I serve on the Board of several non-profit organizations. One of them recently re-organized its management structure. The executive director asked, “We have a new management team. I wish you would tell them the secrets of being a great manager.”
When the team convened, I wrote these words on a white board: “First principle: No skip management.”
“This is one of the most important principles of management,” I said. “Does everyone know what it means? “
Only two people raised their hands.
“Okay then.” I drew a diagram of the new structure, giving each person a number. I gave the executive director the number 1. His three new reports were 2, 3 and 4. Beneath number 3 (the program director), I listed the numbers 5, 6, 7 and 8.
“Imagine what happens if 1 stops 5 in the hall and says he thinks a brochure should be redone. How would 5 react?”
Well, they said, he would probably go off and redo it.
“Do you see the problem?” I asked. “He’s undermined the authority of 3 by going to 5. So how should 5 respond?”
He should go talk to 3, someone said. And tell 3 what happened.
“That’s right. And then what should 3 do?”
“He should go talk to 1.”
“That’s right. But imagine how 3 feels. He has to be confident that he can talk to 1 and explain that 1 has violated a cardinal principle. Unless it’s clear that skip management is taboo, 3 might be fearful of the consequences.“
“So what you’re saying is that we need to adopt a principle, universally, that there’s to be no skip management,” said one of the managers.
A hand went up. “What about skip management the other way?” she asked. “When 5 goes to 1 seeking permission to do something without first talking to 3?”
The same principle would apply, I explained. Once you agree to no skip management, then you can’t skip levels. And if by accident you do, then you need to go immediately to the person you skipped, explain the situation, apologize, and restart the process.