Like any other company, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) uses one-on-one meetings to make great things happen. But that doesn't mean the traditional boss-to-direct report approach is the only way to go.

Jack Lynch, CEO at HMH, says he's been using skip-level meetings--meetings where leaders talk to the people their own direct reports are responsible for--for 15 years. He insists that you need to understand all perspectives if you want to have a holistic sense of how someone on your team is performing. Getting that sense is necessary for celebrating successes, but also for figuring out the key areas they could work on to become their best.

The hidden benefit to the process

"[In] addition to helping me assess my leadership team," Lynch says, "I have found that people really appreciate the process and time. They feel validated. I have had people stop at the end of the meeting and just say 'thank you' because they feel heard and they appreciate the fact that their feedback is being solicited proactively."

Alejandro Reyes, HMH's Chief People Officer, agrees and says that this type of meeting creates a sense of openness, transparency and inclusion. So everybody--individual employees, leaders and managers--all benefit and welcome the opportunity.

"Every manager knows that their team leader will hear from their subordinates, creating an expectation of alignment. Employees are given a voice and a feeling of validation that they've been heard, and you send a message as a company that leaders pay attention. Additionally, if you do it across the entire organization, it creates a culture of empowerment--everyone in the company knows they have access to the next level of leadership and can express their perceptions and insights in a systematic way. You have a venue to share feedback about your boss because you've been asked, rather than going around them and creating that awkward or sneaky feeling situation."

That's a significant point, considering how bad the feeling of disconnect and invisibility can be in businesses--research from Reward Gateway indicates that a lack of recognition (69 percent), feeling invisible/undervalued (43 percent) and having a bad boss (42 percent) are the top key reasons workers feel demotivated.

Jennifer Raimi, HMH's VP, Literature & Language Arts Learning Architecture, admits that she was nervous the first time she saw the skip-level meeting calendar invitation. And there are some places where the company could improve, such as giving employees a little more advance notice to prepare. But she made sure to prepare well and ask others what to expect, and Lynch's willingness to truly listen put her at ease. And after participating in the skip-level meetings for the past two years, she's sold.

"One of the things that I love about this process is that, to me, there is no greater evidence that a company encourages a culture of learning and improvement than a CEO who wants to know how his executive leaders are doing and how they can improve," Raimi says. "[And] there are learning moments on both sides--Jack is reaching out to learn more about his leadership team and their qualities, and it also provided employees with a professional opportunity to practice and synthesize clear, crisp communication. You want to celebrate what the leader is doing well and where they might benefit from improvement by preparing in advance and providing clear examples."

But Reyes does offer one huge caution.

"[These] meetings are not designed to solve problems--employees may find there is still a longer path to resolution. That is by design--the CEO shouldn't be solving employee-manager issues, rather, Jack uses these meetings to open a window, look inside, and provide feedback to leadership. He shows the employees appreciation for their feedback and assures them he will share it with their manager. It is up to the manager to act on the feedback they've been given to their own benefit or peril."

How to do skip-level meetings right

Reyes says that, if you want to get skip-level meetings working in your own company, it's critical that the CEO and other leadership start the practice so that it can cascade down. He outlines a full list of practical implementation points to use once you have this commitment.

  • Conduct the skip-level meeting before year-end reviews, since this tends to be a busy time.
  • Keep meetings short and sweet.
  • Prepare questions in advance, but treat the meeting as conversation, not a questionnaire.
  • Ask clarifying questions to make sure you really understand where the individual is coming from, since people can be scared to say anything negative and struggle to verbalize what's going on.
  • Emphasize transparency about the process and purpose. Make it clear that leaders shouldn't intervene or coach their teams what to say, since the whole point is to encourage honest feedback.
  • Stress that the main objective is to improve both the individual manager and the company as a whole.

And remember, skip-level meetings don't have to work in isolation. Lynch also uses a multi-rater 360 survey that asks direct reports to rate 12 different dimensions of leadership and a review of the leaders' performance against the goals they outlined for the year.

And of course, once the meetings are done, you have to use what you learned to give some feedback to your leaders.

"Sometimes leaders will over index on candor and be too blunt, which can be met with resistance," says Lynch. "Others over index on care, resulting in someone walking out without really knowing what they've been told. Balance these two things so people have an unambiguous understanding of what they need to do differently and the feedback is received in a way that feels motivational."

And if you're thinking that skip-level meetings won't work for you because you're too busy or have too many employees, those aren't good enough excuses. Lynch, for example, chats with roughly 150 people in just two and a half weeks.

"To me," Raimi concludes, "[the process] suggests that great leaders have to be great managers of people as well. If the CEO can make time for that, then anyone can."