7 Steps to Get the Full Story from Your Staff (Or Most of It)

As a leader, you know you never hear what’s really happening within the organization, right?

I know, I know. You ask people all the time how they are doing. You have an “open door policy.” You never retaliate when people speak the truth as they see it.

But come on. Your leadership position automatically limits what you’ll hear.

And that’s a problem.

If you don’t know what’s happening within the organization, you’ll never be able to lead the organization thoroughly. You can’t lead what you don’t understand.

So here’s the leadership question:

How can you intentionally dive deeper into the organization to understand what’s happening within the organization?

A friend and leadership peer taught me how years ago. I’ve implemented his idea for well over a decade with much success.

He called it “Skip-Level Meetings.”

Who Do You Meet With Today?

If you’re like most leaders, you have direct reports. These are the people you meet with the most. Perhaps these are the only people with whom you meet. You might have larger staff meetings, but these group meetings aren’t information conduits for you. The best way to learn is to engage with people individually.

So you do that with your direct reports. In these direct report meetings, no doubt you ask about their teams and the people who report to them. And they answer. I’m not suggesting anyone is purposefully keeping information close to their vest, but they are doing just that. Your direct reports will always give you part, or perhaps even most, of the story, but you’ll never get a complete picture of the organization from your direct reports.

Again, this is not always on purpose. I constantly encouraged my direct reports to be fully honest. But I’m the boss and the leader. I sign the checks. Not to mention your direct reports may be unaware of some organizational tensions within their teams.

So how can you overcome this information obstacle?

Introducing Skip-Level Meetings

These meetings are precisely as they are labeled. You schedule in advance meetings with the people who report to your direct reports. Now — and this is critical — you must tell them in advance why you want to meet and give them a specific list of questions to consider before the meeting. To get the best feedback, you’ve got to give people time to process the questions and promise that the conversation will remain confidential. In fact, I would tell people before these meetings that I would never repeat anything they said to anyone without their permission.

How to Host Skip-Level Meetings

There are some specific steps to take to experience successful skip-level meetings.

1. First, inform your direct reports.

This is critical for trust. Your direct reports will be nervous about these meetings. That’s a natural reaction, but as their leader, you can reduce their anxiety by telling them in advance that you intend to host these meetings, why you are hosting them, and what you hope to learn from them. I’d suggest you provide the list of questions you’ll ask in the meeting, so everyone is aware.

2. Tell everyone who will eventually meet with you to look for the meeting invitation.

You don’t want to send calendar invites without first telling the people in the organization that they are being invited and why they are being invited. Send a group email to everyone who will eventually meet with you, explaining the purpose of the meeting. Be sure to inform them that you’ll also provide a list of questions a few days before the meeting for them to process.

3. Prioritize these meetings on your calendar.

I understand the calendar complications. Trust me. But these meetings need to be a priority. Carve out one a week if that’s all the time you can commit. That’s one more than most people do. When you initiate these meetings with the people who report to your direct reports, remind them of the meeting’s purpose and provide them with a list of questions to process.

4. Always give a list of questions.

Here is the email I use. Feel free to use these questions or create your own.

EMAIL:

In a growing organization, it becomes increasingly difficult to know what may adversely impact our mission or staff. Therefore, one of the most difficult leadership challenges is discovering what is happening across the entire organization, from top to bottom. As part of our staff team, you can help me and our church be the best we can be!

Here’s how: Below, you will see a few questions. I would love to meet with you over a meal or coffee to discuss some of them.

It is essential that you feel safe to be honest. This is a confidential conversation. When we meet, please don’t worry about what you say – I only want to learn and see how we can all love our job more while becoming a better organization!

Questions:

      1. What is the best part of your job? What do you enjoy the most?
      2. What is most frustrating about your job? About our organization?
      3. Is it clear what we are trying to accomplish and your role in it?
      4. Is there anything getting in the way of you being able to do your job well?
      5. Is there anything we do that doesn’t make any sense?
      6. What would you change if you could?
      7. If you were me, what would you do differently?

We might not make it through all of these questions, but thank you in advance for being open and honest about your job and our church. Thanks!

5. Start the meeting off right.

No matter how often you tell people that this is a learning experience for you, they will show up to the meeting with some trepidation. Be sure to put their anxiety to rest immediately. Reinforce how grateful you are to have time with them and how much you hope to learn from the conversation. After some small talk, begin asking your questions. Ask permission to take notes so you can follow up and remember the conversation. Also, ask follow-up questions as appropriate, but never react to their responses. This is not your opportunity to justify yourself or your organization. This is your chance to listen and learn.

Keep this in mind: Their perspective is as true as the truth.

6. Follow up after the meeting.

Within 24 hours, send a follow-up email thanking them for their time. Be sure to acknowledge anything specific you took away from the meeting and remind them of anything they need to do from the conversation. Lastly, remind them that everything they said is held in confidence unless they permit you to share.

7. Don’t share with your direct reports without permission.

No doubt there will be comments or conversations that need to be addressed outside of these meetings. When that happens, as I stated previously, be sure to ask their permission first and invite them to participate in those conversations. Their direct reports will know when they are meeting with you. We aren’t trying to keep this a secret in any way. So when your direct report asks how the meeting went, your answer is always the same: “It’s always great to spend time with people on our team.”

Conclusion

That’s it. Skip-Level Meetings are a hidden gem in your meeting schedule. If you follow the above process, you’ll get great, actionable information from the people within the organization.

How can I help?

Most of my clients consider me their CSO (Chief Strategy Officer). I created Transformation Solutions to help ministry and marketplace leaders progress from innovation through implementation. I dedicate my time to helping leaders discover potential problems, design strategic solutions, and deliver the preferable future. That includes you.

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