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.

Contracted Behaviors

There are some behaviors you simply contract for.

Each of you has an appointed time that most people show up for work. It is part of the contract you have with each team member. Even flex-time is a contract. A contract is an agreement by two parties related to future behavior.

Can you contract for other things besides the time we show up for work together? Can you contract for respect? More specifically, can you contract for behaviors related to respect?

“Around here, we treat each other with respect. You don’t have to be friends with your teammates. You don’t even have to like your teammates, but when you interact, you will treat each other with respect. It is a matter of contract.”

Required behavior is one of the four absolutes necessary for success in any role.

  • Capability
  • Skill (technical knowledge, practiced performance)
  • Interest, passion, value for the work/li>
  • Required behavior (contracted behavior, habits, culture)

Yes, there are some behaviors you simply contract for. -Tom

Open Ended Questions in the Interview

“But the biggest mistake in the interview, was the gift you served up to the candidate,” I said.

“What gift was that?” Marianna asked.

“Open-ended questions,” I replied.

“But, I was taught to ask open-ended questions. I even read a book that said to ask open-ended questions,” she pushed back.

“Marianna, as the interviewer, you have a job to do. Your job is to gather specific data about the candidate related to the critical role requirements. When you ask an open-ended question, that question loses its purpose. When you ask an open-ended question, you are on a fishing expedition without a goal. The candidate is searching your face and fabricating a response that you want to hear. Open-ended questions give the candidate latitude to follow their own agenda, to create a narrative that may have little to do with the critical role requirements.”

Marianna sat quietly.

I continued. “Have you ever read a resume that was a bit enhanced? Have you ever read a resume that contained a little fluff? Have you ever read a resume that contained outright lies?” I stopped. “Open-ended questions give the candidate latitude to enhance their response, add a bit of fluff or create an outright lie. And you invited them to do it.” -Tom

Fictional Behavior in the Interview

“What do you mean, my questions were more real during the exit interview than the initial interview?” Marianna wanted to know.

“In your initial interview, it sounds like you depended on a personality profile, whether people liked the candidate and a response to a hypothetical question,” I challenged.

“What do you mean, hypothetical question?”

“You asked him how he would plan a project. You didn’t ask for an example of a project he actually planned. Even more important, you didn’t ask how he executed the project according to the plan.”

“But, I figured, if he could explain his planning process, he should be able to use that on a real project,” Marianna defended.

“You figured wrong. Lots of people can talk. Fewer can execute in the real world. That is why you have to ask questions about real experience. Hypothetical questions reveal only fictional behavior.” -Tom

But, the Candidate Was Likeable

Marianna was puzzled. “How long does it take to know if a new hire will make it?” she thought out loud. “My last hire, I had to terminate after six weeks. Funny, I had high hopes. We did a personality profile and his graphs lined up with our best candidate profile. I introduced him around and everyone who interviewed him, liked him. Since planning is one of the critical role requirements, I asked him how he would plan a project. He nailed it, showed me a seven step planning process almost identical to some of our project schedules. In response to some of my open ended questions, he had great stories to tell about how he would be valuable on our team.”

“So, what happened?” I asked.

“He was likable. He was friendly. He got along well with everyone. That is why it was so difficult to terminate.”

“So, what was the problem?” I pressed.

“He never actually did any of the things we talked about. During his exit interview, I asked him about his planning process, the one he elegantly described in his initial interview. He said he got it off our website. No wonder I was impressed. But, he never actually put a plan together.”

“Sounds like your questions in the exit interview were more real than the questions in the initial interview?” -Tom

How Long Does It Take to Know?

“How long does it take to know, if the selected candidate will be successful in the role?” I asked.

Marianna thought carefully, remembering those who had crashed and burned. “I get some early clues, but it depends on the role. Sometimes a week, sometimes a month,” she replied.

“What does it depend on?”

“The level of work. If the role is physical or mechanical, low S-I, it doesn’t take long to see confusion and bewilderment. Often, we can see clues during the initial orientation and training.”

“So, a higher level of work takes longer to confirm the selected candidate was the right one?” I pressed.

“A higher level of work, high S-II or S-III, has longer time span goals. It takes longer to figure out if the selected candidate will be effective at longer time span goals,” Marianna said.

“Why? Why does it take so long? What would have to happen in the interview process, so you, as the hiring manager, would know on the first day, that the candidate had a high likelihood of success in the role?” -Tom

Process Important, but Not Sufficient

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“When you hired George, your interview focused on the process of project management?” I pressed.

“Yes, and understanding the process is important, but not sufficient for the Operations Manager role,” Anne replied.

“What else should you have included in the interview?”

“To manage two or three projects requires knowledge and adherence to our process. That’s a project manager role. To manage ALL of our 36 projects requires building a team of competent project managers. That’s what I should have included in the interview. I never found out if George ever built a team.”

“If you had to do it over again, what questions would you ask?”

Anne paused. Then carefully generated a series of questions related to building a team.

  • Tell me about a time when you built a team of project managers?
  • How many people were on the team?
  • How many projects did the team have to collectively handle?
  • How many individual projects did a PM have to manage?
  • How long were the individual projects? Shortest? Longest?
  • What qualities did you look for in each team member?
  • How did you assign the individual projects to each project manager?
  • How often did you check in on project status with each PM?
  • Step me through one of your check in meetings?
  • Step me through how your PMs mobilized the start of the project?
  • Tell me about a project where there were unseen problems?
  • Step me through the diagnosis of those problems?
  • Step me through the coaching process with the PM in charge of that project?
  • How did the PM respond to the problems on that project?
  • What changes did the PM make?
  • What was the outcome of that project?
  • Tell me about another time when you built a team of project managers?

How to Manage 36 Simultaneous Projects

“I don’t think I missed anything,” Anne replied. “I don’t think I knew what I was looking for when I hired George. He was a good senior project manager, but I think I underestimated the level of work of an Operations Manager.”

“What’s the difference?” I asked.

“Our senior project managers can handle two to three large projects at the same time. But we expect our Operations Manager to manage all 36 projects.”

“It’s just more projects,” I chuckled. “Seriously, can’t the Ops Manager run 36 projects the same way as three projects?”

Anne shook her head slowly side to side. “Actually, the Operations Manager doesn’t directly manage any single project, the role has to manage ALL the projects. The level of work is different.”

“How so?” I probed.

“The only way to manage ALL the projects is to create a competent team of project managers who manage the individual projects. If the Ops Manager builds a good team, then the role is a cakewalk. If the Ops Manager has weakness in the project manager team, then life will be miserable.”

“So, what’s the key difference in the level of work?” I pressed.

“A project manager (S-II) manages a process. It’s a coordinating role. The Operations Manager (S-III) has to create a system for managing ALL the projects. That’s where I went wrong when I hired George.”

How to Get to the Truth in a Candidate Interview

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

I’ve conducted interviews where we’ve asked behavioral questions, like “Please share a specific example in your last position where you led a team in accomplishing a specific task. Share what steps you took and any processes you put in place to be successful. What were your challenges?” These questions did help us see how the candidate thinks and leads and whether s/he’s innovative. But in the end, some candidates are really great at interviewing and talking the talk, but when they get in the position they are not effective. So, are there other questions or exercises we should use in interviews to further test the veracity of the candidate and their experience?

The truth is always elusive.

Two things I ask about in the interview to get closer to the truth.

  1. Details
  2. Repeated patterns

Take the same example you cited, leading a team through a task assignment. Here are my questions.

  • Tell me about a time when you lead a team to accomplish a project?
  • What was the project?
  • What was the purpose of the project?
  • What was the time span of the project, from beginning to end?
  • How many people on the project team?
  • What was your specific role on the project team?
  • Step me through the initial team meeting, how did you describe the project to your project team?
  • How did you select each person on your project team?
  • How did you make individual task assignments to your project team?
  • How did you monitor progress through the project?
  • To monitor progress, what documentation did you use? Paper based? Excel spreadsheet? Project software?
  • When did you notice the project was behind schedule?
  • What steps did you take to keep the project on schedule?
  • How often did you meet with your project team?
  • Step me through an interim project team meeting?
  • Did you prepare an agenda for that meeting? Step me through your preparation for the agenda?
  • How long did it take to complete the project?
  • What changed about the project as it neared completion?
  • What adjustments did you make, as the leader of the project, to accommodate those changes?

In the candidate responses, I am looking for details and patterns to get me to the truth. -Tom

Send Interview Questions in Advance?

From the Ask Tom mailbag-

When interviewing for a specific role, is there any benefit to sending at least some of the core interview questions to the candidates prior to the interview so they can be better prepared to provide the specific work examples we are interviewing for?

What’s the purpose? Every element of the interview protocol must have a purpose. No purpose, don’t do it.

My primary purpose in an interview is to gather truthful data points surrounding the critical role requirements identified in the role description. I connect the dots with data points (step me through the process). I connect to the truth through details and repetitive patterns of response (give me another example).

I hesitate to send interview questions in advance because I am not interested in a story, I am interested in details. Sending the questions, in advance, allows time to create a story with fabricated details. I am not interested in the enhanced resume or exaggerated detail.

I would send the role description. What’s the purpose? The job posting and the role description (two different documents) exist to attract qualified candidates. I need candidates. The job posting creates my candidate pool. The role description self-disqualifies people in the candidate pool.

I want the candidate to look at the role description and say one of two things –

  • I did that.
  • I have no idea how to do that.

I will find out the details in the interview. I will see the patterns in the interview. -Tom

Level of Work Required in a Sales Role

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

We need to hire someone in a sales role. You said in your workshop that we need to identify the level of work. What’s the level of work in a sales role?

The consultant’s answer is always, it depends.

But, it depends on something very specific. The level of work will depend of the length of your sales cycle.

Level I – Time-span (1 day – 3 months)
Short sales cycles can be effectively maintained by trained order takers. Level I sales roles can be found in catalogue call centers, counter sales and sales oriented customer service centers.

Level II – Time-span (3 – 12 months)
Sales work at Level II is found in longer sales cycle projects, where building relationships is important. This sales work consists of prospecting for new customers, qualifying prospective customers, gathering customer needs according to a checklist, matching products to customer needs, making presentations, negotiating and closing the sale. On the customer side, the counterpart to Level II sales work would be the purchasing agent.

Level III – Time-span (1 – 2 years)
Decisions in business to business purchases often require additional input. While the buying criteria for most purchasing agents is price, the Level III buyer, sometimes a specifying engineer, is more concerned about function. Interacting with a Level III buyer may require the capability of a Level III sales person, a product engineer. Sales work at this level is more concerned with needs analysis, product match and application. Sales functions like prospecting may be delegated to sales team members at Level II.

Level IV – Time-span (2-5 years)
Occasionally the buying decision involves product functionality that integrates with other systems that exist in the customer organization. The Level II purchasing agent is concerned about price. The Level III specifying engineer is concerned about function. The Level IV buyer is concerned about how the product or service will integrate with other systems in the company. Sales cycles greater than two years may require Level IV capability to understand the complexities of how the product or service integrates into customer systems. A primary accountability for this level of work in the selling company will be feedback loops into research and product or service development. Examples of Level IV sales roles exist in pharmaceuticals, automobile components, electronic components, large scale construction projects, international logistics, financial instruments and insurance products. -Tom