How Skip-Level Conversations Can Help You Create Strong Relationships with Your Engineers
31 October, 2020
Product managers are often detached from a team having to deal with more strategic issues. They would typically develop a relationship with a development manager and engineering lead often being too busy to interact with individual engineers on the team. As a result, they could become a bit disconnected from the reality on the ground and things that are happening on the team. That frequently puts at risk the trust and confidence the team has in their leadership and where they are taking the product.
Establishing skip-level conversations with engineers is highly beneficial. Most product managers will have regular catch-ups with peers such as development managers or architects. These are good for getting overviews of how things are going within your team. However, I have found you can form even better relationships and understanding how individuals in your team are seeing things, via skip-level conversations. Rather than asking your EM how the team is doing, skip the level and go talk straight to individuals on the team. I would set up regular catch-ups with each person on the team. I don’t meet with six or eight people every week and spend all of my time conversing with them, but I would block half an hour or an hour on a weekly basis to meet with one or two people on the team.
The purpose of the skip-level conversations is to provide a more intimate, one-on-one setting where I could learn what is happening on the ground and with the team. I don’t spend all the time talking about work. On the contrary, I asked them about what is going on in their life, what excites them/gets them down, etc. This personal and frank interaction helps me get feedback -- or nuggets of information, as I would dub them -- that is tremendously important and allows me to better identify problems and or improvements that I could build into the work they do. It also builds trust, something I believe is key to have from your team if you want to be successful. If the individuals in your team don’t trust you, you’ll struggle to have them believe in the visions and strategy you set.
- Having team meetings or one-on-ones with a development manager or engineering lead isn’t enough to build strong relationships and trust across the team.
- If you want to have a solid understanding of what your team is doing and keep a finger on the pulse of how they are operating, you need to go to the source and shouldn’t rely on secondary feedback. If you do, it is more likely that you will end up with a disconnect with your engineering team. They will feel unheard and disregarded and soon will become mercenaries rather than followers.
Scale your coaching effort for your engineering and product teams
Develop yourself to become a stronger engineering / product leader
Jean-Benoit Malzac, Lead Product Manager at Ava, employs a system of categorization to prioritize his team’s efforts.
Lead Product Manager at Ava
Jean-Benoit Malzac, Lead Product Manager at Ava, trusts his intuition when determining how best to communicate with a peer.
Lead Product Manager at Ava
Xun Tang, Engineering Manager at Twitter, found herself overwhelmed with the avalanche of responsibilities that come with being a manager.
Engineering Manager at Twitter Inc.
Manzar Kazi, Software Engineering Manager at LinkedIn, speaks of his experience of holding a partner team accountable with whom his team had multiple dependencies.
Software Engineering Manager at LinkedIn
Ringo Tsang, Engineering Manager at Survey Monkey, outlines how to structure an effective one-on-one that will ensure active participation by his less talkative reports.
Engineering Manager at SurveyMonkey
You're a great engineer.
Become a great engineering leader.
Plato (platohq.com) is the world's biggest mentorship platform for engineering managers & product managers. We've curated a community of mentors who are the tech industry's best engineering & product leaders from companies like Facebook, Lyft, Slack, Airbnb, Gusto, and more.