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The formula for building a trusting team at your firm

Explore some practical ways to build trust amongst your team at your firm with Connectworks COO Matt Barnett (ex-Xero).


In today's rapidly evolving business landscape, where trust and collaboration are essential for success, fostering a strong sense of trust within your accounting firm is more crucial than ever. A team that thrives on trust is not only more productive and efficient, but it also creates an environment that attracts top talent and fuels innovation. 

Our Chief Operating Officer, Matt Barnett has spent the last 10+ years leading, growing and developing high-performing teams in Software, namely Xero where Matt saw first-hand the impact, change and growing pains that a high-growth business experiences.

In this blog article, we will explore practical steps that accounting firms can take to cultivate and strengthen team trust. Drawing upon Matt’s passion for leadership and extensive experience in the software industry, he shares a number of insights and strategies that can empower accounting professionals to build cohesive teams and foster a culture of trust – and whilst this is focussed on supporting leaders, we’re confident that there are good ideas in here for non-leaders or aspiring leaders alike!

Ok, so “You just need to build some trust with the team”. That all sounds great — but how do you actually do that?

Trust is a foundational aspect of effective teams and working relationships, it creates safety for direct communication and risks to be taken. Trust is earned over time, it’s an outcome of consistent and authentic actions that people put forward for the betterment of others.

I group my own trust-building strategies using the excellent trust equation from The Trusted Advisor.

The trust equation from The Trusted Advisor

Build your credibility

Strategy #1 - Build your credibility
  • Own the bad stuff, and give credit to others for the good. As a leader your role is to have your team’s back — when something doesn’t go to plan you’re ultimately accountable — what could you learn to do differently next time? Don’t pass the blame. Conversely, when something good happens, find joy in lifting others to get praise.
  • Make sound, well-considered decisions. Do your research, don’t act on emotion — wait until the last responsible moment to make a call. If your experience and pattern recognition (ie. your gut) is telling you that something isn’t quite right and you may have partial information, then give yourself longer to make a decision.
  • Be clear on the ‘why’. It’s imperative people understand the ultimate drivers and connectors behind things. Take things as far back to first principles as possible. Have a plan for the future that optimises for the whole, not the part — and bring people on the journey with you.
  • Be open about when you’re wrong or don’t understand something. No one knows everything. The more senior a leader you become, the more likely the team are going to have more expertise than you — see this for the opportunity it is. Respect others’ expertise. Your job is to align and build the team, creating an environment and system where the value of the whole is more than the sum of the parts.
  • Be a thought leader and have an opinion. Share your thoughts on best practices, have strong opinions that are loosely held, and welcome ideas and challenges from others. Read something interesting and want to share it with the team. Don’t just share it as is, share it with what you found most interesting and valuable to the team's context.
  • Lead meetings that matter. Make meetings purposeful and be prepared. Be clear on the outcome you’re working to, stating it verbally if necessary. Take time ahead of every meeting (even if just 5 minutes earlier in the day) to organise your thoughts.
  • Work ‘on’ the business, not just ‘in’ it. Lead on forming a time-bound team habit to understand the team’s biggest constraint, building a concerted plan to measurably improve it together. So you’re not forever stuck on a version of the status quo.
  • Practice what you preach. Exemplify what good looks like; both as a leader and in your craft. Do not compromise on how you operate.

Improve your reliability

Strategy #2 - Improve your reliability
  • Do what you’ll say you do. If an action point is on you, then use whatever tools you have at your disposal to ensure you get it done. Use reminders, notes, or whatever else works to outsource your memory. If you can’t meet your commitment then you must manage expectations and proactively keep people posted with where things are at.
  • Be predictably available. If you’re going to be away for whatever reason, be clear with the team what your availability is. If you’re at your desk or showing online, then you’re making yourself available to others — in which case you must welcome interruptions. Set your calendar to be openly viewable by anyone in the business.
  • Be the consistent ‘calm in the storm’. It’s crucial people know no matter what’s happening, they can approach you and get the same authentic you every time. Use open and positive body language on both good and bad days — oh, and don’t cross your arms!
  • Create certainty amongst uncertainty. It’s important you lead the team in having a common understanding of what work is important and aligned – and what’s not. Suppose the next steps are ambiguous and unclear. In that case, you need to create confidence for the team by leading (and ideally, including others) with a time-boxed, well-communicated plan to discover what’s next. Having a plan for a plan is infinitely better than having no plan.

Increase your intimacy

Strategy #3 - Increase your intimacy
  • Get to know people. Build light and frequent communication habits. Be curious about people. What do they care about outside of work? What’s their favourite book? Who is the most famous person they’ve met? What concerns them? Ensure people don’t feel like they’re just a cog in a machine to create outputs.
  • Never breach people’s confidence. If someone asks you to keep something to yourself, then do just that. Even if they don’t say it explicitly, use your judgement. Gossiping doesn’t build trust or gain you respect — resist the urge.
  • Give others the benefit of the doubt. There are two sides to every story. Don’t act or represent others until you have all the facts.
  • Be open to feedback on your ideas. Create mechanisms to hear others’ views, such as a strawman proposal to tentatively assert direction (as leaders still need to lead) while seeking feedback.
  • Trust others and they will trust you. Giving trust to others will contribute to being trusted in yourself.

Reduce your self-orientation

Strategy #4 - Reduce your self-orientation
  • Why do you lead? Consider the questions, why are you in leadership? Of the decisions you’ve made in recent weeks, are they mostly to further others or yourself? 
  • If it’s the latter then you likely have some soul-searching to do.
  • Keep your 1:1 meetings focused on others. They’re not about you.
  • Empower others. Delegate meaningful decisions. Not only will this create opportunities for others and lift their capability, but it will also create capacity for you. Don’t give instructions, give intent.
  • Be kind. This one almost goes without saying, but amongst the complexity of life, it can be useful to be reminded of the fundamentals — plus the science backs it up.

It’s important to note that self-orientation is the denominator of the trust equation. Whether you’re ultimately a leader for your own good or others’ good has a massive effect on your overall trustworthiness.

Building and maintaining team trust should always be a top priority as a leader, it’s the foundation for team success.

What are some of the things you’ve tried to build trust with a team? What worked? What didn’t? We’d love to hear from you – drop Matt a line here.

(Adapted from a piece Matt originally published in May 2021: Building team trust)

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