Jennifer Wilson

Great leaders gather feedback

Six strategies for listening to your team.

April 23, 2012
by Jennifer Wilson

For a while now, I’ve been exploring what makes a firm culture great and have encountered many “old school” cultural elements in CPA firms across the country. In “Is Your Firm Old School or Cool?, I encouraged you to evaluate six elements of your firm’s culture, including the openness of your leadership team to input and change.

According to Ken Blanchard, author of The One-Minute Manager, “feedback is the breakfast of champions.” I couldn’t agree more. Great leaders proactively gather feedback from their various stakeholders, starting first with their fellow team members. Then they listen to those inputs and develop strategies to grow and improve.

When the leadership team is open to the ideas and challenges of others, team members feel that their opinions matter and that their input can make a difference. And when their feedback drives tangible change, it increases the likelihood that they’ll stay engaged with your firm.

What is your leadership team doing to intentionally gather feedback from team members? This article identifies six strategies you can use to listen more openly to your team:

  1. Teach your leadership team to embrace all feedback. Your leaders must encourage feedback through their behavior when it is delivered. But to ensure the right reaction in the face of feedback, you’ll need to provide coaching to your leadership team ahead of time. Openness to feedback is a willingness to ensure speakers are heard, viewpoints are acknowledged and thanks is given for the opinions offered. Even when you don’t agree, remember that the team member has a perspective you need to understand, because others may share it and your vantage point may not allow you to otherwise see it. At all costs, discourage your leaders from arguing the point, teasing a team member, making a joke at his or her expense or responding to feedback in some other defensive manner. Such actions will teach your team that feedback is punished or ridiculed, not rewarded. Finally, encourage your feedback recipients to always ask team members offering feedback which solution or change they’d like to see implemented. This helps to ensure that the feedback focuses on how your team can collectively improve, as opposed to only zeroing in on problems.
  2. Teach your team members to speak honestly, constructively and with solutions in mind. Firm leaders talk about how difficult it is to get much staff participation in their group meetings. I believe this is a learned behavior for team members who have watched other staff “step in it” by speaking up and having their input de-valued, ridiculed, or ignored. To develop a feedback-ready culture, you may have to retrain your team members and encourage them to share their opinions and actively participate in meetings, with the assurance that they will not be “smacked down” and that they will be safe. Teach your team members the difference between constructive feedback—“The tone of the recent e-mail to all staff on social media felt overly restrictive and the new policy could use some improvement”— and negative feedback—“Your last e-mail on social media was parental and the new policy stinks.” Encourage your team members to approach feedback with a “problem/solution” orientation and to bring both their input on the problem and suggestions for specific actions or solutions they’d like to see.
  3. Form an employee advisory board. Consider forming an employee advisory board (EAB) to act as a communications liaison between leadership and your team as a whole. In some firms, the EAB is made up of team members elected by their peers to represent them. Boards are encouraged to meet monthly and to prioritize suggestions and input from the staff and share that input with leadership. In some cases, the EAB meets with the firm’s managing partner to share input, or it may meet with another partner-level advocate. That person then brings the feedback to the leadership team and uses it to drive positive change in the organization. Some firms also use their EAB as a sounding board for strategies and changes leadership is considering, sharing plans with the elected members, and asking for input ahead of any final rollout.
  4. Conduct an annual or biennial employee engagement survey. Engage a third party to develop and launch a regular employee engagement survey, in which your team members can comment confidentially without the fear of making a career-limiting move by fully sharing their hearts. When structured well, the engagement survey will ask for input about your firm’s strategy and vision, leadership, career development and feedback programs, and other HR benefits. The survey also will ask job-satisfaction and career-intention questions. The objective is to identify areas where you can improve engagement and satisfaction and enhance the overall “stickiness” of your firm for team members.
  5. Invite team members to participate in elements of strategic planning and visioning. Engage younger and less experienced team members in aspects of strategic planning and visioning to ensure that their voices are heard each year as you plan your future. Invite them to openly share their thoughts and steer the group to discussions they think are important but may not otherwise be on the table. Remind them that they are being invited because they have a unique viewpoint, and encourage them to share it. Your firm’s youth will inherit the results of the visioning and strategy decisions you make should they choose to stay and do so. Enroll them in being part of your firm’s future by inviting them to help shape it today.
  6. Run a team challenge and make the feedback process fun! Another great feedback mechanism is launching a challenge to have teams form to identify and develop a single idea to present to the firm, or to a contest judging committee. Ask for ideas that would have the greatest impact on employee engagement and satisfaction. Presentations must identify the problem and specify a solution, and prizes can be given for the most creative, funniest, most innovative, and most-voted-for solutions. This contest will garner great feedback as the teams attempt to solve the biggest issues they perceive, and your leadership team will benefit from the insights gained as well as the host of solutions pitched as a result.


There are many other ways to illustrate your openness to feedback, including two simple questions you can ask the next time you’re one on one with a team member:

  1. How do you think we’re doing?
  2. What would you like to see us do to improve? Your willingness to solicit the opinions of others demonstrates that you’re still learning and growing and that you value the input of all team members. Elevate your firm’s culture and enhance your performance by implementing one of these feedback strategies today!
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Jennifer Wilson is a partner with and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching, LLC, a leadership and marketing consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success. To learn more about enhancing your firm’s culture, attend her June 12 general session titled, “Moving from Old School to Cool” at the AICPA Practitioners Symposium and TECH+ Conference in partnership with the Association for Accounting Marketing Summit  in Las Vegas.