One of the biggest challenges with Leadership Development is getting and sustaining a high level of engagement and participation from the managers you’re developing.

Even the most self-motivated, driven people often require systems in place to carve out time in their busy schedules and dedicate it to their professional growth.

This is the challenge Marie Szuts — VP of People and Culture at Inkling, a fast-growing high-tech company located in San Francisco — was trying to solve when she first considered hosting in-person manager roundtables.

Szuts’s goals were to check in on their learning progress, foster connections between them, and tap into the power of peer-to-peer accountability. She couldn’t have anticipated the impact this simple idea would end up having.

What started with bi-weekly morning meetings and breakfast burritos has grown into an integral part of Inkling’s Leadership Development program.

Keep reading to learn the ins and outs of this initiative, and how you can easily implement something similar at your company.

Q&A with Marie Szuts

Disclaimer #1: Inkling is a customer of Hazel and uses its Growth Plans (leadership development courses) and Weekly Check-ins as catalysts for the roundtables. Frankly, you don’t have to have Hazel to successfully implement a program like this. But if you’re interested in checking Hazel out, click here.

Disclaimer #2: The author takes no responsibility for you eating a burrito after having read this interview. That one’s on you :).

How did these roundtable meetings come to be?

I had been looking for a way to engage managers in an in-person format that fostered a connection, not only between me and the managers but also within a peer group.

I had struggled over the past two years to find a way to do this that felt sustainable and actually useful. I’d tried hosting larger group events for new manager training, as well as reading groups and other ways to bring everyone together. Unfortunately, it was too large of a format to be successful.

And it’s not only the logistic hurdle of trying to get your managers — who are some of the most “full-of-meetings” folks — all in the room at the same time. It’s also the level of psychological safety needed, even in a company without a lot of weird personnel dysfunction and jockeying for positions.

When I started with Hazel, I had five people in my initial pilot group (including me). I set it up to be one hour every other week.

At first, I started meeting with these managers as a way to talk about the product and how it was going. But it very quickly became clear to me that this was maybe my “in” to find those micro-communities and a “brain trust” where people can share not only the challenges and successes but also just set a time and mindful space to think and talk about being a manager.

How do the breakfast burritos factor in?

Finding time for managers to meet can be tricky. With my initial pilot cohort, I scheduled the roundtables to be first thing in the morning, in theory before the day is taken up with all sorts of other meetings, and I brought breakfast burritos for everybody.

And it’s not like we don’t give free food to people on the regular. We get catered lunch every day. But there’s something special about being taken care of. “What do you want on your avocado toast?” — it’s just a nice moment.

What is it about this initiative that makes it so valuable to you and your managers?

At most companies, you’re going to have new manager onboarding and training, and then you release them into the wild. You’re like, “Great! Go and manage. Good luck to you. I’ll see you when you want to fire someone.”

Without a system in place, you don’t get to talk about the stuff that might be little now but could become big later. And you don’t let people’s brains go to the place of, “Oh, this is actually my job. I am a manager.”

There are productive ways to talk about the day-to-day “indignities” that go along with being a manager, as well as share experiences and things they try doing with their teams.

These meetings often serve the purpose of helping people talk through some of their thoughts that were vaguely there or burbling beneath the surface, but they weren’t in the spotlight. By having a forum to tease out these thoughts, managers can recognize others having similar experiences when talking to their employees about, say, some big change management initiative that’s happening.

For example, I remember onboarding a new manager who just struggled mightily with feeling like she wasn’t ‘doing’ anything.

For her, when she was actually doing really important thinking work, she was concerned that she looked like she was spacing out and everyone was going to be like, “What the hell is so and so doing?” She recognized that it was a silly fear to have, but it took a little “talking through” for her to get comfortable with the idea of, “What does ‘doing’ mean, now that she’s in this new role?”

How have these meetings evolved over time?

From the beginning, we’ve been using Hazel as the catalyst to discuss things, because it’s something that’s happening every week for us. It’s on our minds with both the Growth Plans for most and the Weekly Check-ins for all.

I started by using Hazel as the springboard, as the jumping off point, but I found that we end up talking about much more than just, “What are you doing for Giving Actionable Feedback?”

It has bloomed into a cohort for reading books that everyone has on their nightstand or are planning to buy, but now with additional accountability.

In one of the groups, we’re reading a book called Nine Minutes On Monday, by James Robbins, which is a good resource, especially for early-on managers.

Each person (except for me!) is taking a week to lead the discussion—and in this way, these meetings also serve as a training ground. If a manager wants to read a book with their employees, they can test out the reading group questions in this safer space first. It’s making space for professional development, and it’s so much easier to do that in a group than it is to do on your own.

What are the composition and the size of these groups?

Typically, these groups are each four people, including me (ie. three managers plus Marie).

My first one was composed of just my Hazel pilot group, and so that happens to be the all our front-line managers from engineering. When I was composing the other two groups, I decided to split up more junior managers and more seasoned ones.

I think that there are topics that are more relevant to what stage you’re in, especially when they are quite new. Also, I didn’t want people who report to each other be in the same group, in order to allow everyone the space to be able to speak freely.

What’s the agenda for the roundtables today?

It usually starts with just unwrapping your burrito and socializing, which helps with building relationships and getting to know each other.

For example, in my more junior manager group, it happens to be that everyone is a young parent and has tinies at home, so they’re just connecting around the challenges of potty training or what-have-you. That’s not forced, but I think that’s an important beginning part of it.

It’s not like this is a new group, but each time it’s like a declaration: “Here I am. I’m in a safe space. These people kind of get me. They know where I am.”

Then we typically begin with a check-in of Hazel feedback: “What did you learn in your Weekly Check-ins last week that was surprising or interesting, and how is your Growth Plan going? What’s something that you learned that you can share with the rest of the group?” This helps with accountability.

Then I have space to pose questions that seem timely to what’s going on at the organization and see where that discussion takes us.

Then, as I mentioned, I have been treating one of the groups as a reading club, and that’s where I do more facilitation. We look to the book, and we divide it into three parts. We’ll do it over the next three sessions, and each manager will take on leading the discussion for a separate part.

I take myself out of that. I know I can facilitate every group. But I’m giving others more chances to do that. That requires some prep on their part, but it’s understood at the beginning, “Okay, we split it up. Here are the dates, and that’s how we’re going to do it.”

How much facilitating do you do to make these meetings successful?

I now have three cohorts running, and I come to all the roundtables, but I don’t necessarily run them per se.

I participate in them, but I’m trying to be very cognizant and avoid jumping in with answers and solutions. I don’t have the answers necessarily! But I have spent a lot of time thinking about this kind of thing, so I do think about what resources can I point to? What questions might I ask?

I view my role mostly as asking good questions and teasing out that kind of dialogue.

I am facilitating it in the sense that I steer it from, say, socializing to the actual discussion. It’s fine that we’re still eating, but let’s start talking. But at this point, it’s a familiar enough format that people just take the reins.

Truly, it’s more about active and participatory listening rather than facilitation because I don’t necessarily have a defined goal that I’m steering them towards.

How are you thinking about scaling this up? How do you keep it manageable in terms of your time investment?

Well, here’s the thing: I am super excited about this. This feels like my job. This is what I want to do, and feels super high value to me because those meetings are about developing this muscle and helping other people get other people to do things.

Is this going to scale an employee base of a thousand? No. But it certainly works at our size (editor’s note: Inkling has ~90 employees today), and even if we were twice the size.

I’m doing the groups every other week, which feels like the right cadence. I think every week would be too onerous, but every other week for an hour works well.

Even if I had every manager in the company do this, that would be manageable for me, because I don’t have to do a ton of prep. This isn’t me coming in with some giant lecture that I need to give. I just need to be open and curious.

I think it’s pretty scalable; it can get pretty big (provided, of course, you have a reasonable admin structure within your HR function, and stuff isn’t just on fire all the time). But this feels super high value to me and a place that is worth spending time.

What kind of reception have you heard from the managers themselves? What kind of impact has this had on them?

The feedback from the managers has been really positive. I’m not dragging them kicking and screaming to these meetings. They are excited about it.

I think that partially it’s because these groups are jelling nicely. Though I’m sure there can be a time where it doesn’t quite work, and I’ll have to figure out what to do about that.

One manager has told me: “I feel like I have time to actually devote to thinking about being a manager.”

There’s a sense that they all know that they both want to and should be focusing on their own development as managers. But putting it on the calendar and saying, “This is a thing that actually needs time devoted to it,” helps actualize it a little bit more, so it’s not all entirely self-directed.

It’s not that they need that as a crutch per se. But we all live and die by our GCals. And when it’s Sunday night, and they’re looking at their upcoming week, they can now say “This is part of what I do. This isn’t just a burden. This is actually something to look forward to.”

And now, in some ways, they’re creating little mini-teams of peers. Everyone liked each other ahead of time, but now they’ve been sharing tips on managerial things outside of these roundtables, and they wouldn’t have before.

Any final thoughts you’d like to share?

In hindsight, this whole thing happened kind of organically. There was the utility of having Hazel to coalesce around, but then it has become much more than that.

It’s been cool to see and wasn’t necessarily something I would’ve predicted, but it really scratched an itch that I was trying to solve for a while.

I am super pleased with the results, both in terms of in individual managers I see stretching and growing, and also frankly my visibility into the org, which is improved by being connected.