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.

Outlast the Panic

“So, let’s say the team struggles. You, as the manager, are accountable for the output of the team. You control all the levers. What are you going to do?” I asked.

“Instead of jumping in to fix the problem, which is what I really want to do, I have to get the team to solve the problem,” Miriam replied.

“First, let’s talk about time. As the manager, when will you first know that the team is struggling with a problem?”

“That’s easy,” Miriam chuckled. “I know they are going to struggle before I even assign the project.”

“So, if you know the team will struggle, even before the project starts, when do you, as manager, intervene? How long will you let them twist in the wind? Remember, twisting in the wind costs money and you are accountable for output.”

“Are you suggesting I jump in before the project even starts? I thought I was supposed to let the team struggle with the problem?” Miriam countered.

“When the team encounters its first problem, and begins to struggle, how long does it take the team to start solving the problem?”

“Again, that’s easy. Forever. Faced with a problem, the team will avoid the problem, look to blame someone (else) for the problem, knock off early, work on easier stuff, dump the problem on my desk, complain about the problem, argue about the problem, go into panic mode, go into paralysis, you name it, they have tried it,” she explained.

“Fight, flight, freeze or appease. These are all classic behaviors of a team, faced with a problem, engaged in non-work.”

“So, I am the manager, what do I do?”

“Simple, outlast the panic. Put the struggle on the table and outlast the panic.” -Tom

Watching, Observing, Assessing

“You can still feel an allegiance to the project,” I said, “and, you are correct, as a manager, you have to solve the problem in a different way. You have to move the team. What are your levers?”

“What do you mean?” Miriam looked puzzled.

“It’s one thing to say you have to move the team, but what do you do? Where is your leverage? If your role is NOT to solve the problem, but to get the team to solve the problem, what do you control?”

Miriam stopped to think, then finally replied, “I get to pick who is on the team, team membership. I decide on training. I decide who plays what role on the team. I specifically assign tasks. And, I get to watch, observe. I can coach, but I have to stay off the field. Ultimately, I have to assess effectiveness in the role. It’s either more training, more coaching, more time or de-selection.”

“And, at the end of the day, who is accountable for the output of the team?” -Tom

The Internal Change in a Manager

“I used to have passion for the output of the project,” Miriam repeated. “Now, it’s a matter of placing value on the development of other people.”

“We often focus on managerial tools,” I replied. “Give me a template, give me a technique, but being an effective manager has more to do with you than a managerial tool. Transitioning from an individual technical contributor to a managerial role requires self-reflection. It’s more than a change in role, it requires internal change.”

“I can feel it,” Miriam said. “It’s a bit scary. I look at a problem in a project and I want to fix it. But, I have to stop and move the team to fix the problem.”

“It is a change in you. You have to ask yourself reflective questions.

  • What is the value of my new managerial role?
  • How does my new role fit in with the output of the team?
  • What do I care about? What is important to me?
  • Is there connection between what I care about and the value of my new role?
  • What new behaviors and habits do I have to develop to be effective in my new role?

“It will take some time,” Miriam replied. “I still feel an allegiance to solve the problem, I just have to do it in a different way.”

No Longer the Glow of the Project

“Management is not all I thought it was,” Miriam explained.

“How so?” I asked.

“I started in the marketing department, working on projects by myself. It was satisfying. I would finish a project and I could stand back and look at it. My friends could admire the project. The project had a glow and it was me.”

“That’s because you are a results oriented person and the results were close at hand and tangible. What it different, now?”

“Now, it is slower,” Miriam started. “As a manager, I don’t get to work directly, I work through other people. The results of the project are the results of the effort of my team. I don’t get the glow out of the project, the team gets the glow. What do I get?”

“And this is frustrating?” I prompted.

“Yes, most of my problems, now, are not project problems, they are people problems. I can get the people problems resolved, but the glow is elusive. It is hard to put my finger on the result.”

“So, in your brief experience as a manager, where is the glow?”

“Sometimes, the glow doesn’t take place right away, and it is subtle, in the background,” Miriam stopped. “The glow for a manager is in the development of the team, learning, tackling tough issues and moving to tougher issues. It’s a very indirect glow. I used to have passion for the output of the project, now, it’s a matter of placing value on the development of other people.”

“Congratulations, you have discovered the true role of a manager. You thought being a manager was so people could report to you. Management is about bringing value to the problem solving and decision making of the team.” -Tom

How to Get People to Use CRM

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Tom, I remember a few years ago you talked about the effectiveness of negative vs positive reinforcement to affect changes in employee behavior. Here’s my problem: I am responsible for implementing a CRM sales management system affecting over 100 sales reps and 15 regional sales managers. For 30 years, we’ve allowed our sales reps to act without much direction or accountability. Our market was robust so a salesperson’s day was spent taking care of customers, entertaining them, and knocking off early on Fridays.

Then, our market soured, so did our sales.

Over the years, we became a service oriented company with little focus on sales management. As you would guess, there is strong resentment and resistance to the accountability that a CRM requires–assigning prospects, setting tasks and goals, and required reporting to management.

Here is the feedback so far. “Do you want me to sell or fill out these stupid reports?” OR “I’m no good with computers.” OR “I don’t have time.” OR “This is Big Brother micro-managing me.”

I’m experimenting with gamification of the process, creating competition among territories and recognizing successes. The CEO of the corporation is reviewing weekly scorecards and sending email comments to the sales managers on performance.

Here’s the question. What will have the greatest effect on participation, negative reinforcement or positive reinforcement? Should we tie pay to usage of the system?

Response:
This is not an unusual dilemma. Your idea of gamification takes me back to a post I wrote in Sep 2007 (yes, ten years ago), where we looked at how a young teenager learned to play a complex video game without a training course, instruction materials or a tutor. In fact, despite discouragement from his manager (mom), he still managed to achieve a high level of competence at playing the game, would actually go without food or sleep to play.

So, how could you get a group of veteran, grisly sales people to spend time with a CRM system?

First, to the subject of positive vs negative reinforcement. At best, negative reinforcement only gets you compliance. And compliance only works in the presence of the manager and the constant pressure of the negative reinforcement. If the manager is not present or the probability of enforcement is low, the desired behavior disappears. Most negative reinforcement resides outside the individual with only temporary effect.

To achieve commitment (vs compliance) to the behavior, you have to go inside. You have to look for an intrinsic reinforcement. You have to examine the belief. It is not your rules, not your suggestions, not your tracking tools that drive behavior. It is the belief inside the individual.

And your individuals have spoken their beliefs.
Do you want me to sell or fill out these stupid reports?

  • The belief is that only selling creates sales, not filling out reports. Filling out reports is a waste of time.

I’m no good with computers.

  • The belief is that I am good at sales and that I am not good at computers. The belief is that using a computer will not bring in more sales.

I don’t have time.

  • The belief is that filling out reports in a computer is not as high a priority as anything else.

This is Big Brother micro-managing me.

  • The belief is that a good salesperson does NOT need coaching. The belief is that tracking activity may surface accountability to a standard defined by someone else.

Ultimately, this is a culture problem. You don’t get the behavior you want (interaction with a CRM system) because you, as the manager, have not connected success (sales) with activity in the CRM system. They don’t believe you.

Culture Cycle

  • Beliefs.
  • Connected behaviors.
  • Connected behaviors tested against the consequences of reality.
  • Behaviors that survive are repeated in customs and rituals.

You started with a CRM system rather than starting with the team. Your team knows how to make sales, they are experts at it. In a meeting, get them to document the processes and behaviors that create sales. Big flip chart. Here is my prediction – they will create a system similar to most sales systems.

  • Prospecting
  • Qualification
  • Needs assessment (preventing objections)
  • Connection of needs to your product or service
  • Customer willing to solve their problem (pay)
  • Closing
  • After closing support

These are activities in a sequence that creates customers and orders. These are likely the same activities you are attempting to document in the CRM system. But, now, it is the team that identified the behaviors, not some stupid CRM system.

Next, ask them to coach each other. They may not trust you, but they trust each other. Ask them to document what a coaching process might look like. Ask them what collected data might be helpful to make the coaching more effective.

Teaching is not nearly as effective as learning. Turn this into a learning process, not a teaching process. -Tom

Yes, And How is the Team Member Doing?

Last week, we talked about Team Morale as a Key Result Area (KRA). Remember, the work of a manager is different than the work of a team member. Another KRA that often escapes the role description is Team Member Development.

Key Result Area – Team Member Development

Context – An important accountability for every manager in our company is to pay attention to the team. The most critical work product in our company requires high levels of competence, cooperation and support between team members in collateral working relationships. It is incumbent on the manager to use their discretionary judgment in the selection and retention of team members.

Tasks and Activities – The manager will clearly assign tasks within the capability and competence of the team member. Routinely, the manager will test the team member’s capability and competence with project work to determine if the team member is capable of more complex work and if the team member has achieved a higher skill level. The manager will routinely assess the effectiveness of the team member to determine additional skills training, assignment of more complex work and consideration for promotion.

Accountability – The manager is accountable for evaluating the effectiveness of each team member, identifying effectiveness at level of work and skill competence. The manager will review this team member assessment each month in a 1-1 discussion with their manager, to identify potential for higher level of work, adjustment to lower level of work, additional skills training, cross-training, reassignment or de-selection.

How Is The Morale?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I am the direct manager of a team of four supervisors. I am working on the agenda for 1-1 discussions with each individual. Based on your suggestion, I structured the agenda using the Key Result Areas in the role description. While it seems to make sense, I feel there is a missing piece to the agenda. I know we are talking about the work in the role of the supervisor, but where many of them struggle is in the soft skills, the interpersonal working relationships between each supervisor and their team members. We often talk about those issues, but I am not sure how to organize my notes from those discussions. What we talk about doesn’t fit any of the Key Result Areas, but I feel like they are dramatically important. Is it possible that there are things we should talk about outside the Key Result Areas defined for the role?

Response:
Welcome to management. You have just discovered that the work of the supervisor is different than the work of the team member. It is not that there are issues outside of defined Key Result Areas, but, there are Key Result Areas that escaped the role description.

A military commander was once asked in all of his experience, what was his biggest mistake, his biggest regret. His reply was “not taking vacation before going into battle.” It was a curious response, but he explained that the most important element to consider before going into battle was morale. What is the morale of the troops?

Is it possible that a Key Result Area missed in the definition of the role description was team morale?

Key Result Area – Team Morale

Context – the most critical work product in our company requires high levels of cooperation and support between team members in collateral working relationships. It is incumbent on the supervisor to create positive working relationships that promote teamwork and high levels of trust among team members.

Tasks and Activities – the supervisor will clearly assign tasks in such a way that each team member understands not only their own task assignment, but the task assignments of those people they work around. Where work product is handed off from one team member to another, or one work cell to another, the team members will discuss the quality standards that each team member needs from other team members. The supervisor will create circumstances where team members provide feedback to each other, in a respectful way related to quality standards, pace of work and safety practices. Specifically, the supervisor will require positive feedback practice during times of low stress using project debriefs, brainstorming best practices, team teaching and cross training, so that during periods of high stress, the team can operate at high levels of cooperation, support and trust.

Accountability – The supervisor is accountable for evaluating the morale of the team, identifying team behavior that promotes teamwork and identifying team behavior that is destructive to teamwork. The supervisor will review this team assessment each month in a 1-1 discussion with the supervisor’s manager, to identify steps the supervisor may take to promote teamwork and discourage behavior that is destructive to teamwork.

Defining Culture as Behavior

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
When you described culture as a Key Result Area, you said the manager should be an effective model for behaviors that support the company’s culture. I am looking at our company’s mission, vision, values and it’s not really clear what those behaviors are.

Response:
The reason it’s not clear is that most mission, vision, values placards are not user friendly. There is no clarity because the company (the CEO, executive managers, managers and supervisors) have not made it clear. If you want clear behaviors, you have to define them.

For example, if teamwork is an agreed-upon value. “Our company values teamwork in its approach to problem solving and decision making.” What are the behaviors connected with teamwork? Spell it out.

Our company values teamwork in its approach to problem solving and decision making. Given a problem to solve, each team member, using their full commitment and capability is required to give their supervisor or manager “best advice.” Given a problem to solve, each manager or supervisor is required to collect facts about the problem by listening to “best advice” from their team. Only after thorough discussion and consideration of the data, contributing factors, circumstances and alternatives, will the manager or supervisor make the decision about the course of action to solve the problem. Our company acknowledges that this may be cumbersome and slow down the problem solving process AND it acknowledges that this process will be a learning tool for each team member in problem solving. In the short term, this process may slow things down AND in the long run, this process will prepare each team member to solve more complicated problems. This is not a suggestion, this is a requirement. -Tom
_______________
You may recognize “best advice” from Nick Forrest in How Dare You Manage?

Discretionary Judgment

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You talk about work as making decisions and solving problems. You talk about discretionary judgment. When I tell a team member about their role (in a role description), it seems more like a list of tasks that have to be completed. How do I talk about discretionary judgment in a role description?

Response:
Most role descriptions are as you describe, a disorganized list of tasks and activities. But, when we hire a team member, we are not paying for their tasks and activities, we are paying for their discretionary judgment. If we were just paying for task completion, we would hire robots. And, every role has decisions to make and problems to solve. Every role requires discretionary judgment.

A typical supervisor task is to post a work schedule for the team for the following week. But that is just the outcome. Here is the discretionary judgment part.

This task requires the supervisor to look ahead on a rolling 4-6 week basis, to anticipate changes due to team member vacations or other circumstances that will affect the team member’s attendance. And to look ahead on a rolling 4-6 week basis, to anticipate changes due to production fluctuations which may require a reduction in shift personnel or overtime. The supervisor will use discretionary judgment to create the schedule based on those circumstances.

Level of Work of a Team Lead?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I run a private industrial disaster recovery business. We respond to natural disasters and clean up the mess. We are very hierarchical, but I am having difficulty understanding the level of work in the teams that we dispatch.

Is it possible to have a supervisor in stratum level one? For example, we deploy teams of three people consisting of two technicians and a team captain. The two technicians are obviously working at S-I, one or two day time span, while the team captain works on a day to week at the most. The team captain directs the activities of the two technicians, but is he their manager?

We have several three person teams supervised by a single Project Manager. The Project Manager role, for us, includes team member selection, coordination of support resources, equipment, machinery, consumables as well as training for technicians and team captains. Our Project Manager clearly works at S-II, 3-12 month time span.

My question is, what is the level of work for the Team Leader?

Response:

You describe a classic case of a First Line Manager Assistant (FLMA). Elliott was very specific about this role. You are correct that the role is an S-I role and illustrates that within a single stratum level of work, we have different levels of work, illustrated below –

S-II – Project Manager, supervision and coordination, manager of the entire S-I team.
————————————————
S-I-Hi – Team Captain, directs on-site, assigns tasks, but is not the manager of the team.
S-I-Med – Technician, works under the on-site direction of the Team Leader
S-I-Lo – Technician trainee
————————————————

This works for project teams, deployed field units, multi-shift operations where the S-II Project Manager or Supervisor is not physically present at all times. The First Line Manager Assistant (FLMA) has limited authority to direct activity and assign tasks within the larger authority of the S-II Supervisor. The FLMA has recommending authority for advancement and compensation, but those decisions remain with the S-II Supervisor.