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How Skip-Level Conversations Can Help You Create Strong Relationships with Your Engineers

Internal Communication
Feedback
Meetings
Collaboration

31 October, 2020

Toby Delamore, Product Manager at Xero, explains how skip-level conversations and maintaining an attentive relationship with engineers enabled him to keep a finger on the pulse of the team.

Problem

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.
 

Actions taken

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.
 

Lessons learned

  • 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.

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