Author Archives: Tom Foster

About Tom Foster

Tom Foster spends most of his time talking with managers and business owners. The conversations are about business lives and personal lives, goals, objectives and measuring performance. In short, transforming groups of people into teams working together. Sometimes we make great strides understanding this management stuff, other times it’s measured in very short inches. But in all of this conversation, there are things that we learn. This blog is that part of the conversation I can share. Often, the names are changed to protect the guilty, but this is real life inside of real companies.

Slow Way to Change the Culture

From the Ask Tom mailbag – on Quickest Way to Change the Culture.

Question:
Okay, I got what I wanted about hiring new people who are more into process than firefighting. But how do you change the current team, whose culture has been more about firefighting than process.

Response:
Changing culture is a long term journey. It requires patience, persistence and paying attention. Same scenario for maintaining the culture you want.

Behavior – it’s all about behavior. We can put teamwork posters on the wall, but that doesn’t mean a thing. Culture is about behavior, not posters. Culture is that set of unwritten rules that governs our required behavior in the work that we do together.

It starts in the debrief, the post-mortem, the project review. That’s why you have to pay attention. You have to pay attention to behavior IN alignment and behavior NOT IN alignment. When you see it, you have to call it.

I like to use a group setting after a project, because I want lots of people talking, not just me. In fact, I just want to ask questions. Let’s stick to process vs firefighting, here are my questions.

  • When we attack a problem, using a process (checklist, model, protocol, step sequence) what are the major benefits in the result? [Your group or team should be able to come up with a dozen or so benefits.]
  • If those are the major benefits, what stops us from using that process? [Your team should be able to come up with a dozen excuses not to use the process.]
  • So, let’s look at the process. [You do have a process, don’t you, because if you don’t have a process, you may have to go back to firefighting.]
  • In what way can we stick to the process next time to get the results we want? [Here is where I go back to the excuses to reveal them for the head-trash they are.]

And I use this de-brief often, just asking the questions. BTW, this is a simple gap analysis.

  • What do we want?
  • Where are we now?
  • What’s in the gap, keeping us from getting what we want?

Rinse, repeat. Often. Slowly, the group will turn. Patience, persistence and paying attention.

Quickest Way to Change the Culture

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I am working in an environment where firefighting has been modus operandi for a number of years, and as a new manager in my area, I am hoping to define a new culture to break out of constant firefighting mode and into a more pro-active mode of operation. The organization is growing starting now and will continue to do so into Q2 of next year, so we are interviewing and hiring NOW.

Can you talk a little bit more about how to define an intentional culture in an organization, especially in one where an unintentional culture already exists and is deeply ingrained?

Response:
Your company is in typical go-go stage. There is adrenaline and excitement at every turn. Firefighting is the order of the day. The customer gets the product or service and is very happy, but as we look in the wake, we find body bags and other evidence of organizational friction. By the way, this is a normal and natural state in the lifecycle. And it’s fun, give me a high five.

We got the job done, but at what cost? This friction costs us efficiency and profitability. And at some point, in spite of our exuberance, we have to get down to business, we have to become efficient, we have to become profitable.

This is a natural move from S-II to S-III, from chaos to system. But you will fight it at every step because the culture is addicted to the juice of chaos. You want to move from reactive to proactive. You are correct, this will require a change in your culture. And the quickest way to change the culture is to change the people.

You are looking for someone to join your team with experience in process and systems. Here are some questions.

  • Tell me about a time when you worked on a project that seemed to be mired in chaos?
  • What was the project?
  • What was your role in the project?
  • What created the chaos?
  • How did you respond to the chaos?
  • How did your approach work?
  • What was the result on the project?

I am not looking for heroic responses. I am looking for calm, someone who took a step back, someone, who, in the midst of chaos, insisted on a plan. It might have been a quick plan, but a plan nonetheless.

Not what I want to hear –
I was working on the ABC project and the client was way behind schedule when we started. The client was about to lose their bank funding and we had to finish on time even if it meant that we had to take shortcuts. Or all would be lost. We took a risk. There were several steps in the process that we could omit. We sidestepped all the quality checks, hoping the project would hold together. We got lucky. Nothing broke. We finished the project on time. I call my team – the firefighters. Give us a firefight, we will win.

What I want to hear –
I was working on the ABC project and the client was way behind schedule when we started. The client was about to lose their bank funding and we had to finish on time even if it meant that we had to take shortcuts. I was the project leader. I had to put my foot down. There were several quality checks that slowed the project, but they were necessary. I put together a flow chart and a plan. I went with my client to their bank to present the plan. They gave us an extra 48 hours. We made it. The plan worked.

Saving Face in a Reassigned Role

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I just read through a couple of your more recent blog posts. Specifically, the one titled “Someone in the Wrong Role, How to Reassign” caught my attention. So what’s the answer to Cheryl’s dilemma? If we need to reassign someone to a new role, because they are better suited in another necessary role how do we allow them to save face. “Somehow, we have to allow Harold to save face in front of the company. I am just not sure how to do that.”

Response:
People change roles all the time. Titles are switched, departments re-organized. First, understand that reality always wins. Don’t try to blow smoke.

Here is the reality. The company needs everyone to be in a role where they can be most effective. The company has a necessary role. (You would never put Harold in an unnecessary role). The company thinks Harold is better suited for the new role than the role he is in now.

First, how do you know Harold is better suited? Hint – you don’t know.

How do you, as a manager, find out if someone is suited for a new role they are not currently doing? The answer is ALWAYS — give them project work. Give them a project that contains time span task assignments similar or identical to the work in the new role.

If they are successful, it is a simple transition from project work to a new role. The announcement is easy, based on the successful project.

Can’t Be a Smoker Unless You Smoke

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question –
How do you interview for culture fit?

Response –
Here is my list of four absolutes required for success in any role, regardless of discipline.

  • Capability (measured in Time Span)
  • Skill (technical knowledge, practiced to mastery)
  • Interest, passion (value for the work in the role)
  • Required behavior

Have you ever hired someone, with the required capability, technical knowledge and practiced mastery, high value for the work, but the person just didn’t fit? The person just didn’t fit the culture?

Culture (my definition) is that set of unwritten rules that governs our required behaviors in the work that we do together. If it was a written set of rules, it would be in our SOP. Culture is determined by our practice and behavior. Culture is real. Culture can be influenced, but it is defined by the actual practice and behaviors that occur.

An organization can say they have a culture of open communication, but, culture is real. A culture of open communication is only defined by actual behaviors. It’s like being a smoker. You can’t be a smoker unless you smoke.

That’s why interviewing for culture fit is so important. It’s all about behaviors. The quickest way to change your culture is to add people to your roster that engage in behaviors counter to your (intentional) culture. Your culture always changes, shifts, when you add new people, because you are adding new (perhaps subtle) behaviors to the dance.

But your question is, how? How do you interview for culture fit? First, identify the behaviors that define your (intentional) culture. Then interview for those behaviors.

If you have an (intentional) culture of teamwork, identify those behaviors that support teamwork, like cooperation, collaboration, synchronization. Then interview for those behaviors.

  • Tell me about a time when you worked on a project where teamwork was critical?
  • What was the project?
  • How long was the project?
  • How many on the project team?
  • What was your role on the project team?
  • Why was teamwork critical on this project?
  • In what ways did the team work well together?
  • In what ways did the team work against itself?
  • When the team worked against itself, what did you do?
  • How did that work out?
  • What did you learn, working with that team?

Culture is all about behaviors.

Can You Trust Subjective Judgement?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Following up on our discussion at the workshop last week, I am curious. As a manager, how do I determine which team members have the potential to grow and which will hit the wall. I want to focus my time on team members with the greatest potential.

Response:
You have to use your judgement. Observe and make a decision. That is what managers do. But what do you observe?

For fun, in the workshop, you may remember I asked how many of the group had taken a course in psychology in high school or college? Most raised their hand. Then I asked who had degrees in psychology? Most of the hands disappeared. When I asked who was certified by the state to practice psychotherapy, one person said he was certified, but not to practice psychotherapy.

Here is the problem. When managers question whether a person has potential, they fall into a trap. The trap is the approach, because most would play amateur psychologist.

Then I asked the group, who could spot positive behavior, in the field, on the plant floor? Most raised their hands again. And who could spot negative behavior? All hands went up. How long did it take to tell the difference?

Don’t play amateur psychologist with this stuff. Play to your strength as a manager. Managers are experts at the work. If you want to know if someone has potential, give them a project to do. Then, watch, observe. Use your managerial judgment.

But that is so subjective, I hear. Yes, it is subjective. It is also highly accurate.

Reward or Punishment?

“So, you clearly understand that you are the problem?” I asked. Events became clear for Reggie. His incentive program backfired. In the short run, his company’s margins were not compromised, but long term, he created a culture cloaked in clandestine competition. His managers gamed the system to beat margin quotas.

“We hired a compensation consultant to help us structure this incentive program,” Reggie defended. “They were very professional and seemed expert in their process.”

“Tell me, Reggie, what impact did this incentive compensation have on your manager’s contract?”

Reggie moved his head an inch, “What do you mean, what contract?”

“You know, the contract. The contract that says You get paid every day to come to work and do your best. To focus your efforts where they are most effective. To give us your best effort.

Reggie didn’t know how to respond. “Yeah, but that doesn’t seem to work around here. People don’t come to work and do their best unless you, you, you hold some of the money back and give it to them as a bonus.”

“So, what you are saying is that you don’t trust them to do their best, so you don’t give them all their money unless they show their best effort? Then you give them their, well, you call it a bonus.”

Reggie slowly nodded his head.

Contrived System of Reward

“But the worst part of my little bonus system,” Reggie confided, “was not that my managers manipulated the numbers, but that the system I created changed the mindset. I corrupted their thinking. Digging out of that hole is going to take time. And some of them will not survive. I created a contrived system to reward something I thought was good.

“And the winner of my little contest, the successful candidate who gets the position as the new division VP, is going to think he got the job by gaming the system. It doesn’t matter how I explain it, in his heart, his experience will tell him that he got the job by playing with the numbers.

“It is really true,” Reggie continued, “the behavior you reinforce, is the behavior you get. I created the incentive. I got the behavior.”

“If you are going to create a different environment, what has to change first?” I asked.

“All crumbs lead to the top,” Reggie said. “I have to change first.”

Competition and Manipulation

“So, you’re the culprit,” I repeated. “What specifically did you do that was so counterproductive?”

“I remember, it wasn’t anything extreme. We have different sales channels and different product lines, with outside sales, inside sales, internet sales. I began to hand out bonuses for each department with the highest gross margin, another for the highest revenue in the quarter.

“It’s funny, now that I think about it, when I handed out those bonuses, the room was quiet. There was no jubilation or high-fives, just a nod and a polite thank you.”

“Tell me about the down-side?” I asked.

“I found out later,” Reggie explained, “that each department gamed the gross margins. They would pump up the pricing in the last week of the quarter and then rebate it back to the customer in the next quarter. In the end, we still got our standard margin, but each department manipulated the bonus system. And all the progress we made on cross-selling was lost.

“And it’s not so much that they had to pay the piper in the next quarter, but look at all the wasted energy, counterproductive to what we stand for. And the last thing on our mind was doing a good job for the customer.”

The Danger of Healthy Competition

“It was worse than I thought,” Reggie stated flatly. “What I didn’t realize when I opened up this little fracas, was that the competition started long ago. I nosed around some of my sources. It’s been a dysfunctional fight for the past six months, with not only my three internal candidates, but two others. They are all spread across three departments, so I never saw it.”

“What’s been going on?” I asked.

“Mostly, it’s the subtle non-cooperation of one department with another. Convenient delays, rough hand-offs, missing information. Nothing malicious or brazen, but I have five people working against each other, working against the company.”

“Who’s the culprit?”

Reggie’s demeanor changed. He sat straight up in his chair. The nerve was struck. Chin down, looking over his glasses, furrowed brow, he finally spoke. “I’m the culprit. I tried to create a little healthy competition, but what I created was an environment where individual agendas were more important that teamwork. I created intense internal focus within each department, when I need cooperation between departments.”

“How do we fix it?”

“First, we have to start with the culprit,” Reggie shrugged. “And that would be me.”

Dilemma with Internal Candidates

Reggie was grinning like a Cheshire cat. “I’m really lucky,” he said. “We are opening up a new division and I have three great candidates for the VP position. It’s actually going to be tough to pick which one I like the best.”

“Congratulations,” I offered. “Internal candidates or external candidates?”

“All internal. Homegrown. Got the right value system. Good decision-making skills.”

“And what will happen to the two candidates left behind?” I asked.

Reggie stopped. He was focused on his good fortune to have this kind of bench strength, but he had not considered what would happen after his selection.

“I guess they will just continue doing what they are doing now. I mean, they all play an important role, they just won’t be a Vice President in charge of a division.”

“They all know they are being considered as a viable candidate for the position?”

“Yep, I had a meeting, just last week, with all three of them. I wanted to be upfront, let them know what I was thinking.”

“And, have you noticed any change since you had that meeting?”

Again, Reggie stopped. He knew I hadn’t dropped by to chat about the weather. He also knew that sometimes, even on the outside, I hear about trouble before he does.

“So, something is up?” he guessed.

I nodded. “Don’t go jumping in there, but take some time to take a hard look at the new dynamics you just created.”