Alex Tolbert, an Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO) member in Nashville, is founder and CEO of BerniePortal, the all-in-one Human Resources Information System (HRIS) for small and mid-sized businesses. He is an industry-recognized expert on HR technology, the benefits industry, small business operations and software development. We asked Alex about best practices to address the challenge of managing managers. Here's what he shared:

Performance coaching as it relates to management is a consistently popular topic among human resources professionals. Most of what one reads, however, is focused on how best to manage front-line employees. In other words, employees who are not managers. How to more effectively coach managers themselves is a tricky proposition that is not addressed often enough.

Why is this an issue? Because organizational success is directly based on how skilled managers are at coaching their teams. How does HR know whether a given manager is an effective coach? What does HR base its determinations on?

To address these questions in your organization, it's a best practice to implement regular, scheduled one-to-one meetings between managers and their direct reports, and hold all team members accountable for conducting these meetings. What's even better is if you can create a way to gain visibility into how these meetings are being held.

In our company, we've implemented an effective method for creating this visibility. We've learned that one-to-one meetings have a particular benefit in helping business leaders manage managers and improve their coaching skills--plus they provide downstream advantages for the entire organization.

Why conduct one-to-ones?

The annual performance review is outdated. For today's modern workforce--with a high percentage of people working flextime or in remote positions--regularly scheduled feedback sessions are crucial for moving the company forward.

At our company, weekly one-to-one meetings between managers and their direct reports are a core part of our culture. We consider these meetings to be the primary mechanism to ensure consistent, high-quality feedback.

The one-to-one is intended to provide a dedicated time and setting for team members and managers to regularly review the full scope of the employee's tasks, responsibilities and goals.

A key benefit of integrating regular one-to-ones into your company culture is that it prevents coaching and feedback from getting pushed to the back burner as team members and managers alike work through their daily responsibilities.

This is clearly important for direct reports who want to build their skills and grow their careers, but it has a particular advantage for managers, too.

How one-to-ones help managers improve

It's critical to hold managers accountable when it comes to one-to-ones, but as a business leader, how do you know if they're going well or being conducted effectively? Sitting in on such meetings feels intrusive and can potentially undermine the manager, affecting his or her relationship with the direct report.

Here are three ways to gain insight into your managers' performance:

  1. The business leader should also be conducting regularly scheduled one-to-ones with all of their direct reports--the managers. It's just as important to have an avenue for feedback and dialogue at this level.
  2. Encourage and conduct regular training sessions for managers. People can and do get better at managing. Just like any other skill, it's an area that can and should be consistently worked on and improved. In this spirit, managers at our company read Coaching for Improved Work Performance by Ferdinand F. Fournies. We also hold manager forums three times per year with the specific goal of improving and augmenting management skills. We role-play one-to-ones with scenarios based in reality and work on developing the tools and skills to better support, coach and manage direct reports. We even video the role-play sessions so that we can review them and give feedback to the participants.
  3. Using a performance management software solution can also improve organizational accountability. At our company, team members write an agenda and send it to their manager in advance of the one-to-one meeting through performance management technology. The manager responds with any items they'd like to add, and the direct report follows the meeting with a summary detailing any pertinent discussion or action items.

One benefit of this practice is that whether things are going well or poorly, there is updated documentation of regular meetings and feedback between the employee and his or her manager. A second benefit is that the business leader or HR manager can review or audit these conversations to ensure the meetings are being held and conducted effectively, without intruding on the sessions themselves.

Business leaders may not recognize that coaching managers is something to prioritize, but it's an issue every organization faces. Implementing performance management mechanisms like one-to-one meetings and consistent documentation are vital ways to ensure that managers are developing both their own skills and the skills of their team.