CPHR, head of recruitment at Amazon Operations Australia.
On the other side of the equation, skip level meetings let senior employees get the pulse of what’s happening in their teams, which can be difficult to gauge if they’re only interacting with other senior managers – they might risk entering groupthink territory.
This can be particularly helpful in teams with high turnover or ongoing performance issues. Skip level meetings let senior leaders take a more granular look at what’s happening within those teams.
As Jamieson has experienced, having a relationship with the person one level above your manager can be invaluable if the manager leaves.
“How do you recruit a manager for employees you have never spoken to? You would be left thinking: ‘I have a team of five people whom I have never spoken to in my life, and now I have to find a new manager for them’,” says Jamieson.
They can also be invaluable to leaders who are new to the organisation. These meetings can connect them to the people at the ground level who know how the company ticks.
A successful skip level meeting
Before you even have a skip level meeting, Jamieson has some advice on how to approach the idea with employees.
“If you just schedule a meeting in their calendar with no context, the employee may suspect something is wrong,” she says.
“Instead be very clear: ‘This is a skip level meeting and I’d like you to come to the meeting with relevant questions and any pain points you’re currently having.’”
To address these pain points, Jamieson uses the ‘stop, start, continue’ format for skip level meetings.
“We ask, ‘What do you think we should stop? What should we start? What should we continue?’ and that can open up new lines of communication, not just top down, but from the bottom up as well.”
Jamieson believes the ‘stop, start, continue’ format also helps you work out what is a relevant question to bring to a meeting.
“If it doesn’t fit in that format then it’s probably not a relevant topic,” she adds.
Nothing raised in a skip level meeting should be new information, says Jamieson. If there is an issue, the employee should have raised it with their direct manager initially.
If you’re the senior member of the meeting, you should be providing a different perspective to the problem, Jamieson adds.
At the end of the meeting, both parties should create a list of actions they need to take. The actions should have clear outcomes and deadlines.
If you’re the more junior person, it might be to seek out further training or to approach a problem from a different angle. For the senior member, this could be raising the employee’s problems with the executive suite or revisiting the issue with their manager.
“[As the senior member] it’s not enough to just have these meetings. If you want to improve employee engagement, they need to feel heard,” says Jamieson.
“That means doing what you say you’re going to do.”
Don’t forget the middle man
These meetings are for senior and junior employees to gain insight into each other’s roles. They’re not an opportunity to spy on management.
“There should be an understanding around these meetings that they’re about issues, not people. This is not an opportunity to gossip about the person being skipped,” says Jamieson.
In fact, she says managers should be fully aware these meetings are happening.
“After the meeting the senior person should meet with the manager and offer [a potential solution] by saying, ‘Hey, I could help with this issue’, or ‘I hear this is a problem. Have you tried this?’.”
Skip level meetings can sometimes reveal gaps in the manager’s training.
“If a junior employee says, ‘This is a problem’, and you know the solution immediately but the manager being skipped didn’t, then maybe they could use more training so they can solve that issue themselves in the future.”
If your organisation isn’t currently having skip level meetings, Jamieson says you’re missing out on valuable information and communication lines.
“Senior managers are missing out on establishing those communication bridges, middle managers are missing out on coaching opportunities, and employees are missing out on extra relationships that are crucial in case their manager leaves.”
Jamieson says her new boss in Poland probably knows her better than her skip level manager already, but that it would have taken a lot longer had the skip level relationship not existed.
“I already feel like I’m listened to and that I’m heard, even while I’m still on leave. Having my skip level manager make that connection just made the transition so much smoother.”
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