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.

Role Mis-Match?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
How do you deal (humanely) with someone who clearly is holding an S-IV role, but only appears to have S-III capability?

Response:
First, understand that this person is doing their best, and the mistake was made by the manager (I assume that is you) who promoted this person into that role without proper due diligence.

Now, what to do?

Pull out the role description and carefully examine those Key Result Areas that describe decision making and problem solving at S-IV (multi-system analysis and system integration). Using the role description, you can either manicure the role to reassign those accountabilities to someone else or choose to transfer the person to another role which better matches their capability.

The most important part of this managerial move is to understand, the discussion centers around the tasks, activities, decisions and problem solving. The discussion does NOT center around the stratum level capability of the person. This is an important nuance.

As the manager you have the following authority –

  • Determine the level of work in the role.
  • Determine the effectiveness of the person in the role.

As the manager, you do NOT have the authority –

  • To guess the stratum level of capability of the person.
  • To guess the potential capability of the person.

As the manager, you may have an intuitive judgment about a person’s capability or potential capability. You may take action related to that judgment ONLY by testing the candidate against effectiveness in the role (or testing the candidate with project work similar to the level of work in the role). It’s all about the work, not about a number.

Time to Practice

“But, I am back to my original question,” Marsha wanted to know. “How many skills can a person be good at?”

“You can be good at as many skills as you have time to practice,” I said. “Right now, you are good at the technical stuff that flows through your department?”

“Yes,” Marsha replied. “Because I practice. We get problems every day that have to be solved. We get technical bulletins all the time that we have to pay attention to.”

“If you focus on this new department, it is a different skill set, with a learning curve. What will happen to your technical skills related to the work in your current department? You will stop reading the technical bulletins, you will stop solving those technical problems. As you practice new skills, your old skills will begin to go away. You can only be good at as many skills as you have time to practice.”

Skill Development is About Practice

“How different is this new department?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s different. The department I run now is full of technicians. This new role is all about merchandising and promotion. I will have to learn a lot,” Marsha replied.

“But, it sounds interesting to you?”

Marsha nodded. “Yes, it sounds interesting. More than that, I have always had an interest in marketing. I mean, I know I am in charge of a technical department, so this would be a challenge for me.”

“What will have to change?”

“There will be a learning curve, to get up to speed. There are lots of things I don’t know,” she admitted.

“Here’s the thing about any skill. There is always technical knowledge you need to know. But technical knowledge is learn-able. And, to get good at it, you have to practice. You may have an interest in marketing. You may have read a couple of books about it, but you have not practiced it. If you want to get good at it, you have to commit to practice.”

How Many Skill Sets?

“You look out of sorts,” I said.

“I am,” Marsha replied. “I have been at this job, as a manager, for almost 15 years. I have an opportunity to move into a brand new department. I would still be a manager, but I have no real experience in that area.”

“If you have no experience, why does the company think you can handle it? Why would you even be interested?”

“The manager of the department retired. My manager said I should give it shot. His boss said they would like someone on the inside to take it over, rather than recruit from the outside. It would definitely be a challenge, and it looks interesting. But, here is my question. How many skill sets can a person be really good at? In my current role, I have a handle on things. This would be new.”

“How many skill sets do you think you could be good at?” I prompted.

“That’s the big unknown,” Marsha nodded.

Keep the Key, Delegate the Key

“So, you are telling me the key-ring has nothing to do with keys?” I asked.

“No more than an open door policy has anything to do with the door,” Ryan replied. “I had to figure out what tasks I need to self-perform and what is necessary to delegate to other team members.”

“And, how do you make that decision?”

“Ultimately, I am accountable for the output, as the manager, but who completes the task depends on the task. I make that decision based on the target completion time. If the target completion time of the task is short, like a day, a week, or a month, the task is a candidate for delegation. If the target completion time of the task is longer, like a year, it may be necessary that I remain heavily involved.”

“So,” I confirmed, “whether you keep the key, or delegate the key depends on the time span of the task.”

The Key Ring

“Why did you think it was so important to give the key ring to someone else?” I asked.

“Because the key ring was a distraction,” Ryan explained. “People would come to me and ask for the key to the tool room, where we keep the calibration equipment. I loved when people asked my permission to gain access to the tool room.”

“Sounds like a powerful position,” I observed.

“And, I discovered that, as long as I had the key ring to all the doors, then people would continue to ask my permission. To the point, where I could not spend time on more important things.”

“What happened?” I wanted to know.

“As long as I had the key ring, I was the bottleneck in every decision. And while that bottleneck grew, I ignored my real priorities.”

“So, you could not keep the keys AND do your job, at the same time?”

“No,” Ryan said. “I had to assign the key ring to a more appropriate person.”

“What did you learn?”

“I learned that the key ring was just a symbol for power that had little to do with effectiveness. And sometimes the key ring had nothing to do with keys. The key ring had more to do with decisions that should have been made at a different level of work, a more appropriate level of work.”

“And?” I pressed.

“And, so I have to constantly look for the key ring, I am holding, that I really need to let go.”

Who Carries the Keys?

“They called me KEYS,” Ryan explained. “I had the keys to every door and portal in the building. I was important. I was the person the company trusted with the keys.”

“And, what did you discover?” I asked.

“I thought the keys were a sign of power, and that power translated into being a manager.”

“And, why did you think that?” I pressed.

“No one could do anything without my permission.” Ryan replied. “I thought I had a great deal of authority.”

“And, now?”

“Now, I realize that carrying all the keys to the building has nothing to do with being a manager.”

“So, what did you change?”

“I found another trustworthy person to carry all the keys.”

How to Explain Levels of Work to Your Team

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I finished your Time Span 101 program and now I understand levels of work. But, I hesitate to talk to my team about it. How do you explain Time Span to a team whose roles are at S-I level of work. I am afraid they won’t understand or will react negatively to their role at S-I.

Response:
You don’t have to introduce the concept of level of work to your S-I team. They already know it. Ask yourself a couple of questions.

  • Do your team members in roles at S-I understand they have a supervisor that gives them task assignments?
  • Do your team members in roles at S-I understand that their supervisor likely receives more in compensation?
  • Do your team members in roles at S-I believe the work they do is different from the work their supervisor does?
  • Do your team members in roles at S-I understand they have some decisions they can make and that their supervisor has the authority to make other decisions?

Your team members intuitively already understand levels of work. When I talk to teams in roles at S-I or S-II, we talk about goals and objectives, decisions to make and problems to solve. We talk about accountability. We talk about who makes the decision at what level of work. We talk about who solves the problem at what level of work. We talk about contribution and how roles fit together.

Your teams already understand levels of work. These are normal managerial conversations to have with your team. These are required conversations.

Move a Team Out of Its Mediocrity

“Why the long face?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Julia replied. “I have been working here for six months as a manager. And I feel like I have a mob on my hands. It’s almost like I need to dis-empower the team to get them to stop fighting me. I have a group of long time employees, comfortable in their mediocrity. They work together, almost as a team, to try to stop effective change or create resistance to it. They are very powerful for several reasons. First because we can’t fire them all and second because they have become a fixture in the organization and the idea of eliminating them is almost not an option.”

“Are there things that need improving around here?” I probed.

“Without a doubt. But, every time I suggest something, I get stiff-armed. Or they agree with me, and do the opposite behind my back.”

“Perhaps you should stop suggesting things,” I wondered out loud.

“But, we need to make changes in our processes, to become more efficient,” she protested.

“Who is going to execute those changes?” I wanted to know.

“Well, my team has to.”

“Then, who has to come up with the ideas and how to implement them? Here is a hint. The answer has nothing to do with ideas and execution. The answer has to do with your role as a manager.”

Defining Levels of Work in a Bank

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You spoke to the Vistage group I attend. I recently transitioned to a new role as the CEO of a lending institution. We are, in essence, structured as a traditional savings and loan, but we only serve a specific target market.

I do not see a model in your book that directly breaks down the strata levels for “banking” organizations. I’m in the midst of a major re-structure, and your info has always been very helpful to me in these situations.

Response:
I am not an expert on banking, so if anyone has specific insights, pile on. The methodology below works for any industry.

  1. Set your strategy. Review your current strategy documents, including Vision, Mission and Business Model. Those are likely already defined for your organization.
  2. Define the functions necessary for your organization to operate. Your core function (that which drives revenue) will be surrounded by necessary support functions. My assumption is that your core function is closing loans to specific institutions in the target market you serve. Your ability to book performing loans drives your revenue.
    • Book performing loans in target market (core function)
    • Marketing, traditional and digital media marketing, including social media (support function)
    • Sales, in the guise of customer service at your branch locations (support function).
    • Operations, including all physical transaction activity like deposits, checking, loan payments (support function)
    • Back office operations, including electronic transaction activity, online banking, debit cards, credit cards (support function)
    • Facility operations, including building, building maintenance, leases and real estate (support function)
    • Security, including physical security, electronic security, and custodial oversight of cash and bank instruments (support function)
    • Regulatory (support function)
    • Legal (support function)
  3. Define the level of work in each function, which is likely the basis for your question. Looking at your core function, booking performing loans in your target market.
    • Loans will likely require leads from the marketing department, driven to a branch location or to a telephone loan department.
    • The lead probably lands on a desk at S-II level of work, someone to do the initial diagnostic workup and complete the necessary paperwork. Much of this work is systematized and gathered on template forms.
    • The loan package is then likely reviewed by a role at S-III level of work to make an initial determination and recommendation to a loan committee. If the loan is missing fundamental elements of collateral or “ability to pay,” this role will likely investigate to determine what is necessary to make the loan conform.
    • The loan will then move to a loan committee, comprised of S-III and S-IV roles. There will likely be specialists at S-III to vet the required elements of the loan. The S-IV roles will look at criteria to determine if the loan integrates into the bank’s portfolio. There may also be an S-IV role to ensure the loan will meet regulatory audit.
    • The institution will also likely field an S-V role, a business unit president, to make sure the enterprise is supported by all the functions necessary to drive the core function.

    Let’s look quickly at one of the supporting functions, physical operations.

    • Teller functions and customer service functions are now automated to the point where this role is mid S-I.
    • Each teller or customer service person has a supervisor or manager who ensures that services are delivered accurately and that cash and instruments foot (and cross-foot) at the end of each shift. The supervisor schedules the number of tellers and customer service personnel on shift depending on historical and forecast activity.
    • Each branch likely has a branch manager at low S-III to manage the overall physical operation. In a small branch, this role might by high S-II, and in a very large branch, this role might be high S-III or S-IV.

    Define the level of work for all the other support functions.

  4. Define the specific roles required in each level of work. The definition of level of work in the previous step goes hand in hand with this step.
  5. Establish the necessary managerial relationships in each function
  6. Establish the necessary cross-functional relationships between each function
  7. Assign and evaluate personnel filling each role.

These are the big steps. If you have questions, please let me know.