Alex was CEO of a large bank.  He had been wedded to a hierarchical organisation structure and a command-and-control management style all his working life.  He had read about matrix management and project management and the like, but found it difficult to see how they would work in the bank, where tight controls were necessary.   He had also heard about empowering employees and had read the book Maverick with increasing disbelief.  The idea of giving employees flexibility and room for manoeuvre and trusting them not to abuse it was beyond his comprehension.

In common with many senior managers of his age and background, he harboured a deep-seated dread of anything that smacked of anarchy.  People had to do what they were told and follow laid-down procedures and that was that.  The same philosophy extended to his home life, where all was tidy and regulated.  One glance at his lawn told the entire story – weed-free, smooth as a bowling green, with straight stripes and clipped edges.  His wife, luckily, shared his values.  She was house-proud to a fault (teddy bears arranged just so on the ottoman, fresh potpourri in a bowl in the hall, orchids on the piano) and insisted on everything being kept in its proper place. 

Alex appreciated that if he was to retain control he needed to know what was going on in the bank.  In the rarefied atmosphere of his office on the top floor of the headquarters building, he recognised the danger of losing touch.  Of course, his colleagues fed him with information and kept him updated, but he suspected that by the time the information reached him it had been filtered as it passed up through the various hierarchical levels.

This worried him.  He feared a Nick Leeson-style catastrophe.  Yet the bank was too big for Alex to be everywhere, keeping an eye on everything personally.  An unnerving realisation for a control-freak. So he invented ‘Skip Level Meetings’ (SLMs).  The idea was as follows: Each week, Alex would visit a different part of the bank and hold an informal hour-long session with a group of staff at least two levels below him in the hierarchy.  The immediate manager of the selected group (the ‘father’) and his manager (the ‘grandfather’) were not allowed to be present.  There would be no agenda – just an ‘anything goes/off-the-record’ question-and-answer session.  Alex was convinced that these gatherings would, at least partially, solve the problem of how to keep in touch.

From Alex’s point of view, the first few SLMs were a great success.  Once the staff had recovered from the initial shock of finding themselves face to face with the MD, they quickly appreciated that this was a heaven sent opportunity to make a favourable impression. They soon appreciated the sort of things he wanted to hear – some relatively harmless examples of inadequate attention to detail, some vague complaints about poor communication channels, some grumbling about poor response times from the IT department and some mild criticisms of pay and conditions.

Alex, however, was very pleased with the process.  As far as he was concerned, Skip Level Meetings were keeping him in touch and successfully circumventing the filters put in place by two or more levels of management.  After each meeting, Alex summoned the relevant management team to feedback his findings and leave them in no doubt that things had to improve.

Predictably, managers in the bank below Alex (in other words, all the managers!) became very nervous about SLMs. They resented (a) their exclusion from the meetings with their staff and (b) the reprimands that inevitably followed in the wake of each meeting.  A few of the wilier managers began to hold rehearsals, where questions and answers (particularly answers) were practised over and over until the manager was satisfied that the right ‘everything-is-under-control’ image was being conveyed. 

It quickly became clear that rehearsed SLMs led to less subsequent anguish than unrehearsed SLMs.  Soon, all the managers were taking precautionary steps.  Unbeknown to Alex, hours were spent in rehearsals – hours that could otherwise have been productive. 

And all to sustain the illusion that Alex was in touch and in control.

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