It was a typical grey Dutch day. Nothing exciting for most people. But I was excited. I was going to meet my boss’s boss for the first time in my new role. She was traveling from our global headquarters that day. Being a high potential, I was promoted into a role that was considered a fast-track to leadership opportunities. And the said meeting was part of something called a skip-level management meeting.
This meeting was unusual in many ways compared to meetings in my prior roles with my manager’s manager. My prior meetings tended to be ad hoc and were primarily an introduction or information gathering meeting. Moreover, instead of being 1-on-1 meetings, they were usually team meetings.
I did not realize the importance or the make of the meeting back then. But over the years, I have come to understand the real power of skip-level management. It is one of the most critically acclaimed modern-day management methods to develop talent.
What is a skip-level management?
There are various definitions that exist about this method. Most of them roughly translate to the management practice exercised by senior management where they bypass intermediate/middle management and interact directly with people who are either in the junior management or non-managerial positions.
This broad definition includes all sorts of interactions between the two groups including ad hoc meetings, team meetings and side meetings at team events. However, I am going to narrow the definition to include only talent development in this article. In my opinion, this component also amplifies the real essence of a skip-level management.
The description that I subscribe to most is the one that describes a skip-level management as a special management technic that is used by senior and executive managements to interact with high-potentials and key personnel from junior management and non-managerial positions. This interaction provides huge visibility to junior employees, provide them with opportunities to be mentored and create a personal connection with senior management. For the senior management, this framework provides a window to the high-potentials and up-coming talent in the company who need to be groomed and mentored.
For this article, I would only classify the meetings that are part of a structured grooming process as skip-level meetings. I have seen different forms of usage of skip-level meetings. Most of them are get-to-know each other meetings. Some are part of a structured mentoring process. This is where I see the maximum value a skip-level management can impart.
A word of caution for the reader. Skip-level management is a great tool for talent management, but it is not necessarily the most effective tool for performance management. Talent grooming is a multi-year program that requires a minimum commitment of 18-24 months whereas performance management usually managed at an annual level and in some cases, even twice a year. There is a strong overlap between the two, the management still should exercise caution and understand this crucial difference when executing it.
Benefits of skip-level management
Many organizations around the globe have successfully utilized this technic to increase their bench-strength of next set of leaders. When implemented formally in a defined structure, skip-level management can provide several benefits to an organization.
It provides tremendous visibility for aspiring junior resources. This can be a tremendous motivational boost for the individuals. These interactions also help these individuals to polish up their presentation skills, acquire executive presence and sharpen their communication competencies.
Skip-level can be used for structured grooming through a step-plan of interactions. The selected individuals would come up on the radar of the senior management and would start actively being considered for new roles and stretch assignments.
This benefit is an obvious one. A structured approach of grooming talent will create a solid pipeline of future leaders for your organization.
Through skip-level interactions, individuals get to understand and socialize the vision and objectives of senior management. They get to know the means and ways of senior management thinking and how they go about executing them. In addition, individuals may get opportunities to contribute their input and, in some cases, even participate in the execution. This way they can deeply entrench themselves in senior management initiatives.
For all the advantages of skip-level management, poor execution remains a big challenge. Irrespective of the size, industry, geography, and maturity of a company, implementing a skip-level management is an initiative that needs comprehensive strategic thinking and detailed roll-out plan. I have seen several initiatives started with great fanfare only to die away within the first year of its inception.
There are several factors that creates these challenges.
The program implementation is not fully aligned with talent development strategies. Without proper setting of expectations and outcomes, these meetings often become endless chats about worthless points. After the initial introduction calls, the next set of meetings should be structured as mentoring sessions towards talent grooming with definite outcomes in mind. These outcomes should be meticulously captured and managed as per the talent development guidelines.
Authority of intermediary management
Undermining the authority of the intermediary management is another challenge associated with these programs. Mid-level managers have been assigned a certain responsibility to manage their teams. However, improperly implemented skip-level frameworks can lead to discussions and actions that can seriously undermine the responsibilities of the mid-level managers.
Once a certain level of comfort is developed with skip-level managers, junior resources feel emboldened, and they start voicing their opinion on their manager’s work and authority. Senior management in their curiousness often forget the ethos of the structure and actively encourage sharing of more information. This can have a damaging impact for the organization. Skip-level managers must remain vigilant about these untoward attempts to move into these discussions.
There is, however, a special instance where information about the performance of mid-level managers is sought through a skip-level discussion. It is when a mid-level manager is under-performing their own roles. However, we will keep the description of this specific instance out-of-scope for this article.
Mid-level managers do not have transparency of the interactions that have taken place between their managers and their direct reports. This is a cultural change that many mid-level managers struggle to adapt to. They do not feel comfortable with the situation and often are suspicious of the whole program.
Before embarking on a skip-level management, organizations must take mid-level managers in confidence, walk them through all the details and most importantly, ensure a certain level of transparency of the proceedings to keep their trust.
The most lethal challenge of all, is that of corporate politics. Many senior managers are adept in political practices within the company and they end up abusing skip-level management to further their cause and belief. Not quite easy to detect, politicking can easily destroy the essence of this management method.
Type of companies that can implement this method
This management method needs a considerable amount of effort, commitment, and discipline from its participants. An organization must create a robust framework, assign roles and responsibilities, coach senior management on how to lead their programs, put policies and guidelines in place, and most importantly, have a neutral and yet effective, program governance in place.
In addition, if an organization has well-established talent management function within their HR and leadership teams, it is likely to be easier for them to implement.
In general, this program can be best utilized by large companies and in some mid-sized companies. Most small companies and mid-size companies tend to struggle to enforce the required discipline and structure of the program.
Even for large companies, without an open and trusted environment, they will struggle to derive benefit from this program. Without trust between different management layers, this program becomes a non-starter.
This is an employee empowering program that can create a lot of value for organizations. It can help build a robust leadership pipeline. It can harness the aspirational energy of junior resources. Management can get fresh perspectives on organizational objectives and create a congenial environment for interactions between different layers of an organization.
On the other side, this program has significant overheads and requires a disciplined approach. Without tangible benefits being visible quickly, organizations may struggle to get the right buy-in from different stakeholders and find it challenging to keep up the discipline over a prolonged period.
Every organization is different. Before embarking on this program, organizations must question themselves to see if skip-level management approach is the right one for them or not. They must thoroughly assess the needs, the benefits and the commitment required to implement this program apart from fostering an environment of comfort and trust.
Skip-level management is a powerful talent management tool. Implemented the right way, it can significantly galvanize your talent development program and provide an envious competitive edge that your competition can only aspire for.
This article is written by Anirvan Sen.
It is edited and keyword optimized by Blanca Monni.