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.

Productive by Design

The response in the room was silence. Everyone counted, one, two, three, waiting for Jeanine to nod her head indicating that the discussion was over. Today would be different.

The team knew that the less they contributed, the less they could be held accountable. Jeanine would describe an issue or a problem, and then ask for ideas. No one ever had any ideas. No ideas meant no accountability. The team was not doing this on purpose. Most counterproductive thinking is unconscious.

Productive thinking requires conscious thought. It most often happens by design, rarely happens by chance. Jeanine’s statement of the issue played right into the hands of chance. “The customer is complaining that their product is always late, even though they know it was manufactured by the deadline. Does anyone have any ideas?”

Chance of an idea? Fat chance.

We changed Jeanine’s question to make it more specific. “In what ways can we move the customer’s product from our manufacturing floor to the staging area and onto the truck in less time?” Suddenly, there were seven ideas.

Productive thinking happens by design. Make your question more specific. You will get more ideas.

Check Your System

Gerard was puzzled. By chance, the night before, he ran into Nancy, a former employee, at a local restaurant. The conversation was cordial, but surprising to Gerard. At her new company, Nancy was responsible for a competitive product that was kicking butt in the marketplace. When Gerard terminated Nancy for not reaching her goals, he felt she was a marginal contributor with a big “L” on her forehead. Now, she was in charge of a development team at another company that was eating Gerard’s lunch.

Gerard explained to me that after Nancy’s termination, he had two more managers fail in the same position. His complaint was that he just couldn’t find good people. Now, he was puzzled.

Success is determined, not only by the person in the role, but also by the circumstances and systems that surround that role. Before you terminate someone, be sure to check your system. If your system is broken, the next hire will not fare any better than the person you are currently pushing out the door.

Who Do You Have in Mind?

The ball lifted off the tee with a wobble before moving sideways from right to left, arching into moderate grass off the fairway. Harvey’s next shot went vertical, over his head, then smack into the turf at his feet.

“Who were you thinking of?” I asked.

“No one. What do you mean? It was just a lousy shot.”

“I mean your second swing. Who were you thinking of?”

“I was just letting off steam. Wasn’t thinking of anyone.”

“If you were thinking of someone, who would it be?”

“I don’t know. I was thinking about the guy who taught me how to play. He would have been a little disappointed.”

“Who is this guy? Do I know him?”

“No, he was a pretty old guy when I learned. And I was only nine years old.”

“I was just curious.”

Kurt Lewin tells us that individual action is a myth. Our behavior is always influenced by groups or individuals, even if they are not physically present. To gain insight into a person’s behavior, all you have to do is find out what group or person the individual has in mind.

Who do you have in mind, that is affecting your swing?

No Drill Sergeants in the Jungle

Drill sergeants yell and scream and get results. Why can’t a manager?

Most of us have either worked underneath or know a manager who behaves like a drill sergeant. The descriptions come easy. He runs a tight ship. He manages like his haircut.

But, it occurred to me, there are no drill sergeants in the jungle. Let’s say a squad is on patrol in hostile territory and one team member falls behind, cannot keep the pace. There is no drill sergeant around to demand 50 pushups. There is no yelling in the jungle. Communication may be whispered or signaled, but there is no “I can’t hear yooouuu!”

Drill sergeants work in an artificial environment called training. Their purpose is to instill discipline to exact trained behaviors. Managers work in the jungle. It’s real in the jungle. Production is real. Quality is real. Customer satisfaction is real.

As a manager, the next time you have the urge to yell like a drill sergeant, you might find a whisper more effective.

Might Still Be Legal In NY

In the area of behavior modification, the most, perhaps only, effective means are psychotropic drugs and frontal lobotomies, which may still be legal in some places in New York.

There are so many round people in square roles. Get out of the behavior modification business and get into the talent selection business.

The most effective managers are not those who are expert in motivation, or coaching, or process improvement. The most effective managers are those that are expert at defining roles and selecting the right people to fill those roles.

Look at your team. How long have you been trying to modify behavior? Any wonder why this is driving you nuts. Stop it. Get better at selecting talent, then go build your team.

Treat People Like Machines

It took six months to make the decision to spend $65,000 on a new machine. It replaced another older machine that had finally retired. A committee conducted research on the new board technology. Another team of two shopped lease arrangements and term equipment loans. The transition team worked hard to determine how work-in-process would be diverted during the installation and burn-in period. The training department coordinated a technician training program with the manufacturer. This equipment purchase was going to be a real game breaker.

What I was most interested in was the last Project Manager hired into the company. The salary was about the same, $65,000. Three people were involved in the interview process, but when I looked at the documentation from those interviews, it was mostly subjective statements:

  • I think he has a good personality and will fit in well with our culture.
  • In the next five years, he wants to excel in project management. That’s what we need him for.
  • Demonstrated a great attitude the during the interview.

The job description was a photocopy of a similar position with some notes scratched on the bottom. The training program consisted of shadowing another project manager for two days. So there is no wonder that the new Project Manager was NOT going to be a real game breaker.

Perhaps we should create a process that takes recruiting as serious as buying a piece of equipment. We would do well to treat our people as well as we do our machines.

The Difference in Performance

How many of your team members, do you suppose, drove to work this morning, thinking, “I will come to work today and do a really crappy job?”

Wipe that smirk off of your face, you know it is not true.

What makes the difference in the performance of your team members? Each morning they arrive at work, ready for the day. They could perform well, or they could perform poorly. What makes the difference?

Managers will most often agree on this management challenge: How do I motivate my people? My team seems to suffer from a lack of motivation. If I could just figure out how to motivate my people, everything else would fall in line.

The difference between poor performance, good performance and superior performance is the simple result of a choice. Managers cannot motivate their teams into high performance. Individual team members choose high performance. For every manager, the challenge is to create the circumstances where people most often choose the high road.

It’s a Trap

There were twelve incredible opportunities staring at Roger, all of them saying, “Pick me!”

Once an organization gets some traction in their market, over the hump of cash flow and all that, the next biggest trap is the incredible opportunities.

As your company grew, everyone said, “You’ll never make it,” but your company did. Who is to say that your company cannot be successful at all of the other opportunities staring down at you?

Sometimes, the most important decisions that you make, are the decisions about what not to do. The growing organization needs to focus its efforts on becoming more successful at their core business. There will be plenty of time, later, to chase down that incredible restaurant deal or that mail order pharmacy company.

Disciplined focus, execution, not opportunities. Stay out of the trap.

On Your Left

It was a late weekend morning. I was headed south on A-1-A, returning from a solo bike run to Boynton inlet. The headwind was light, but enough to knock the speed to an even 19mph. Three hours into the ride, I was in no position to hammer the wind, yet impatient to keep the speed up.

“On your left,” was a friendly heads-up as an unknown rider with fresh legs slipped in front. I downshifted and picked up the reps to catch his wheel. I settled into the quiet space of his draft at 21mph. Seconds later, I sensed a third rider on my tail. Now we were three.

For thirty minutes, we snaked down the road, changing leads, holding 21, taking turns on the nose. I was struck with the purity of teamwork between three people who had never met before, with only three words between them, “On your left.”

A team will never gain traction without a common purpose.

This was a team with nothing, except a common purpose, executing skillful manuvers, supporting each other, communicating precisely with each other. There was no orientation, no “get to know you session,” just a purity of purpose.

When your team works together, how clear is the purpose? What is the commitment level of each team member to that purpose? You don’t need much else.

A Shell Game for Amateurs

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

You talk about time-leverage. You talk about working one hour to gain two hours productivity. How does that work?

No manager can afford to work at a time ratio of 1:1. Working one hour to gain one hour’s productivity is a shell game for amateurs. Even working managers need a significant focus on time-leveraged activity. How does a manager work for one hour and gain two hour’s productivity, or work one hour and gain five hours productivity?

The central element of leverage comes from delegation. With a five hour project, rather than do the work yourself, try this –

  • Call a 20-minute meeting with three of your team members.
  • In the meeting, you describe your vision for project completion.
  • Describe the performance standards for project completion (including quality and time frame).
  • The rest of the twenty minute meeting is a discussion of the action steps and who will be responsible for what.
  • Schedule two follow-up meetings (ten minutes each).

As the manager, you end up with less than one-hour of meetings, while your team members work five hours to complete the project. You work one hour, you get five hours of productivity. Ratio (1:5).

Here’s is the challenge, what does (1:10) look like? I consistently work with executives whose goal is (1:100), one hour’s work to produce one-hundred hours of productivity. How about you, what is your ratio?