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.

What Does It Take to Be President

I usually don’t talk about levels of work above S-VI, but today is inauguration day. A new president takes the oath of office and for the next four years, plays a role, making decisions and solving problems.

Levels of work were first explained to me in 2001. My teacher was Jerry Harvey, a colleague of Elliott’s. On this day, I imagine, Jerry is on some heavenly golf course, trying to make a side bet with Elliott about how things will turn out.

Jerry described the role of President of the United States (POTUS) as a Stratum VII role. We are talking about the role, not the person. Decisions made at this level of work will have 20-50 year impact, both good decisions and bad decisions.

The goals and objectives at this level of work have target completion times 20-50 years into the future. As Jerry put it, this is not a short game. Can you imagine putting the wheels in motion, to set out on a journey, the fruits of which we will not see for 20-50 years. And, yet the public expects the problems to be solved in the first 100 days.

The state of thinking required to be effective at S-VII is Serial (Conceptual). See the iterative chart below.

States of Thinking

  • S-I (1 day – 3 months) Declarative (Concrete)
  • S-II (3 months to 12 months) Cumulative (Concrete)
  • S-III (1 year to 2 years) Serial (Concrete)
  • S-IV (2 years to 5 years) Parallel (Concrete)
  • S-V (5 years to 10 years) Declarative (Conceptual)
  • S-VI (10 years to 20 years) Cumulative (Conceptual)
  • S-VII (20 years to 50 years) Serial (Conceptual)

Jerry described Bill Clinton as effective at S-VI for his first six years in office, effective at S-VII only during the last two years of his term. He joked about the year 2000 election, both Gore and Bush at S-V. That’s why we couldn’t tell the difference and the election ended in a stalemate, had to be decided by the Supreme Court.

I do not judge a person’s capability. I only judge the role. What is the work? What are the decisions to be made? What are the problems to be solved? Then, my question is simple, was the person effective? or not?

What is the level of work in your role? What are the decisions to be made? What are the problems to be solved? Are you effective in your role? -Tom Foster

What Do You Look for in a Candidate?

“We are hiring for a new supervisor. And this time, there is no one on the inside that we can promote. We have a good crew of technicians, but none is going to be able to do what we need them to do. We have to go outside,” Roger explained. “What do we need to look for in the person we want to hire?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean, what kind of person should we look for? You know, someone who is self-motivated, dependable. Someone who can project confidence to the team. That’s important, you know. We need someone who is flexible, who can adapt to change. Someone who is a team player, you know, someone who is good with people.”

“That’s all interesting, but what is the work?”

“It’s a supervisor. Supervisory work,” Roger floated.

“So, what is the work of a supervisor, in your company, what is the work?”

Roger looked at me blankly.

“Look,” I said, interrupting his stare. “You seem to be focused on trying to climb inside the head of the candidate without any real definition of the work that has to be done. In this role, what are the decisions that have to be made? What are the problems that have to be solved? I am more interested in whether the candidate has made those kinds of decisions and solved those kinds of problems.” -Tom

Whose Policy Book Is It?

“I have been working on this policy book, documenting our methods and processes so we can use them in our training programs,” Javier explained.

“Outstanding,” I replied. “So what gives?”

“We finished the book three months ago, but I can’t get the team to take it seriously. We have a meeting, everyone agrees and follows the process for the better part of a morning. But, as soon as there is the slightest hiccup, they go back to the old way and trash talk the policy book. Then I have another meeting where I sound like the critical parent.”

“Maybe you are the critical parent,” I nodded.

“Maybe so, but someone has to be the adult in the room,” Javier pushed back.

“Says who?” I asked.

“Well, I’m the manager, so I guess – says me.”

“You just told me the team doesn’t listen to you.”

“They don’t!” Javier pushed back.

“So, when the team abandons the policy book and goes back to their own experience, who do they rely on for guidance?”

“Well, they are hiding from me, so, they rely on each other and their own judgement.”

“Tell me, Javier, who wrote the policy book?”

“I did. I stayed late every night for a month. I am pretty proud of the thinking behind it. Some of my best work.”

“But none of your team’s experience, none of your team’s judgement is in the book. So, where do you think the problem is?” -Tom

Why? You Ask.

The most effective managers are not those who tell people what to do, but those who ask the most effective questions.

Yet, some people would rather complain about a problem they can’t solve, than execute a solution they don’t like. Or, you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.

You will never learn from questions you don’t ask. So, why do we hesitate?

  • It’s uncomfortable to admit we don’t know.
  • The answer is obvious to everyone. Or it should be obvious to everyone, even if it’s not.
  • Our assumption may be wrong, but to ask a question requires us to re-examine what we believe to be true.
  • We might be wrong, but no one will notice, unless we ask the right question.

Asking questions takes us out of knowing mode and places us in learning mode.

Homage to Lee Thayer and Wayne Gretzky.

Having the Right Answer

Ernesto introduced himself to the class. “Hello, my name is Ernesto, and I have been in management for ten years. The biggest challenge with my team is making sure they do the job right. I have so much experience that I seldom make mistakes and I think that is why I was promoted. It’s important we don’t make mistakes because mistakes cost the company.”

Here’s the difficulty. How many ways does an expert have to solve a problem?

  • Instead of curious, the expert has the learned answer.
  • Instead of inquiring, the expert speaks with a solution.
  • Instead of exploring, the expert knows the right and only way.

Instead of being a curious child, we get good, we become learned, we become an expert. What are the predictable problems Ernesto has faced all of his managerial career?

It’s not so much to have the right answer, but to ask the right question. -Tom

Time Span of Intention

This week, I shared a planning document (you can download it below), with the headline, “What is your intention?”

Elliott closed his last book with this notion of intention, in a drawing he described as, the most important illustration of his book, the Axis of Intention.

Planning is simply the documentation of your intention.

We have two dimensions of time, the past and the future, separated by the nanosecond of the present. Events that occur are measurable by a stopwatch. The melting point (time to melt) of a metal at a given temperature is predictable, can be scientifically documented. It is known, concrete, tangible.

In life, the Axis of Achievement (the past) is overlaid by the Axis of Intention (the future). What is your intention? What is the time span of your intention?

I get pushback on planning.

  • We don’t have time.
  • Actual results never meet the plan.
  • We might be held accountable for what we said.

We don’t have time to plan. Then what is the time span of your intention, that you don’t have time to consider your intention?
Actual results never meet the plan. Of course not, but actual results are shaped by the axis of your intention.
We might be held accountable for what we said. Accountability is output. Accountability is the reconciliation between these two dimensions of time –
The past, axis of achievement.
The future, axis of intention.

The linchpin is this understanding of time span. What is the time span of your intention? That is what will shape your world. -Tom

You can download the planning document here. 2017 Planning Template

Habits and Planning Effectiveness

Many of you asked to receive a copy of my planning template for this year. It is a simple template based on a gap analysis.

  • Where would you like to go?
  • Where are you now?
  • What’s the gap in between? (Resources, milestones and obstacles)

I am working with several people preparing their plans for management team meetings, peer executive groups and 1-1 meetings, so I get to see what people actually put to paper.

One element strikes me as critical, the role of habits.

It is one thing to work on each goal as a project, with a discrete start and finish, very results oriented. But the real power in your ability to create lasting impact over time is in the creation of a habit. A habit is a grooved, routine behavior, often below consciousness that continuously moves us toward the goal.

All behavior is goal oriented. We think we create our own success. We do not. We only create our own habits, and it is our habits that determine our success. -Tom

You should be able to download the planning template here. 2017 Planning Template

What Are Your Intentions? – 2017 Planning Guide

It’s 2017. What are your intentions?

Benefits to planning –

  • Gain agreement from stakeholders on what is necessary to be achieved.
  • Gain agreement on reality. No plan survives its train-wreck with reality.
  • Gain agreement on how we will know. Really, how will we know? What are the measurements, key performance indicators.

Blocks to planning –

  • We don’t have time.
  • Actual results never meet the plan.
  • We might be held accountable for what we said.

You decide.-Tom

If you would like some help, you can download the planning template here. 2017 Planning Template

Amidst the Hustle and Bustle

People are scurrying to take off for the holidays. I see the hustle, bustle and last minute shopping. I, too, am battening down for a winter holiday, a little feasting, a little skiing. We will see you back here in January. For now, hug those around you and give thanks.
_____

As Matthew looked across the manufacturing floor, the machines stood silent, the shipping dock was clear. Outside, the service vans were neatly parked in a row. Though he was the solitary figure, Matthew shouted across the empty space.

“Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night.”

He reached for the switch. The mercury vapors went dark. He slid out the door and locked it behind.

See you all next year. -Tom

Levels of Work and Appropriate Decision Making

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
In your workshop today, you asked two questions –

  • What have been your growing pains (as an organization)?
  • What has to change going forward?

It occurred to me, the reason our company is stuck, is that decision making always gets pushed to the CEO. In our executive team meeting, whenever there is a decision to be made, even seemingly routine decisions, I see heads go down, deference to the CEO. We all wait, unable to make a move until she speaks.

Response:
Dependency is the collusion required to institutionalize parenting and patriarchy. It’s a two-way street. Given the opportunity for the CEO to play God, it is very difficult to resist. Allowing someone else (the CEO) to make the decision lets the executive management team off the hook of accountability. It is a perfect collusion.

Allowed to persist, the executive management team is crippled from making ANY decision, especially those they should be making. When all decision making streams through the desk of the CEO, speed slows down and accountability is concentrated.

When you understand levels of work, you are suddenly able to determine what decisions are appropriately delegated and who to delegate them to. There is appropriate decision making at every level of work.

When the decision emerges in the executive management team, ask these two questions –

  • What is the appropriate level of work to make this decision?
  • Who, at that level of work, will be accountable for the consequences of that decision?

-Tom