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.

My Senior Managers Are Too Busy

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

Question:
In your workshop, you talk about the Manager-Once-Removed, who, you say, has a major role in the hiring process. I have to tell you. My “managers-once-removed” are too busy to participate in the upfront part of recruiting. Why can’t we delegate some of the initial sorting, telephone screening and first round interviews. We usually get the manager-once-removed involved only when the hiring manager is down to the last three candidates.

Response:
What more important function is there, for the manager-once-removed, than to build the infrastructure of the team? I would ask, why is your manager-once-removed so busy? Is it because the MOR did such a lousy job of building the team in the first place.

Lets say we have an open role at S-II, supervisor position. The hiring manager is appropriately at S-III, and the manager-once-removed is the hiring manager’s manager, at S-IV. In the hierarchy, (remember, I’m a structure guy) it looks like this.

S-IV – MOR
S-III – Hiring manager
S-II – Supervisor (Open role)

What pain is occurring?
For the hiring manager (S-III) – a production team is likely running without supervision, meaning the hiring manager has to fill the gap and work down a stratum level of work, at least part time. Simultaneously, the organization is looking to the hiring manager to initiate a recruiting search for a replacement.
For the manager-once-removed (S-IV) – one of the S-III managers (the hiring manager) is currently under stress, spread thin, covering for an open role, making sure production gets done while simultaneously recruiting for that open role.

When does the role need to be filled?
For the hiring manager – yesterday would be good.
For the manager-once-removed – when the right candidate is identified in the candidate pool.

What is the critical purpose for the recruiting effort?
For the hiring manager – to remove the stress in the production system, created by the open role.
For the manager-once-removed – to build a stronger team, finding a truly qualified candidate that creates bench-strength.

What is the hiring methodology?
For the hiring manager – whatever is fastest. Use a job posting for the role description. Hope the hiring team likes the first candidate. How fast can the candidate give notice on their current job? Better yet, are they currently unemployed and can they start tomorrow?
For the manager-once-removed – slow the process down. Make sure the role description is well written and understood, it’s the central document for the process. Create a hiring team with well-understood roles on the team. Use the hiring team to identify the critical role requirements. Use the hiring team to create a bank of interview questions, ten written questions for each Key Result Area. Bring value to the decision making process of the hiring manager.

Who is accountable for the quality (output) of the decision made by the hiring manager?
A manager is that person held accountable for the output of the team. The manager-once-removed is the hiring manager’s manager. It is the manager-once-removed that is accountable for the quality of the decision made by the hiring manager.

Do not leave your hiring manager to twist in the wind. The manager-once-removed is the quarterback of this process. What more important function is there, for the manager-once-removed, than to build the infrastructure of the team?

What Were They Thinking?

“I don’t understand,” Geoff began. “We had a meeting. I explained the new way things were going to be done. A couple of people asked questions. Everyone on the team agreed.”

“And?” I asked.

“And when I took a look at the work today, nothing was changed. It was done the same as before without the changes,” he replied. “I don’t know what they are thinking.”

“If you want to know what someone is thinking, watch what they do. People say and agree to all kinds of things. As a manager, never mistake what someone says for what they can do or will do. Don’t listen for their agreement, watch what they do.”

Why Do We Do That?

“Why do you assemble the pieces of the installation on-site?” I asked.

“Because that’s what we are paid to do,” Roger replied. “The customer purchased this assembly and needs it installed in this location. That’s what we do.”

“But, I am watching this installation and it seems very awkward. That technician is standing on a ladder, in a dark corner of the room, securing two pieces that he cannot see, reaching around another piece that is in the way.”

“I know,” Roger agreed. “But that’s what we do.”

“Roger, you are part of a trade profession. How long has your profession been doing this awkward work in this way?”

Roger chuckled and nodded. “I guess forever. That’s the way it has been done for centuries.”

“Then let me ask again. Why do you assemble the pieces on-site?”

“I will answer you the same way. That’s what we do,” Roger pushed back.

“And that’s what you have always done. Why don’t you assemble the pieces before you get on-site, in a room that is well lit. Instead of climbing on a ladder, you could assemble the pieces on a table where the technician could see the material, and work directly on a connection instead of around something that was in the way?”

Roger looked at me like I was from Mars.

“All I am suggesting,” I continued, “is that you ask a question. Sometimes we do things out of habit. We do something because we know the way to do it. Is it better to know something and describe the way it’s done or ask a question? Why?”

Massive Update to Time Span 101

Just wanted to tell you about a massive content update to Time Span 101.

New Video Content (2-1/2 hours worth)
Time Span 101 now contains video from our most popular workshop Management Myths and Time Span. We recently produced this recording, and embedded more than 2-1/2 hours in 23 video segments into the learning platform at Time Span 101. If you attended one of my live workshops over the past ten years, this is your chance to re-capture the things you discovered about your organization.


New Updated Workbook
Subscribers will receive our pdf workbook, based on the workshop handout, to help organize your notes as you go through the program.

Old Subscribers
If you already have a subscription to Time Span 101, your login still works. You will receive a separate email with more details, including the pdf workbook.

New Subscribers
Get your login, now, for only $100. Register here – Time Span 101.

Learn the Way You Want to Learn
It’s up to you -

  • Follow the program – Timespan101.com is built in a logical sequence, so that one principle builds on another. It’s a no-brainer.
  • Random Access – You might have a particular interest. You can access any of the topics out-of-order based on your own interests.
  • Just Watch the Videos – If you just want to watch the videos, there is a link in [How to Use This Program] to just watch the videos. There are (23) video segments in the playlist. More than 2-1/2 hours of embedded videos.

Share This Critical Research
If you know someone else, who might also be interested in the Time Span research of Elliott Jaques, let me know. If you have any questions, just Ask Tom.

The Uncertainty of the Future

“You look absorbed in something,” I observed.

Abbe looked up from her desk. “Yes, I have this project coming up. Never worked on a project like this before. Don’t know anyone who has worked on a project like this before. Risky. Not devastating risk, but this project could go sideways fast.”

“And?” I asked.

“I am trying to think about projects we have completed in the past that could help me figure out this new project,” she replied.

“Looking for patterns in past projects will only help you so much. It helps you understand the past. But we live, going forward into the future. And we cannot predict the future. There is uncertainty and ambiguity. Planning helps, but even the best plan rarely survives its train-wreck with reality. We cannot control the future. The best we can do is be clear about our intentions. And prepare ourselves for that uncertainty.”

Before the Team Can Get Better

“I am really disappointed in my team,” Carole began. “I really need to get them to step up their game.”

“Whenever I watch a team,” I replied, “to see how it is performing, I always end up watching the leader. Most times, the competency of the team reveals the competency of the leader.”

“Are you saying that the lack of performance of my team, is my fault?” Carole defended.

“No, I am saying, before the team can step up, it’s the leader who has to step up. Before the team can change, the leader has to change. The team you have right now, is the team you deserve. If you think your team should be more effective, you have to become more effective. Your team and their output is the product of your effectiveness as a manager.”

Sort of Restless

“I have been sort of restless,” Miguel started.

“Drop the sort of,” I clarified. “You are either restless or not restless, which is it?”

“I am restless.”

“About what?” I probed.

“I have been a supervisor, here, for three years, now. Things are running pretty smooth. At times, I am a little bored. Ready to tackle something bigger,” Miguel thought out loud.

“So, why haven’t you done anything about it?”

“Well, that would be, like asking for more work to do, a complicated project. Right now, I have it pretty easy, not a lot of risk.”

“Some people are satisfied, living with a problem,” I stared at Miguel, “rather than creating a solution that would require them to change.”

Responsibility, Accountability and Authority

Words mean things. One of the biggest problems with managerial practices and the concepts constructed to support them, is the lack of clarity. And whenever things are not clear, people make stuff up, like holacracy, self directed work groups, management by objective, results based performance.

My thanks to Nick Forrest and his book How Dare You Manage, to bring some clarity to three words, responsibility, accountability and authority.

You see, you may think you have a communication problem, but you more likely have an accountability and authority problem. You may think you are observing a personality conflict, but you more likely have an accountability and authority problem.

Accountability, or an accountability is a contract between a manager and team member related to an agreed upon output. An accountability is a contracted output.

Responsibility is a feeling of obligation, created and maintained within an individual to perform or take action. It is a feeling generally connected to a contracted output (accountability). Responsibility that is NOT connected to an accountability can be a recipe for disaster, because noble action may be taken without regard for a defined objective.

Authority is a limit. Authority is a limit, within which an individual has the freedom to use their discretionary judgment to make decisions (even the wrong decision) and control resources to reach a defined objective (goal, task assignment).

Whenever I see some management fad, like holacracy, emerge, it is likely because these three words have never been accurately defined. And in that void, people make stuff up. And sometimes, that stuff is nonsense. And sometimes, the nonsense can lead us astray, waste resources and in the end, destroy the organization that we were trying to build in the first place.

Are There Limits to Creativity?

“I think we need to create a circle,” Russell explained.

“What’s a circle?” I asked.

“I was reading about this new management thing called holacracy. It’s a group of people in the company who get together to solve a problem,” he replied.

“Why do you call it a circle, rather than a project team?” I wanted to know.

“A project team is too limiting. It stifles thought. This circle would be free to think in brand new ways, without limits,” Russell smiled at his new idea.

“So, if the circle thought the best way to solve a problem would be by embezzling a million dollars from the company checking account by submitting phony invoices, that would be okay?” I queried.

Russell chuckled. “Aw, come on. That would never happen.”

“So, there are some limits to the solutions?”

“Well, yes, but I want the circle to be free to be creative,” Russell insisted.

“But, just to be clear. The circle (project team) would have discretionary judgement within limits?” I looked straight at Russell.

Russell was quiet for a moment. “I suppose so,” he relented.

Holacracy, the Latest Management Craze

I have been reading about this latest management fad, holacracy, for some months now, but it was Gregory Ferenstein’s post on July 11 that finally sent me over the edge. For the record, here are two other articles that tee up this management craze. Zappos says goodbye to bosses by Jena McGregor and a more reasoned explanation, published in the Economist, The holes in holacracy.

Also note that the word holacracy is a registered trademark. It is a brand, which always raises red flags in my world regarding its methods. Is it really something new or is the word made up to muddy the already turbid waters in management consulting.

But, I promised to talk about what Tony Hsieh is doing at Zappos and provide a more reasonable context for the structural decisions he is making.

First, “getting rid of bosses.” Boss-ing is something siblings do to each other. Indeed, it is a power struggle. The descriptions of holacracy appear to equate boss with the word manager. I am always amused at where the power lies in the manager-team-member relationship. It is like telling a kid that they have to eat broccoli. But, it is the kid who will determine if broccoli will, in fact, be eaten. Being an effective manager has very little to do with power.

“There are no managers in the classically defined sense. Instead, there are people known as “lead links” who have the ability to assign employees to roles or remove them from them.”

When I look at the “classic definition” of a manager, that person is vested with some very specific authorities. How is this “lead link” different?

  • Determine who is on the team.
  • Determine who is off the team.
  • Set the objective.
  • Assess the team member’s effectiveness in the context of the objective.

“Zappos and Robertson are careful to note that while a holacracy may get rid of traditional managers (those who both manage others’ work and hold the keys to their career success), there is still structure and employees’ work is still watched. Poor performers, Robertson says, stand out.”

So, now I am curious. Just exactly who is it that is doing all the watching if it’s not the manager? Is “lead link” another word for manager?

So, what is all this talk about abolishing managers?

“while the system lacks traditional managers, it does not mean that leaders won’t emerge.”

No shit. Leadership is an observable phenomenon, it happens. And when an organization selects its managers, it had better be paying attention to qualities of managerial leadership (as opposed to political leadership, parental leadership, spiritual leadership).

Apparently, Tony wants to provide the appearance of the absence of managers, by defining broad latitudes of discretion within the various levels of work at Zappos. That is what hierarchy is all about. Hierarchy is not about being the boss, it is not about command and control. Hierarchy is about establishing the boundaries of discretionary judgment within a level of work.

Discretionary judgment is required to make decisions and solve problems appropriate for that level of work. And most teams can handle the problems and decisions that sit within their level of work.

Here’s the pinch. When the problem is difficult or the decision is hard, on the upper end of that level of work, who does the team go to? That would be the manager. Being a manager is NOT about telling people what to do (boss-ing), it is about bringing value to the problem solving and decision making of the team. And that’s the role of the manager. At Zappos, those people exist, and Tony knows exactly who they are. I don’t care what he calls them.