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 the Manager Must Know

Welcoming a new group of students to my leadership program in Fort Lauderdale.

In 1999, Marcus Buckingham, with the help of the Gallup organization published their findings of an extensive survey on employee retention. First Break All the Rules documents the most important reasopn that a team member leaves a company, is not for money, but the relationship they have with their manager.

A company may have the best benefit package, the best food in the cafeteria, flexible working hours, free car washes, but if the team member has a lousy relationship with their manager, they will leave. On the other hand, the company may struggle to provide benefits, make everyone bring their own lunch and wash their own car at home, but if the team member has a good working relationship with their manager, the team member will likely stay with the company.

What do I expect from every manager. I expect every manager to know their team. I expect every manager to engage in regular 1-1 meetings with each team member. And, during that meeting, I expect the manager to learn something about the team member, outside of work.

Become genuinely interested in other people. – Dale Carnegie. It’s the most important retention tool for every company.

Culture, Munoz and United

Because I occasionally fly United Airlines, I received an email from Oscar Munoz, CEO at United Airlines that illustrates an often missed step in the culture cycle. Here is what he said in his email, “Earlier this month, we broke that trust when a passenger was forcibly removed from one of our planes. It happened because our corporate policies were placed ahead of our shared values. Our procedures got in the way of our employees doing what they know is right.”

So, here is the culture cycle. Pay close attention to step 3.

  1. We hold beliefs and assumptions, about the way we see the world.
  2. We connect behaviors to those beliefs and assumptions.
  3. We test those behaviors against the reality of consequences.
  4. The behaviors that survive the test become our customs and rituals.

We can say we hold values of integrity, honesty, fairness. We can even define behaviors connected to those beliefs like courtesy, listening, understanding another’s viewpoint. But, somewhere along the line, for the crew on that United Airlines flight, they had learned that NOT following the rules ended in a reprimand. They attempted to displace four passengers for four crew trying to meet a schedule in another city. That was the rule. Had they not followed the rule, they knew there would be hell to pay, a write-up in their employee file, a graveyard shift, a demotion or skipped promotion. They knew that defined behavior of courtesy would never stand up against the reality of consequences.

So, someone got dragged out the door. Based on the settlement with the passenger, it would have been cheaper to purchase four Tesla automobiles for each of the four flight crew and ask them to drive instead of displacing the four passengers.

And right about now, every employee at United Airlines is confused about what to do in spite of what Munoz says.

The Reality Step Always Wins

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You talk about culture and the importance of culture. How can culture be created? How can culture be sustained?

Response:
Culture gets created every day. Whether you intended or not, the culture you have today was created yesterday. Culture is that unwritten set of rules that governs our required behaviors in the work that we do together. It is a cycle.

  • We hold beliefs and assumptions, about the way we see the world.
  • We connect behaviors to those beliefs and assumptions.
  • We test those behaviors against the reality of consequences.
  • The behaviors that survive the test become our customs and rituals.
  • Customs and rituals reinforce our beliefs and assumptions about the way we see the world.
  • Rinse, repeat.

You can start almost anywhere on the cycle to define your culture. Ultimately, the reality step always wins and redefines the rest of the cycle until the next test against reality occurs.

The Difference Between Coaching and Mentoring

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I was in your workshop last week and suddenly realized why I feel frustrated in my position. In the course of a project, I solve problems and make decisions, submit them to my manager for review, and then, he sits on them. People who depend on those decisions, one way or the other, ask me, “what gives?” The decision sits on my manager’s desk in a black hole while the project gets delayed. In the end, my decision survives, but the project is late, time and again.

Is it possible my manager is in over his head? He gets credit for my decisions, even though the project is late. I am worried that I will be stuck here under my manager for the rest of my career.

Response:
There is always more to the story and I cannot speculate on the capability of your manager. I do know that your manager’s goals and objectives set the context for your work. Keep your head down. Keep making decisions and solving problems on your assigned projects. Continue to give your manager “best advice.” That’s your role.

Your biggest fear is that your career may be in a dead-end under your current manager. It likely appears that your manager is, indeed, not focused on your professional development. Not his job.

Look to your manager’s manager, your manager-once-removed. Your manager is specifically focused on a shorter term set of goals and objectives. Your manager-once-removed is focused on a longer term set of goals and objectives. Some of that longer term focus is the professional development of team members two levels of work below.

Manager-once-removed
———————————-
Manager
———————————-
Team member

The working relationship with your manager is different than the working relationship with your manager-once-removed. The relationship with your manager is an accountability relationship filled with task assignments, checkpoints and coaching. The relationship with your manager-once-removed is a mentoring relationship filled with discussions about professional development, career path, working environment, challenge in your role.

It is likely that your company does not recognize the importance of the manager-once-removed relationship. It is possible your manager-once-removed has no awareness of this necessary managerial relationship. You do. You are now aware.

What to do
Pick two or three professional development programs that you find interesting and that could help you bring more value to the company in your role. Don’t pick something that pulls you away from your current role or something with an unreasonable budget. It could be something as simple as three different books you would like to read that will bump up your skill level.

Ask your manager-once-removed to schedule a short fifteen minute conference to ask advice. Don’t ask for advice, ask for a short fifteen minute conference. This is not a casual conversation in the hallway. You want undivided attention across a desk or a table.

This fifteen minute conversation is your first of several meetings with your manager-once-removed to talk about longer time span issues related to your professional development. This is not a time to talk about the accountabilities in your current role, those discussions should be with your manager. This is the time to talk about your long term development and contribution to the company over time.

Take baby steps and build from there. A reasonable routine to meet with your manager-once-removed would be for 30-45-60 minutes every three months. Keep in touch. -Tom

All in Your Head?

“Let me see your list of questions,” I asked. I could see by the furtive glance that Claire didn’t have a list.

“I don’t have them written, just in my head, but I could probably write the questions down for you, if that would help,” she responded.

“How many questions do you have in your head?”

“Well, none really prepared, I have the resume, so I will just ask questions from that.”

It’s not Claire’s fault. No company ever trained her to conduct a job interview. No company ever trained her to create interview questions that reveal valuable information to make a hiring decision. Hiring interviews are one of the most critical management skills for the successful manager.

I see many managers conduct the hiring interview solely from the candidate’s resume in their hand. Change this one thing to make your interviews better. Craft your interview questions from the role description rather than the person’s resume. Every question should have a specific purpose to give you data about the candidate relative to the role you want them to play in your company. It’s not what the candidate has done (though it may be fascinating), but what the candidate has done related to the role. -Tom

Magic and Fairy Dust, Notions and Potions

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
The best engineer on our team was recently promoted to VP-Engineering. Don’t get me wrong, he is a great engineer. But something is just not right. Relieved of his engineering duties, he seems to wander around, sticks his nose into a project without any background on its status. Since I was in your workshop last week, now, I understand that a VP (of anything) is an integration role. It is becoming clear that my boss made a mistake. This guy is not an integrator and we miss his contribution on the engineering team.

Response:
I don’t know the background, I don’t know your company and I don’t know what your boss had in mind when he made the promotion. Doesn’t matter. I hear these stories all the time. Here’s the problem.

Few companies take the time and effort to clearly define the role. Most companies promote without clarifying the work. Maybe your engineering team member has the right stuff to be a VP, but until we define the work, we have no clue.

Most hiring managers believe in magic and fairy dust when they make a hiring or promotion decision. Then, they are disappointed when the candidate doesn’t live up to the expectations that were never defined.

There is no magic. There is no fairy dust, just a little managerial elbow grease –

  • What is the purpose of the role? Why does it exist?
  • What are the key areas in the role? Key result areas (KRAs)?
  • In each key area, what are the tasks and activities?
  • In each key area, what is the output, goal, objective?
  • In each key area, what decisions have to be made? What problems have to be solved?
  • In each key area, what is the time span of the goal?
  • In each key area, what is the level of work?

This is the critical thinking that has to be done before you make the hire, before you make the promotion. The answers to these questions will lead you in the right direction. Without this data, there is no way to make a sound hiring or promotion decision.

But, no one wants to do the managerial work. They would rather rely on magic and fairy dust, notions and potions.

Survival Behavior

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:

What happens when you realize you were given a promotion and not able to live up to the capabilities? Do you admit it to your superiors? Do you keep it to yourself and risk failure?

Response:

There are many ways to survive in a position that’s over your head, but in the end, it’s only survival. Not a way to live.

I often ask managers, “How do you know, what behavior do you observe when a person is in over their head? Where the Time Span required for the role is longer than the Time Span capability of the person?”

The descriptions come back.

  • They feel overwhelmed.
  • They cover things up.
  • They cut off communication.
  • Their projects are always late.
  • I can’t ever find them.
  • They always blame someone else.
  • They have all the excuses.
  • They never accept responsibility.

So, the short answer is yes. When you realize you are in over your head, go back to your boss. Explain the difficulties you are having. Ask for help. If it is a matter of capability (Time Span), no amount of training, no amount of hand holding will help. It is possible that you may grow into the position, but it’s more likely a matter of years, not weeks that allows for the required maturity (increase in Time Span).

This doesn’t make you a bad person, it just means you were placed in a position where you cannot be effective. Yet!

That’s Me

“I don’t care,” Roberto insisted.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I don’t care if that is what the boss wants. It’s a stupid idea. And my role is not to do stupid shit.”

“Pushback?”

“Call it what you want. CEOs run fast, sometimes making a mess. That’s why I have a job, to clean up the mess they call strategy. Somebody has to execute. That’s me.”

Requires a Conscious Mindset

“So, how do I get the team back to productive work?” Miriam asked.

“Facing the issue of having to work together, in a conscious, cooperative way, takes effort,” I replied. “It doesn’t happen by itself. As the manager, when you push the issue back to the center of the table, there are four predictable responses. The team will go into fight or flight. They will freeze or appease, not necessarily in that order.”

“I just have to outlast the panic,” Miriam remembered.

“To work together, the team has to change its belief about the way it works together. Culture starts with the way we see the world, the way we see our circumstances. Teams that work together have a different mindset. They don’t cooperate (for long) because we tell them to. They support and help each other because they believe that is the way things are done around here. It may not be comfortable at first, but high performing teams not only live with the discomfort, but create rituals to meet adversity head on. I can always tell a team is making progress when they trade in (solve) old problems for a new set of problems.” -Tom

BAMS

“Miriam, I want you to look at these two columns of words,” I pointed. “One column describes a group engaged in work, the other describes a group engaged in non-work. When you observe a team, these are things to look for.

Work ——————- Non-Work
Team cohesion———- Pairing behavior
Conscious ————- Unconscious
Cooperation ———– Collusion
Scientific ———— Un-scientific
Constructive ———- Complaining
Focused ————— Distracted

“These are sometimes not so subtle signs of a team going into disarray,” I explained. “And, it is mostly unconscious. The team doesn’t even know it is doing it. There is an exercise I conduct at the beginning of most meetings. It’s called Good News. ‘Tell the group something positive that happened to you in the past week.’ Invariably, one or two people will have difficulty. ‘I can’t think of anything,’ they will say. What if I had asked the opposite question, ‘Tell the group something negative that happened to you in the past week?’ No group has a problem coming up with the negative stuff. It is unconscious. Positive thought requires conscious effort.”

Miriam’s eyes grew wide. “So, what do I do. I see this group behavior often. As their manager, how do I get the team back to productive work?”
_______
Some of you may recognize this model as BAMS, Basic Assumption Mental State, described by Wilfred Bion in his tortuous book, Experiences in Groups. -Tom