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The Power of a Listening Tour

Taking time to hear employees’ concerns and ideas can help new managers and company divisions work through organizational change

A listening tour meeting

Anytime Geno Cutolo takes on new responsibilities or has a new team, he finds that a listening tour is an effective way to build trust and gather data that he can use to make informed decisions.

“The higher up you are in the organization, the harder it is to get unfiltered feedback because people often just tell you what they think you want to hear,” Cutolo said. “If you listen in an open, honest and unbiased way, you can get a lot of valuable information.”

In 2022, after being appointed president of Adecco-North America, a staffing agency headquartered in Jacksonville, Fla., Cutolo embarked on a 90-day listening tour during which he met with people in different roles, units and locations to get a good cross-section of experiences and opinions.

He used multiple internal and external channels to communicate where he was, what he was doing and some of what he was learning. Ultimately, this led to the redesign of Adecco’s planned reorganization to help eliminate many of the frustrations and obstacles that people had shared with him during his listening tour.

“It’s important to act on what you hear,” Cutolo said. “That’s how people know you’re listening.”

What Listening Tours Can Do

“It’s a great tool to get a pulse on what’s happening inside the company for new teams, new managers and after organizational change,” said Jennifer Dulski, founder and CEO of Rising Team, a distributed team performance platform based in Silicon Valley. “The goal is to understand what is going well, what can be improved and what is missing.”

Dulski developed a three-step process that can be used as a framework for a listening tour:

  • Just listen. “To be done well, there has to be a psychologically safe environment,” she noted. Employees have to know there won’t be any retribution and that the information will be used with good intent.
  • Report back. After conducting meetings with employees (or other stakeholders), tour leaders need to report back to participants about what they learned during the tour so that participants know they have been heard.
  • Share solutions. After analyzing the data, leaders need to let participants know what actions they are taking to address any issues and, if appropriate, engage them in coming up with solutions.

Listening tours are often used by new managers when starting a new job or leading a new team.

“For a new manager, it’s an opportunity to meet people early on and establish the principles of the relationship. It’s a chance to learn who they are, what’s important to them, how they do their jobs and what they expect from a leader,” said Joe Galvin, chief research officer at Vistage Worldwide, a coaching and peer advisory organization headquartered in San Diego, Calif.

“It’s best for managers to meet face to face with their team members, but that’s not always practical in a remote or hybrid environment. You have to meet people where they are,” he added.

The Role of HR

HR has a pivotal role to play in the formation and implementation of listening tours:

  • Providing leaders and managers with data, resources and training.
  • Running their own listening tours.
  • Developing and implementing HR-related solutions based on feedback gained during the tour.

Kelly Wells’ most recent listening tour started eight months ago when she accepted a new position as the vice president of HR in the Airport Lounges vertical at Sodexo, a French food services and facilities management company.

Wells and her colleagues dedicated time with a cross-section of employees and clients in various formats (small focus groups, one-on-ones and town halls) to learn about operational challenges, cultural dynamics, organizational climate and employee morale.

After analyzing the insights, she and her team established three Employee Advisory Councils composed of employees, managers and an HR representative and empowered them to implement solutions. The next employee engagement survey showed a 10 percent increase in employee engagement scores.

At Safeguard Global, a professional employer organization headquartered in Austin, Texas, the HR team conducts annual listening tours to dig into information gleaned from their engagement surveys.

“At its most basic level, it’s about the employee experience—a way for us to learn about the ideas they have for innovation and the obstacles and challenges they face,” said Chief People Officer Katherine Loranger. “Beyond that, it can be effective when there’s a change in business or to the way people do business. The purpose of the tour drives the agenda.”

During the tour, leaders are separated from their teams to ensure that employees feel safe to share their feelings and opinions. The HR team then meets one on one with team leaders.

“It’s important for us to connect the tour to the value of caring,” Loranger said.

During last year’s tour, the HR team discovered that their European teams were concerned about heating bills in the winter and other rising costs associated with inflation. The company subsequently decided to offer those employees a monthly stipend during the winter to offset those costs.

“It wouldn’t have happened without the firsthand information about how inflation was impacting those employees,” Loranger said.

The tour has also enabled the HR team to position itself as a trusted employee advocate. “It’s not enough for HR to have an ‘open door’ policy. We have to be proactive by reaching out to people directly,” Loranger said.

Align The Tour with Organizational Values and Culture

“You have to be prepared for hard truths and to act on what you hear. It’s not a box-checking exercise. If you don’t mean it, don’t do it,” said Lorna Borenstein, CEO and founder of Grokker, a corporate well-being platform headquartered in San Francisco, and author of It’s Personal: The Business Case for Caring (Grokker Innovation Labs Press, 2021).

At Grokker, active listening is a fundamental part of the culture, and listening tours are connected to the values of caring and accountability. “Our company's purpose is corporate well-being. It’s important to show our employees we care about their well-being, too,” Borenstein said.

Listening tours can also bring clarity and comfort during stressful transitions. While working as the president and COO of the global social activism platform, Dulski and her senior leadership team found themselves in the unenviable position of having to lay people off.

After the layoffs, Dulski conducted a massive multi-country tour to grasp the impact on the remaining employees. As she listened to their stories, she understood how much they wanted and needed to be heard.

“We realized that we needed to work to build back their trust,” Dulski said. To accomplish that goal, they decided to be more transparent about their financial situation. “It helped employees understand why the decision to lay people off was made.”

Maximizing the Impact

When Nikhil Arora took over as CEO of Epignosis in December 2023, he immediately launched a series of monthly listening tours from the learning software company’s London headquarters.

Arora has found that “the byproduct of active listening is always growth and learning” and that “listening tours humanize the way that leaders gather feedback.”

Each tour is a combination of small-group skip-level meetings with employees from different functions and department lines and one-on-one meetings with other employees, customers and shareholders.

Arora reports back to employees on Fridays by video and in writing about how he spent his week and conducts periodic town halls to share what he has learned. While he recognizes that this requires a deep commitment of time and energy, he firmly believes that it is well worth the effort because of the myriad benefits that it yields:

  • Community and connection that keep employees (and other stakeholders) motivated and engaged.
  • Ideas for innovation and identification of outmoded ideas that need to be eliminated.
  • An accelerated learning curve and culture of lean experimentation.

As the company grows, he hopes that other senior leaders will recognize the value of listening tours and follow his lead.

“I think of it as a muscle that needs to be used by all managers and leaders in the organization,” Arora said. “But you have to believe in it. If you don’t believe in it, it doesn’t matter.”

Arlene Hirsch is a career counselor and author based in Chicago.


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