What firms must do to better develop their people

These 6 strategies can fix the feedback systems essential for employee performance management.
By Jennifer Wilson

“How can we fix our feedback systems?”

That’s the No. 1 HR question we’re being asked these days. Firms across the country are looking for ways to improve their tired, cumbersome, perfunctory, and ineffective performance management systems.
In this blog, we’ll explore six strategies to enable you to “fix” your firm’s feedback.

But first, why is feedback so important? If your firm is committed to continuous growth and improvement, then you must have systems to encourage feedback about where the firm, the firm’s leaders, and the firm’s people are on track and where they can improve. If you’re not investing in quality feedback systems, you’re limiting your firm’s “get better” potential.

Next, let’s address a feedback elephant that sits between us. Most firm leaders say they’re committed to developing their people—and feedback is a piece of that development. However, most firms don’t budget or allocate time and talent to the important job of getting to truly know their people and then developing them. So leaders are left trying to “squeeze people stuff in” when they have time—which is almost never. Then, firms don’t use people development outcomes to measure success. For instance, I never hear a partner group choose to make a new partner because of a person’s ability to attract, retain, and grow people. Instead, billings and new business reign supreme. Until we make people development—and the associated feedback delivery it requires—a behavior that we recognize with higher pay and promotions—then your feedback systems will almost always be less than stellar.

Here are six simple ideas to improve your firm’s feedback today:

  • Assign ownership. Every person in your firm should have a “shepherd” or career adviser who “owns” their advisee’s career progression, personal development, and feedback delivery. Ideally, you will have only those who want to develop people and have the natural gifts to do so participate as a career adviser on an opt-in basis. But you’ll only get the right people to participate if you reward them for doing so (see the elephant mentioned above). The career adviser should proactively and regularly seek feedback from those with whom their advisee is working to understand where he or she stands in client service, technical ability, behavior, and other attributes. The career adviser should then be certain that feedback reaches the advisee—either by delivering it directly or by asking that another person with more direct experience in the matter delivers it. The career adviser should also be responsible for gathering feedback on what the career advisee most wants from his or her career, what challenges he or she would like support in overcoming. If you have a program where you are “all” responsible for delivering and receiving feedback from your people, then you almost assuredly have a reality where “hardly anyone” ever does.
  • Simplify and reduce. Most firms’ performance reviews have gotten way out of hand. They are too long, have too many ratings, and take too long to complete. If we’re not allocating enough leadership time to development, then excessive length and time to complete the reviews only exacerbates the problem. Overworked leaders are asked to complete long, onerous forms, usually all at once, resulting in a perfunctory, robotic series of responses. Length and complexity inhibits advisers from garnering the kind of thoughtful feedback that drives meaningful change. If your firm is burdened by onerously long review forms, make it a goal to shorten them considerably.
  • Eliminate your multi-rater questions altogether. In my opinion, multi-rater (scale-based) questions tend to be meaningless. First, many firms use an odd-number rating scale that leads to conflict-avoidant “middle of the road” ratings where everyone in your firm is rated a 3.x on a scale of 5. The 3.1 and 3.2 people probably should be on a performance improvement plan and the 3.8 and 3.9 people probably are your superstars. In addition, most firms haven’t done the thinking and communicating to provide detailed examples for every attribute that makes up “Needs improvement” or “Exceeds expectations” behavior, so people rate very subjectively and sometimes randomly. Then, firms make the mistake of taking the average “rating” number and using it like it was a truly objective number—when it is not. If you’re committed to keep these type of questions, please provide your raters clear definitions of what the behavior for each ranking category looks like for each and every attribute rated.
  • Consider employing a “Keep, Stop, Start” framework. A super-short performance appraisal could consist of only three questions:
    • What is this person doing well that they should keep doing? Tell managers that they can “go crazy” filling this section out.
    • What is this person doing that doesn’t work as well, that they should discontinue (stop) doing? Advise managers to keep this section to three items maximum per feedback session—and three is a lot—because people cannot assimilate but so much change (and critique) at once.
    • What would we like to see this person start doing going forward? Again, it is probably wise to advise a three-item maximum here. These are things the person should start doing because they’re ready to take it on, or maybe things they need to start doing that they should have been doing already, but were not.

    If you go this route, provide your raters with each person’s job description and also any competency model information you have available so they can use those expectations documents to give them ideas for areas to consider in each category.
  • Increase feedback frequency. For feedback to be assimilated and acted on, it is better to be received timely and in small, frequent bite-size pieces. Don’t allow a once- or twice-a-year evaluation process to be your only feedback mechanism. Establish monthly “huddles” for career advisers to meet with their advisees to check in and see how they’re doing, what they need to be more successful, and to deliver any feedback the adviser has solicited from others so it can be incorporated quickly. We know of a few firms that are experimenting with weekly huddles—which don’t have to be face-to-face—to ensure a close, regular connection with all of their people.
  • Teach your people to accept and deliver feedback. Invest in education and skills-building programs to teach all of your people—at all levels—to positively and responsibly receive feedback. Ensure that your career advisers and key firm leaders are taught methods for delivering feedback—from the simple, huddle feedback to the super-challenging, awkward messages that are sometimes required. Build these skills over time—a one-time training event will help, but mastery will come with regular reinforcement and opportunities to practice.

Feedback is a genuine gift we give others. It is an investment in their “get better” and it is worth the time and trouble. Because it is so valuable and can make such a difference, the processes and ideals around the delivery of feedback are also worthy of annual strategic assessment and change when needed.

Which of these six strategies would positively impact your firm’s feedback? Choose one and change it today!


Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a leadership and marketing consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success. Learn more about the company and its services at .

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