Skip-level meetings are essential for you, as product managers, to understand your role, build relationships, align priorities, unblock yourself, and get feedback.
But what are skip-level meetings, and how can you run them effectively as a product manager?
In this article, I share the following about skip-level meetings:
- The definition
- The purpose and benefits
- How to run the perfect skip-level meeting
- Tricks to leverage them to accelerate your career
What Is A Skip Level Meetings Means?
A skip-level meeting for employee and their manager's manager (or "skip-level" manager) without their manager present. Think of it as a meeting with a leader whose level is at least two levels higher than yours.
What Are The Purpose And Benefits Of Skip-Level Meetings?
The primary skill level purpose of a skip-level meeting is to increase the impact and visibility of your work by doing all of the following:
- Encouraging open and broad bottom to top communication
- Increasing radius and quantum of influence
- Increasing visibility, transparency, and trust
- Gaining alignment on strategic direction and focus areas
- Defining your role and success clearly
- Improving inter and intra-team collaboration
- Getting and providing candid feedback
- Increase job satisfaction
Encouraging Open And Broad Communication:
Most communication in hierarchical organisations is top-down. And that is an ineffective communication strategy.
Skip-level meetings enable bottom-to-top communication and prevent any information gaps.
Bruce Harriman writes in this HBR article:
"Upward communications are poor in most hierarchical organisations because perception downward is poorer than perception upward. Add to that the "filters" of management levels that dilute upward communications. As you go higher, the word gets more garbled, edited, or, even worse, eliminated entirely."
You should (read: need to) know what and how leaders think while clarifying what you're working on. And that is where skip-level meetings come in.
I won't lie - initially, meeting with a senior leader seems intimidating. But if done correctly, skip-level meetings can be a great way to gain broader insight across seniority levels of the organisation.
In my experience, not many other forums provide 1:1 access to the leaders' minds; hence, these forums are critical to the success of the product and the PM's career.
Once in 45 days is a good cadence for these meetings.
Increasing Radius And Quantum Of Influence:
Think of all the times when you've been trying to align a tough stakeholder but haven't been able to.
Share progress and such blockers with your skip manager, and ask them to help you understand what you should do to gain alignment with your stakeholder. They will inevitably have tricks that will do the job.
Building influence as a product manager is tricky but very critical. Use these meetings to learn "how to do it better" or ask them to do it for you.
Over time, this will help you increase your influence.
Increasing Visibility, Transparency, And Trust:
Leaders might not always have in-depth knowledge of what you're working on, your progress, your challenges, and the blockers.
Meeting with them regularly will remove this information gap, enabling you to get guidance before it is too late.
Secondly, sharing more information with your leaders is a great tactic to help them build trust in your capabilities and work. And the trust goes a long way in career growth.
Gaining Alignment On Strategic Direction And Focus Areas:
There will be times when you're working on tasks or projects that you think are critical. But in reality, they might not be as important. Or they might not be important any more.
By having regular chats with your skip-level manager, you can easily avoid such misalignment.
More importantly, you can use these meetings to know the leaders' current and future focus areas. Then align your work to those goals.
The closer you are aligned to their goals, the more chances you have to create a high impact (and accelerate your career growth.)
Defining Your Role And Success Clearly:
A lot of the time, the product management role is defined loosely. And that is usually not good. If the role is not defined well, then the criteria to succeed or get promoted will also not be defined well.
If you are in such a situation, it is critical to use these meetings to understand your skip-level manager's point of view about your role, expectations, and success criteria.
The sooner you know their expectations, the sooner you can deliver what they expect you to do, and the sooner you can grow in your role.
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Improving Inter And Intra-Team Collaboration:
As product managers, it is not uncommon that you might face challenges collaborating with your immediate or partner team members. These challenges could be people-related, process related, or for other reasons.
Whatever the case, discussing such challenges with your skip-level manager will help you find ways to tackle them.
More importantly, it will give your skip-level a deeper understanding of team issues. Then they can use that to investigate and fix these challenges for the good.
Getting And Providing Candid Feedback:
It is essential to candidly share feedback with leaders about all challenges you face. Ideally, you should be sharing this information with your direct manager. But some cases might be more sensitive, and you might not feel comfortable sharing it with your manager. In such cases, sharing it with your skip-level manager is essential.
The goal here is not to complain but for you to help leaders know the ground reality. If some things or people are slowing you down or preventing your success, you should highlight them in these meetings.
Secondly, these forums are also vital for getting feedback about your performance. Typically, skip-level managers have a very strong say in your career growth (and promotions) and getting their feedback early and working on it will help you create a stronger case for growth.
Increase Job Satisfaction:
Talking to leaders - who usually have more experience and knowledge - about the company, industry, product, and people is generally refreshing. Getting perspectives from experienced leaders will help you appreciate your work and job much more. And that should help you stay motivated and happy on the job.
How To Run The Perfect Skip-Level Meeting?
To ensure that you get the most out of each meeting, you should:
- How to prepare for skill level meeting: Be prepared for each meeting: have a set agenda before the meeting, and share the agenda with them in advance.
- Have a list of skip level meeting questions to ask or topics to discuss. (Here is an excellent list of questions to ask your skip-level manager)
- Lead the meeting: treat this meeting as your time. Lead the conversation as you like and focus on the most critical topics. That said, always leave room for them to add skill level meeting topics to the agenda as required.
- Document meeting notes: always document what you discuss and decide. It is important to have notes so you can refer to them quickly. Also, since you will meet your skip manager not very often, it's good to have a document that can help you remember where you left off.
- Meet regularly: have a regular cadence, and stick to it. Don't cancel the meetings even if you don't have a specific agenda. Talking to your leaders will almost always reveal something meaningful that will help accelerate your career.
Tricks To Leverage Them To Accelerate Your Career:
Many product managers do not do skip-level meetings or take them for granted.
I recommend doing these meetings without fail as they will allow you to achieve things that are most critical for your success. Use these meetings to:
- Align on the highest priority focus areas. Try to work on projects that directly contribute to those areas.
- Share your career aspirations with them. They will have more power than your manager to help you get closer to your professional goals.
- Get guidance and coaching from them. Product management requires us to work with many people, who we need to influence, excite, and motivate to help us succeed. Getting advice on this topic from someone who has been there done that is always helpful
- Acquire knowledge about the role, industry, and competitors. Leaders have broader exposure than us. They have access to other leaders in the industry. Their pool of wisdom is much larger and of higher quality than ours. Tapping into that wisdom will help you be more aware and stand out from your peers.
In conclusion, skip level meeting agenda can help you accelerate your career. Use them regularly, use them correctly, and you will be able to make progress very quickly.