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 Do You Personally Know?

“Let’s talk about the truth,” I floated. “Your project manager told your ops manager that everyone on the team thinks he manipulated the schedule. Did the project manager speak on your behalf?”

“Well, he didn’t get my permission, but I sort of agreed with him,” Deana said.

“Tell me what your truth is about this project schedule. Tell me what you personally know happened. And, please, avoid talking on someone else’s behalf. Tell me what you personally know.”

“Well, everyone agrees we are behind schedule even though the schedule shows we are on-time.”

“How do you know that?”

“Everyone said it.” Deana was getting exasperated.

“I asked you to speak only for yourself, what do you personally know about the schedule?”

“I don’t really know anything about the schedule. I mean, I have a copy of the updated schedule, but I don’t know who updates it, or how often. And, I don’t visit the job-site, so I don’t have first-hand knowledge of progress.”

“What do you know, first-hand?” I pressed.

“Okay, I got a call from the client, and they were worried that we were behind schedule. That’s what I know, and I know that first hand,” Deana insisted.

“Now, tell me, as if I am the ops manager in front of everyone else in the meeting, about your phone call with the client. And, speak only for yourself.”

Deana took a breath. “I got a call from the client about the project schedule and we were all wondering…”

“Stop,” I interrupted. “Speak only for yourself. Try it again.”

Deana had to gather her thoughts. She slipped into “we” mode unconsciously. “Okay, I got a call from the client about the project schedule. The client told me she was worried and I am worried, too.”

“Keep going,” I prompted.

“What do you mean?” Deana thought she was finished. Off the hook.

“Tell me what you know, what is your truth about the project schedule. Start over.”

“I got a call from the client about the project schedule. The client told me she was worried and I am worried, too. I got a copy of the updated schedule, but I don’t know how it is updated or how often, so I can’t tell if we are really on schedule or if we are behind.”

“So, what was different about what you said compared to what the project manager said?”

“When the project manager said everyone on the team thought the ops manager manipulated the schedule, it sounded like an accusation. You made me speak for myself, so it sounded more like…” Deana paused to think. “It sounded more like a search for the truth.”

“So, the problem in the team has nothing to do with the schedule. It has to do with the way the team searches for the truth.”

Would You Say It, If It Wasn’t True?

“You described the situation with your team like a rubber band. Your team is stretched, trying to deal with the problem,” I said, “what do you think the problem is?”

“The problem is that we are behind schedule,” Deana stated flatly.

“What if I told you the problem with the team has nothing to do with the schedule?” I proposed.

“What do you mean? That’s the problem, the ops manager is manipulating the schedule so it looks like we are on-time when we are behind.”

“So, you are on the side of the project manager?”

“Yes. I mean, outside the meeting, without the ops manager, everyone on the team talked about it, and the truth is, the ops manager is manipulating the schedule,” Deana insisted.

“The truth?”

“Well, yeah, I wanted to check with other team members, get my facts straight and that’s what everybody thinks. When the project manager brought it up in the meeting, that is exactly the way he said it. He told the ops manager straight to his face, ‘Everyone in here thinks you manipulated the schedule.’ I don’t think he would say that unless it was the truth.”

“There’s that truth word again,” I smiled.

This is the story of a team in the classic struggle of BAMs. BAMs is the mental state of any group that drives its behavior. BAMs is in one of two states, work or non-work.

  • Work Mode vs. Non-Work Mode
  • Rational vs. Irrational
  • Scientific vs. Unscientific
  • Cooperative vs. Collusive
  • Controlled vs. Uncontrolled
  • Conscious vs. Unconscious

Deana’s team has a problem. In a classic move of non-work, the team mis-identifies the problem. The team does not have to deal with the real problem if it can create the appearance of working a different problem. The problem you solve is the problem you name. The team named the wrong problem.

I woke up this morning in a cold sweat. This is not the story of a team (your team). This is the story of a nation. This is the story of a nation in BAMs. Has the nation named the wrong problem?

The Team is Whispering

“So, tell me, Deana, if the ops manager is manipulating the project schedule, so it looks like we are on-time when we are behind, and if we can’t talk about it in the scheduling meeting, what will eventually happen?” I asked.

“It’s like a rubber band about to snap,” Deana replied. “The ops manager is so overbearing that everyone is terrified to bring it up, except the project manager. And my manager made it clear that if the project manager had a beef with the ops manager, they were to take it up outside the meeting, in private. So, it’s hands-off in the meeting.”

“Does this impact the team?” I wanted to know.

“Of course. How can we fix schedule delays, when the schedule says we are on-time?”

“What will happen?”

“I don’t know. The project manager is about ready to quit. He feels helpless, and no one on the team will support him, or even ask a question about it. More than one meeting got so tense that my manager squashed any kind of meaningful discussion. The rest of the team is whispering about all kinds of rumor-mill stuff at the water cooler.”

“How do you know all this?”

“People are coming to me privately. They feel like they can trust me. I mean, no one is stabbing anyone in the back, but if they are willing to talk about other people behind their back, what are they saying about me behind my back?”

“Why do you think your manager stopped the discussion in the meeting?”

Deana thought for a minute. “I think she was afraid of losing control of the team. I think if she allowed the confrontation to happen in front of the team, it might blow the team apart.”

“Tell me what is happening to the team,” I nodded.

“The team is coming apart anyway,” Deana concluded.

What’s Not to Talk About

“So, did your team deal with the issue, or did they avoid it and move on?” I repeated.

“Well, thank goodness my manager was there. When the project manager accused the ops manager of manipulating the schedule, no one knew what to say,” Deana replied.

“So, everyone checked out and looked to the senior-most manager in the room. Was the ops manager manipulating the schedule?” I asked.

“You know, no one is really sure. I was talking with one of my team members after the meeting and he thinks it was a big cover-up.”

“So, the situation was never resolved. We don’t know why we were behind schedule. We don’t if the schedule was accurate. We don’t know how to prevent this in the future.”

“What we do know,” Deana thought out loud, “if we are ever behind schedule and try to cover it up, we won’t talk about it in the meeting.”

Working Leadership comes to Austin TX. Ask me and I will send you a one page pdf about the program. Or you can follow this link to find out more.
Here are the dates –

  • Session One – Aug 25, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Two – Sep 1, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Three – Sep 8, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Four – Sep 18, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Five – Sep 22, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Six – Sep 28, 2017, 9a-12p

To register, just ask Tom.

How the Team Avoids an Issue

“How do I know, working with my team, when we are dealing with a real issue?” Deana wanted to know.

“How does your stomach feel?” I asked.

“It feels fine,” she replied with a quizzical look.

“Then, we are just having polite conversation,” I nodded. “Have you ever sat in a meeting when someone said something that made you feel uncomfortable?”

Deana’s eyes glanced to the ceiling, then back to the conversation. She nodded with me. “Yep. We were working on a big project, tight deadline, behind schedule, angry client. In the meeting, the project manager jumped all over the ops manager, accused him of manipulating the project schedule to cover up the ops team being late. It was kind of creepy. Usually if someone has a beef with somebody else like that, they talk about it in private.”

“What impact did that have on the discussion?”

“Everything stopped. My manager was in the room. She called a halt to the meeting, said if they couldn’t get along, they would have to leave the meeting.”

“Then, what happened?”

“Everyone shut up and moved on to talk about the next project. It was under control, so things calmed down so we could finish our meeting.”

“So, what do you think was the real issue? And how did your stomach feel?” I prodded.

“So, if the conversation has my stomach doing flip-flops, then the team is probably facing a real issue?”

“And, did your team deal with the issue, or did they avoid it and move on?”

Working Leadership comes to Austin TX. For more information, follow this link.
Here are the dates –

  • Session One – Aug 25, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Two – Sep 1, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Three – Sep 8, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Four – Sep 18, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Five – Sep 22, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Six – Sep 28, 2017, 9a-12p

For registration information, ask Tom.

Panic and Seduction

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You suggest that a manager must push work to the team and that is the only way to gain control. I pushed work to my team and things got worse. Chaos emerged. I was better off before. I had to step back in and take control.

Response:
Of course, things got worse. It was a seduction. You pushed decision making and problem solving to the team and they panicked. This not-so-subtle shift of accountability from the leader to the team sent the team into panic.

As long as the manager is making all the decisions and solving all the problems, as long as the manager is barking orders, raising the voice of authority, repeated lecturing about misbehavior and underperformance, the manager has all the accountability. It was a seduction.

When accountability shifted, the team panicked, chaos ensued and the seduction began again, to have you, as the manager step in and take it all back.

The most effective position for the manager in this seduction is very simple. Outlast the panic.

Working Leadership comes to Austin TX. For more information, follow this link.
Here are the dates –

  • Session One – Aug 25, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Two – Sep 1, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Three – Sep 8, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Four – Sep 18, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Five – Sep 22, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Six – Sep 28, 2017, 9a-12p

For registration information, ask Tom.

The Illusion of Managerial Control

As managers, we do all kinds of things in an attempt to maintain control. In our roles, we are given goals to implement with our teams. Our teams, at some point, let us down, there is a bit of mistrust coupled with the adage learned from our mothers that if you want a job done right, you have to do it yourself.

Unfortunately for our (control-freak) minds, there is too much work to do ourselves, so we find it necessary to assign tasks to our team. Yet, we tip-toe out and peek over shoulders, not micro-managing, but enough oversight to identify a mistake in the method. We take corrective action, perhaps a performance-improvement-plan, increase the frequency of our coaching and dial up the volume.

Still, it makes little difference. In spite of the shouting, the gathering of metrics, the deadline is missed and the defect rate is above threshold. We sit in our office, after hours, with our head in our hands and wonder we are the only ones who seem concerned about this lack of accountability. We have lost control.

This scenario of control is an illusion. It does not exist except in the mind of the manager. The manager can only control what one person can control and there is too much work to go around for one person.

The manager who carries all the keys to all the doors and all the closets (makes all the decisions and solves all the problems) will never be in control. Only when appropriate decision making and appropriate problem solving is pushed to the team does the manager resume control. It is counter-intuitive. The only way to really be in control is to let go.

Working Leadership comes to Austin TX. For more information, follow this link.
Here are the dates –

  • Session One – Aug 25, 2017
  • Session Two – Sep 1, 2017
  • Session Three – Sep 8, 2017
  • Session Four – Sep 18, 2017
  • Session Five – Sep 22, 2017
  • Session Six – Sep 28, 2017

For registration information, ask Tom.

Working Leadership Comes to Austin TX

Since 1995, our Working Leadership program has been training managers. More than 1200 have graduated from this program in managerial leadership. This six week behavior-based program covers the essential skills that managers are never taught.

  • Role of the manager
  • Communication one-to-one
  • Time management
  • Leadership styles (using the DISC program)
  • Team problem solving
  • Positive Reinforcement
  • Planning
  • Delegation
  • Decision Making
  • Accountability
  • Effective meetings
  • Coaching

If you would like more detail about the curriculum in each of these subject areas, just ask here. I will send you a more colorful sheet.

Here are the dates –
Session One – Aug 25, 2017
Session Two – Sep 1, 2017
Session Three – Sep 8, 2017
Session Four – Sep 18, 2017
Session Five – Sep 22, 2017
Session Six – Sep 28, 2017

Each session is 3-1/2 hours and includes field work assignments between sessions. This program is intended for Hi-S-II supervisors and S-III managers. The class will be held in Austin, TX.

Your coach for this program will be William Foster. William has been in the classroom for 27 years, is a Board Member of the Caldwell Independent School District, and received his certification to teach this program in 2016.

Space is limited to 15 students. If you have an emerging manager in your organization that would benefit from this program, you can pre-register here. Program tuition is $1600. Vistage members receive a $100 credit per participant (includes all materials and textbooks.) VISA-MasterCard accepted.

If you have questions, would like more information or if you would like to pre-register, please drop me an email or follow this link.

Curriculum Details –

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 the 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
Leadership 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 effectivedelegation. 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 find out more about this program, please drop me a line.
-Tom Foster

Can I Do This By Myself?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I attended your session last week on levels of work. I can see that my organization has a lot of work to do, but I am just a manager. I don’t have the authority to do some of the things you suggest. How can I, as a manager, implement some of these ideas with my own team. Where do I start?

Response:
Remember this phrase, “It’s all about the work.”

Work is solving problems and making decisions. That is where to start. As a manager, think about your team and its function inside your company. Is it marketing, sales, contracting, project management, operations, quality control, research and development, accounting, human resources, legal? What is the function of your team?

In that function, what are the problems that have to be solved? What are the decisions that have to be made? You don’t have to answer these questions by yourself, ask your team.

As you discuss this with your team, three distinct levels of work will likely emerge.

  • There is some direct activity, or production work that must be done.
  • There is some organizing work that schedules the production work, its people, materials and necessary equipment to make sure that the production gets done, on time.
  • There is system work that decides the most efficient sequence, time duration, quality standard and assesses the output to make improvements for a more consistent and predictable product or service.

You will notice that each level of work has its own problems to solve and decisions to make. You will also notice the time span of each level of work is different.

  • The direct activity, or production work may be observable in days or weeks.
  • The organizing work will anticipate the production schedules in weeks or months.
  • The system work will ensure that the product or service is consistent over a longer period of months and years.

You will notice, that to be effective, each level of work may carry its own skill set, engage in distinctly different activities and measure its outcomes in different ways.

Remember this phrase, “It’s all about the work.” As a manager, become an expert in the work. -Tom

New Team, New Manager

It is always tough to become a new manager to an existing peer group or a new team. A new manager always means change. And most people don’t like change, at least the unknown parts of change.

Respect comes, not from the authority of the position, or the experience of the manager. Respect comes from bringing value to the problem solving and decision making of the individuals on the team.

In fact, team members will always seek out the person in the company that brings value to their thinking and their work. If it happens to be their manager, that’s great. All too often, it’s not.

We all work for two bosses. We work for the boss who is assigned to us, and we work for the boss we seek out. The boss we seek out is the one who brings value to our thinking, our work and our lives.

So, if you are the new manager, which boss are you?