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.

Democratic Decision Making

“I am conducting an experiment,” Marianne explained.

“Why do you call it an experiment?” I asked.

“Because I’m not sure if it will work. I have never tried it before. So, if it fails, then it was just an experiment. I am going to try democratic decision making with my team.”

“How will that work?” I wanted to know.

“Well, we have a situation with a couple of different solutions. Some people think we should go one way, others think the other way. I thought it best just to take a vote. At least that will get buy-in and support.”

“What if it’s the wrong decision and it jeopardizes the whole project?”

Marianne was silent.

“Which way do you think the decision should be made?” I prompted. “And what if the team decides the other way? And how will you explain a poor decision to your manager? Will you say that you disagreed, but your team outvoted you?”

Is It Beyond the Capability Required in the Role

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
In our company, we have a Stratum II (S-II) sales role, 3-12 months time span. In that role, we have a person who has demonstrated solid S-II effectiveness at around 9 months in the role. Our lead time on proposals along with the length of the sales cycle feels about right.

In the past year, I have been trying to get our salesperson to think out a bit further. Sometimes, we find that we are not on the short list for some RFPs because our competitors have already established a better relationship. In some cases, our competitors have been courting the prospective client for three to four years, way before a project was even on the horizon. I am thinking about adding a Key Result Area (KRA) to our sales role called Client Development and calibrating it at a three year objective. To create client relationships up to three years in advance of a prospective project. It’s a really small industry, so we know who the real players are across the country. We just need to get to know them sooner.

When I proposed this to our salesperson, I didn’t get outright rejection, but she said she would be more effective focusing on projects that were real instead of wasting her time on something that might never happen. Problem is, when they do happen, it’s too late to establish the relationship. We are already off the short list.

Response:
I can see Client Development as a valuable KRA for this role. And I can see the time span of the objective as appropriate to accomplish what you want, to create the kind of long-term relationship to ensure you make the short list. If you examine your competitors, that is exactly how they are defining the relationship work and they are beating you to the short list as a result.

Understand, however, when you define the level of work at 3 years, you have moved the level of work from S-II to S-IV. That is a totally different level and may be beyond the capability of your solid S-II salesperson. Your observation of push-back would make me suspicious that simply changing the role description is going to elevate the behavior.

Moreover, if establishing the prospective client relationship is a 3 year time span task at S-IV, you also must consider that the person you are establishing this relationship with, is also thinking 3 years out. It might be a more appropriate time span task, a more appropriate client relationship for you.

Not a Lot of Listening

“The biggest difficulty we have,” Susan insisted, “is communication.”

I nodded. “How so?”

“Well, sometimes it seems we are not even on the same team. I give instructions, I hold meetings, but when somebody has to coordinate with someone else, it always seems like the ball gets dropped.”

“What do you think the problem is?” I asked.

“It seems that when I do the talking, there’s not a lot of listening.”

“And that surprises you?” I smiled.

“No. But, as the manager, I expect my team to listen when I talk to them,” Susan shook her from side to side, impatiently.

“Oh, so this is your team’s fault?”

Susan was no dummy. She sensed I was setting her up. “Well, okay, I know I am 50 percent to blame,” she relented.

“And what would you do differently, if I told you that you were 100 percent accountable for your team’s complete understanding? You, as the manager, are 100 percent responsible for the effectiveness of the communication. What would you do differently?”

Do You Carry an Organizer?

“I’ve been working with my team to get them to be more effective at time management,” Bobbie explained.

“How’s that going?” I asked.

“Kind of rough. I showed them how to use a task list, how to schedule events into a calendar, using our software. But, I haven’t really seen any improvement. They still miss deadlines and forget things.”

“Do they understand the mission of the work they do?” I wanted to know.

“Well, the company has a mission, I mean, we have a mission statement.”

“But, do they understand the mission of the work that they do? People who are clear about purpose, have little difficulty deciding what actions are necessary. Those people without a clear purpose will have to carry an organizer to plan their day.”

Not Enough Time

“Rush, rush, rush, that’s all we seem to do,” Russell complained.

“So, you get a lot done?” I asked.

“Not really. We move so fast, we end up having to do a lot of re-work,” he explained.

“Why don’t you slow down?”

“We don’t have time to slow down!” Russell shook his head.

“You mean, there is not enough time to do it right, but always enough time to do it twice?”

Kick Start on Problem Solving

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Comment from yesterday’s post about the Open Door:
Right on! Only one more simple thing that will make it perfect — you hit a bit on it but I will expand as it works wonders. Put a sign up that says No Questions – in other words when you come to my office, don’t ask a question, tell me the issue and tell me what you intend to do. I will either say ok or we will discuss if I think it necessary. People come to you mindlessly and ask questions, you answer them thinking you are helping, they leave your office without taking ownership of the results – you told me to do this – they learn nothing and they feel you want them to come to you with all questions, because you don’t trust them to do the right thing. It is a vicious cycle. Simply, don’t answer any more questions.

Response:
I saw this on a manager’s desk, a little sign sitting by a pad of pre-printed 3×5 sheets. The sign said -

  • I know you have a question, but before we discuss it, please take this sheet and meet me in the conference room in ten minutes.

And on the pad of pre-printed 3×5 sheets –

  1. What’s the problem?
  2. What’s the cause of the problem?
  3. What are the alternative solutions?
  4. What is the best solution?

So, what do you think happened when the manager met the team member in the conference room?

Open Door Policy Has Nothing To Do With The Door

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
A bit frustrated. My role dictates longer time span strategic projects, but I continue to get pulled into tactical issues on smaller pieces of that project, or tactical issue on other people’s projects. I find myself often saying “what does our process say the next step should be?” or pointing back to our documentation to find the facts. I have to stop, interrupting focus on my own project segments. How does one balance these interruptions without coming across as “that’s not my job” to address tactical daily activities?

Response:
Two things necessary. First, you have an interruption problem. Second, as a manager, you have a coaching problem.

1. Interruption problems. Do you remember when you were a student in school and had to take that final test on Friday morning? So, late Thursday night, you settled down to study for the test? You know, right after Thursday Night Football? Because you procrastinated to the last minute, you had to make sure you got in some quality cram time. And you did some things that you can adapt to today’s situation.

  • You asked your roommates to take the keg of beer down to the other end of the dorm so you would not be tempted.
  • You told your other roommate to take a hike.
  • You took your phone off the hook (remember when phones had hooks).
  • You hung a shoe on your doorknob, a signal to all that you were busy and not to be disturbed (usually a signal for other activities beside studying, but a signal nonetheless).
  • You went to the library because no one would ever think to find you there.

These same strategies can be adapted to make sure you capture large (enough) blocks of uninterrupted time.

  • Put a sign on your door that you are in a meeting, not to be disturbed.
  • Communicate with your team that they need to cover all phone calls and visitors for the next three hours.
  • Relocate, find a spot where no one will find you (temporary, of course).

You might think that might communicate your inaccessibility (it does), but remember that an open door policy has nothing to do with the door.

2. Which brings me to your second problem, coaching. In a managerial role, it comes with the territory, get over it. And, yes, you can manage it. Set aside specific blocks of time for “office hours,” and specific appointments for 1-1s for each of your team members. This dedicated time can be controlled by you to prevent interruptions when you are working on your projects.

It may seem painful to help a team member walk through documentation, but it won’t take long before the team member knows how to walk through the documentation without you. This is not a “not my job” attitude, this is mandatory for all managers to bring value to the problem solving and decision making of the team member. And you don’t bring that value by providing all the answers. You bring that value by asking effective questions.

Now, close your door and get back to work.

Next Leadership Series – Ft Lauderdale – Oct 13, 2014

Oct 13, 2014 kicks off our next Working Leadership Series in Fort Lauderdale Florida. This program contains twelve modules in six classroom sessions. The program instructor will be Tom Foster (that’s me).  

Who Should Attend? – This program is designed for Stratum III and Stratum IV managers who are currently in leadership roles.

Location – All classes will be held at Banyan Air Services in Fort Lauderdale FL, in the Sabal Palm Conference Room.
Banyan Air Services
5360 NW 20th Terrace
Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33309

If you would like to pre-register for the program, use the Ask Tom link, tell me a little about yourself and we will add you to the pre-registration list.

Schedule – Curriculum details below.
Session 1 - Mon, Oct 13, 2014 - Orientation – Role of the Manager – Time Management
Session 2 - Fri, Oct 17, 2014 - Working Styles – Communication
Session 3 - Fri, Oct 24, 2014 - Positive Reinforcement – Team Problem Solving
Session 4 - Wed, Oct 29, 2014 - Planning – Delegation
Session 5 - Mon, Nov 3, 2014 - Decision Making – Accountability
Session 6 - Mon, Nov 10, 2014 - Effective Meetings – Coaching

Location - All classes will be held at Banyan Air Services in Fort Lauderdale FL in the Sabal Palm Conference Room.
Banyan Air Services
5360 NW 20th Terrace
Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33309

Tuition - $1600 per participant. Vistage member companies receive a $100 discount per participant. This includes all books and participant materials.

Curriculum

Session One
Orientation. During the initial Session, participants will create both a company and a personal framework, setting expectations and direction for this program. Participants, through directed discussion, create the connection between the program course material and their day-to-day management challenges.

Role of the Manager. Introduces the distinction between supervisor and managerial roles. Clarifies the specific goals necessary for effectiveness. This module creates the foundation on which rest of the course material builds. Incorporates source material from Requisite Organization – Elliott Jaques.

Time Management. Introduces the textbook Getting Things Done by David Allen. (Text included as part of the program).

Session Two
Working Styles.
 Participants will complete a DISC survey (DISC is an online instrument published by TTI) and report on their own identified strengths and working style.

Communication. The largest challenge, for most managers, centers on issues of communication. This Session will introduce participants to a new level of conversational “reality.” Introduces the text, Fierce Conversations, by Susan Scott, as reference material. (Text included as part of this program.)

Session Three
Positive Reinforcement

This segment reviews the management research of Elliott Jaques and Abraham Maslow regarding “why people work.” Explores the role of positive reinforcement outlined in by Aubrey Daniels – Getting the Best Out of People.

Team Problem Solving.
 Expands Fierce Conversations to the group setting. Designed to move a group into “real work,” using a team problem solving model. Demonstrates how to build a team through problem solving.

Session Four
Planning.
 This segment introduces a results-oriented planning model, based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done, which participants can quickly use in any situation where planning would be of benefit.

Delegation. Participants are introduced to a specific model of effective delegation. Most managers hold certain mental blocks to delegation that prevents them from using this powerful developmental tool. This delegation model challenges these mental blocks so the entire team, manager included, can benefit from delegation.

Session Five
Decision Making
. This segment introduces three decision models that participants can use to make decisions in specific circumstances. All models can be used in a team setting or for an individual decision.

Accountability Conversation. Introduces a results-oriented method to hold individuals and teams accountable for desired results. This combines concepts of Time Span, QQT Goals and Management Relationships.

Session Six
Effective Meetings.
 Moves from theory to the practical application of team dynamics. How to run a more effective meeting.

Coaching. This segment takes the communication models we have previously used and integrates them into a conversation specifically designed for coaching subordinates.

If you would like to pre-register for the program, use the Ask Tom link, tell me a little about yourself and we will add you to the pre-registration list.

Only Measure of Performance

“I have a dilemma,” Sylvia explained. “I have a team member who consistently underperforms. And, every time I ask what happened, to try to find out what went wrong, the cause of the project failure, I always get a plausible reason. I understand why the project failed and it’s not this person’s fault. My dilemma is, I have a make or break project that needs to go to this person, but I hesitate to assign it.”

“Is this person competent in completing assigned projects?” I asked.

“Not in completing them,” she defended, “but, there is always a plausible explanation.”

“Do you need the project completed, or do you need an explanation?” I pressed, not waiting for an answer. “It sounds like your team member doesn’t get better at performing. Your team member gets better at explaining why the underperformance is never their fault. Your team member gets better at an explanation that you actually believe. The measure of performance is not an explanation. The only measure of performance is performance.”

Short bow to Lee Thayer, Leadership, Thinking, Being, Doing.

Not So Fast, Don’t Solve the Problem, Yet

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

Question:
We are working on team problem solving. We think it’s a good idea, but we are not getting the results that we thought we would get. In fact, sometimes the team comes up with solutions that either don’t work, don’t solve the problem or create more havoc than the original problem. The team is eager and always has suggestions, so it’s not a matter of enthusiasm.

Response:
The problem we name is the problem we solve. So, if the group names the wrong problem (symptom), the underlying cause may never be discovered. I work with groups all the time that are trigger happy to solve the problem without understanding or probing. They believe that what they don’t know is probably irrelevant. They believe the way they understand the problem is accurate. They believe that other people’s perceptions about the problem are wrong. They believe the problem presented is actually the problem, when often it’s not.

Slow this group down, force them through the following steps, when confronted with the problem.

  • Have one, two or three people restate the problem as they heard it.
  • Open up the discussion with this rule, NO recommendations, NO observations, NO stories, ONLY clarifying questions. No exceptions. (This step in the discussion is always the most important. This is where the real work is done.)
  • Only after all clarifying questions are exhausted (you can tell, because clarifying the problem is exhausting), then open the discussion for recommendations, observations and shared stories.
  • Action (or commitment) step. Based on the discussion, what is the most potent action that can be taken to resolve the underlying cause of the problem (issue or opportunity).

Most groups move too fast toward recommendations. Slow them down.