I have been working with startup leaders for 11 years now. And I have been lucky enough to be one myself. In my experience, there is one clear pattern that separates great leaders from the good ones. They proactively take out time to meet everyone in the company. I know the CEO of a 300+ strong company who still meets EVERYONE in the company at least once every year.
How's that for being a people person?
This is a golden opportunity to get a pulse of your entire company! Don't let it go. Here are some tips to do them well:
Don't do skip level meetings to spy & snoop
I can not stress on this enough. These meetings are NOT a way for you to keep a scorecard on your team managers. If you start with this philosophy, you have already lost the game.
Walk into these meetings with genuine empathy. Try to "walk the factory floor". Take feedback from people whom you don't get to meet regularly. Your real agenda should be to identify gaps in your own leadership, the company and the team.
Keep the employee's manager in the loop
Good teams talk, great teams communicate.
Instead of going behind people's back, run these meetings with 100% transparency. Send an agenda to the employee in advance. And encourage them to add their own talking points. You can go a step forward and include that employee's manager too. Check with the manager about any specific points they might want you to add to the agenda.
Some leaders opt to share the minutes of the meeting with the manager, which is fine too. But remove any sensitive points, and take an opt-in from the employee before you share the notes!
What should be the agenda of skip level meetings
A good agenda format for a skip level meeting should look like this:
- Icebreakers + Get to know each other (5 mins)
- Feedback from employee on team / company (10 mins)
- Check on employee morale / career growth (5 mins)
Use some of our questions below to get feedback and check on their morale. Dividing your meeting between these three topics makes sure that there is a good balance. Feel free to send this in advance to the employee in your email invite template! As a senior leader you will likely have more than 20+ skip level folks to meet - so 20 mins once in a month is a good enough time slot to align to this.
Some good skip level meeting questions
Always prepare for your skip level meetings! Too many such meetings are wasted talking about the weather and awkwardly looking at each other. Some popular skip level meeting questions that you can add to your agenda are below:
- Are you clear about your goals for this quarter? What needs clarity?
- How would you describe the vision of our team / company to a friend?
- What is #1 product feature we should fast track / build soon?
- How’s life outside work? All good?
- What is 1 thing we did well in the past 3 months? What could we have done better as a team last month?
- Are you proud of how we treat our customers?
- Are you worried about the progress of any team projects?
- How are we doing as a team on diversity, equality & inclusion (gender, age etc)
- How aligned do you feel with our company culture values? Which are the ones you do not quite get?
- How can we make our workplace culture more fun and joyful?
Try to focus on the bigger picture
This is a great chance for you to understand if everyone in your team is aligned on the big picture stuff. Do they know the vision? Are they aligned on the themes for this quarter? Do they know the why behind the business / tech decisions you have been making?
Here are some helpful questions to get you insights on that:
- How do you see the company developing in the next three years?
- What is your opinion of the company’s current direction? Which competitors are you most concerned about?
- What industry trends concern you?
- What do you consider our team’s top priorities for this year?
Start skip level meetings with Icebreakers
You can not expect all employees to open up their hearts to you right away. They work closely with their managers, not with you. You might find it useful to start the meeting with some fun Icebreaker questions. This helps put the employee at ease much faster! I would highly recommend that you add few Icebreaker questions at the start of the agenda.
What is the ideal frequency for skip level meetings
This depends on the size of your company / team. A good thumb rule that I tell every senior leader is -
You should meet at least 2 skip level employees every week.
So if you are the CEO of a startup that has 50 employees, you can finish meeting the entire company in 25 weeks. A gap of 6 months is enough time for new talking points to come into the agenda. Let's say you are a business head with 30 people in your department, and 6 team leaders directly reporting to you. If you do 2 every week, you can do a full round of your 24 skip level meetings every business quarter.
Don't forget to close the loop
All talk and no action makes for a bad manager! Make note of important points that come up, and treat them as important action items in your tasks list. Once you resolve them, make sure you go back to the original employee who gave you that feedback and let them know the actions you took!
Use skip level meetings to inspire
Don't get lost discussing minute tasks of each project! You are short on time, and being a micro-manager does good to no one. Focus on showing the big picture to the employee. Talk to them about where the team is headed. Future plans. And revenue growth. Don't make it just about asking questions!
Zoom out and brainstorm with them on strategic level stuff.
Bonus - what to do if you realise that the employee is unhappy at work
This one is tricky! The fact that you discovered this, and not the direct manager is a potential red flag. This is already a break of trust between this employee and their manager. As next steps, you should:
- Try to understand the root cause of the employee's low morale.
- Promise them that you will try to fix the underlying issue. Make a note of this in your to dos.
- Encourage the employee to directly talk with their manager about this. If you tell the manager about this issue behind their back, it will be a breach of trust.
- If the employee is nervous about bringing up this topic with their manager, get their approval to do it for them.
- Follow up with the employee and the manager separately! Don't mark this task done until you resolve it fully over the next few weeks.
- Read our guide on how to motivate employees
Hope these points help you run your skip level meetings better!