Thursday, 16 May 2013

The Dilemma of the Skip Level Meeting

This is the third one of the Dilemma Series. To read the previous two click on the links : ( Unwilling Emailer ,  Who is fit to be a CEO)

Andy was the CEO of  a multinational company named Brag-on Solutions which made software products for the Hospitality Domain.  Brag-on made an entry into the Indian market in 2007 and opened their first Software Development Centre in Calcutta.  In 2008, Anita was hired as the Director of the Indian operations and they grew in numbers from 20 to 250 people in the last four years.  Anita reported to Andy who was overall in-charge of the Calcutta facility.

Anita was a very efficient, goal oriented and focused Manager who had single handedly  developed and nurtured the India facility. Due the India office, Brag-on was able to sustain its profitability and keeping the overall operating expense down even in the period of economic slowdown. The US office was very pleased with the performance of its Indian arm and while they had restricted any new hiring in the other facilities in the rest of the offices around the world, Anita was given complete freedom in increasing the headcount. 

Everything was fine, but Andy was worried over the turnover rate of the employees  in  India. The attrition rate had increased from 18% to 29% the last one year. In his last visit, Andy has sensed some sort of restlessness in the employees and the employee survey indicated that the people were not happy with the leadership style of the management - aka - Anita. 

So, this year, Andy had asked the HR manager to fix up a skip level meeting with the senior employees of  the Calcutta office. he had asked Siddhu, the HR Manager   to put together a diverse group of people some senior , a few new entrants, employees who have been with the organization for 5+ years and some new joiners , people from different functions.  But , Andy knew that people in India just did not open up.  It was difficult to get feedback from them.....

The skip level meeting started . 

Andy : Folks , it is good to see all of you. I want to assure you that whatever feedback or comments you give will be confidential. And as you know that we promote an open culture. Any feedback you give will help the company improve. So , please go ahead. 

Silence ... 

Shammi ( a junior developer ) : We are happy with our work. We are getting enough opportunities to grow. I love this place. There is a bit of stretch, but it is OK.

Silence again ....

Andy : Guys , I need more conversation...

Lavanya : ( a senior person who has been with the organization from the last 5 years ) : Andy,  We are happy with the work, I agree  we get enough opportunities. We are learning and growing , but... 

Andy  : Go on ... 

Lavanya : Well , I think there is a problem of empowerment. All the decisions are finally taken by Anita.  Also , I feel that she is too technical and instead of leaving the tactical and operational decisions with the managers, she is involved in everything - which makes us feel puny. Another problem that we face is that we do not feel appreciated. Whenever there is a small lapse , it is written in the appraisal form but the good work we do is not mentioned...

Andy : Go on please...

Lavanya : And you talked about open culture. I don't know how true is that here... I am sure I will be punished for speaking out here ... but I feel it is my duty here. 

Andy had given feedback to Anita about her style and had asked her to "nurture" her employees. 

As suspected by Lavanya, the feedback from the skip level leaked and she was given a low rating in the appraisal and did not get any increment. 

Lavanya knew this was coming, so she had started looking out for a job and resigned. But she wrote an email to Andy after she put in her papers telling him "See... this is what I had known would happen". 

Andy knew that  Anita was good at her job and was getting the results... the only drawback was the attrition and the employee morale.

What should Andy do to improve the situation in the India office ?


  1. As the organization is growing, it should not depend on the ability of decision making of a single person. Also this is stressful for the individual, that results in undesirable behavior and followed by attrition. Anita may be advised to form a decision making team and delegate responsibilities to include people through the ranks.

  2. IMO it appears that HR, Andy and Anita had no clarity on the purpose and objective of a Skip Level meeting. The tool should not have been used at all since Lavanya's email to Andy post her resignation stated that'' This was bound to happen''. When Trust and Clarity are absent skip level meetings are disastrous especially accepting the fact that Indians are emotionally more sensitive to ''in absence'' comments.

    Lavanya's resignation shows that Andy did not achieve the desired objective;in fact matters precipitated further leading the fact that no one would ever speak up in a skip level meeting.

    What should Andy do: Get HR and Anita to work on a plan that stems attrition since HR has a larger role to play in the process and they are culturally oriented to understand ground level realities. Andy should be a neutral guide and assist HR and Anita implement a collaborative and engaged work culture.

    I see these cases in almost all organisations especially where business is driven by economic objectives with little attention being given to the human relations improvement.

    The difference between DAR and DEAR is E Empowerment which is much required. D-Delegate;A-Accountable;R-Responsible. The difference in the words can be understood by reading words in Hindi and English. One stands for fear since there is no empowerment while stands for bonding since empowerment is included.

    This case also reaffirms another observation on another tool ''the performance appraisal'', wherein a face to face interaction causes heart burns. So how matured are organizations to implement skip level meetings.

    I found this article appropriate and interesting:

    1. SMG, Good logic . Good points. Thanks

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  4. Intent an essence of Skip level meeting perhaps could have been reinforced .
    At the same time , it would be worthwhile to have deeper look at reasons of attrition .Basically look at trends in longivity of employees which differs at various stages and span .Basically try to find out cause and effect .
    At the same time , look at pulse of the organisation and try to understand the issues pertaining to empowerement , decision making etc .

    1. Tushar, you mean Andy should have re inforced the essence of the skip level meeting in the India Office as well to Anita ?

  5. Ananya, there was this discussion in one of the forums of LinkedIN, about "Level of autonomy to be given to PMs". The quote was "If project teams maintain reporting, I don’t care how projects are managed.".
    I feel this story could be linked to that. While delivery outcomes are important, you need to build organizational culture which involves human relationships. The fact that you have great managers, able to give out great results in terms of project deliveries, you need to look holistically into the bigger picture to ensure that the delivery capabilities are sprinkled with human touch. This is what I believe helps some companies deliver more predictable outcomes.
    What I believe Andy should be doing is a thorough check of the behind the scenes reasons for attrition. This is not to say that Anita could be entirely blamed, she was just focusing on her immediate goals assigned to her.

  6. Ananya, thank you for an interesting case.

    The problems validate Marshall Goldsmith's theories in 'What Got You Here Won't Get You There'. As an organisation grows, the competencies required to manage it change. Leaders need to constantly evolve to stay relevant. Andy needs to mentor Anita to a strategic level, empowering the second line completely at the tactical level. The second line, in turn, needs to devolve this empowerment down the line to the first level of supervisors. This will make the employees feel valued and there is nothing like recognition of worth to keep an employee engaged, vibrant and productive.

    Finally, Andy should intervene to retain Lavanya as her exit will destroy the employee's faith and his credibility. Actions speak louder than words.

  7. I my opinion the Skip Level Meeting though was convened with an objective to find out the reasons behind the employees attrition but it failed to ensure that proper measures were being taken by Anita to bridge the gaps highlighted by the team . Following the Meeting there should have been a plan in place involving Andy, Anita and HR to measure if things were moving in the right direction .

    At this juncture when Lavanya had put down her papers a Meeting for retention should have been convened by HR alone , reasons behind her resignations should have been identified, efforts should have been put to rectify the same. If the resignation had been due to malafide appraisal then Lavanya should have been given some incentives viz. Trainings to enhance her skillset, extra authority etc. though I am against her appraisal upgraded.

    Since both retention and Anita are important for the Business , I would suggest that going forward the appraisal should be made Objective by incorporating performance metrics and the appraisal score be made proportional to the metrics score. Authority to downgrade appraisal rating against the performance metrics be with the Skip Level Manager.

    Further, mid-term appraisal should also be incorporated .

    Anita besides being involved with the present responsibilities should be put through more Managerial Trainings particularly those on Team Management, Motivation, Staff Satisfaction etc

    Any further Skip Level Meetings should be done on a One-O-One basis to maintain full confidentiality. Open house sessions should be limited to communicate Latest Developments and other discussions . A generalised feedback should then be passed to Anits and others

    1. Pratul, Good points about the HR having the meeting alone with Lavanya and that there should have been a plan in place plus mid year appraisal. But Lavanya was being punished for speaking out , so do you really think she would have been happy with training as a sop. You are absolutely right about Anita being put thru managerial trainings on motivation etc..

      Thanks for your insight !

  8. In such a situation when Lavanya was victimized for have having spoken out, to keep her morale boosted I suggested Training as one of the measures and motivate her to withdraw her resignation . There could be many other measures to boost the morale . Further this incident should go as a lesson learning exercise for all managers and particularly the HR.

  9. This makes no sense-- how can you expect anyone to give confidential feedback about their manager when there are other employees listening in? Andy should have talked to each one of the selected people 1:1, and then approached Anita after having taken care to remove any possibility that feedback could be traced back to the individuals who provided the feedback.

  10. I subscribe to the Skip Level.
    If the goals and objectives of all the 3 parties (levels) are the same....Skip level is "collaboration".
    If the intent of any party is to 'politicize' and back-bite....there shall anyway be a disaster, sooner or later...this way that way.
    Can anyone control as who speaks to whom ???

    So the 'intent' matter more than the 'mechanics'.

    (I am sure there must be 10000000s of books and case studies on this topic, for the intellects)