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.

Where Management Trouble Begins

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
In your workshop last week, you stressed the importance of a role description. To be honest, we don’t really have time to write them. We either use an old version from HR, get something off the internet, or use our posting from Craig’s List.

Response:
And, that’s where the trouble begins. The reason we have so much difficulty with issues related to motivation and management is that we don’t accurately define the work. The role description is the cornerstone document –

  • Defines the work, the outputs, the expectations in the role.
  • Organizes the bank of interview questions.
  • Creates the basis for behavioral interview questions.
  • Structures the decision making process for selecting from the candidate pool.
  • Structures the monthly (or more frequent) 1-1 conversation between the team member and the manager.
  • Structures a performance improvement plan, when necessary.
  • Provides grounds for termination, when necessary.

It’s all about the work. Our problems begin when we don’t accurately define the work. What are the decisions to be made, problems to be solved in the role?

Embedding Culture as a Key Result Area

Some time ago, writing a role description, I added Culture as a Key Result Area (KRA). What is the accountability of a manager in the Key Result Area of Company Culture?

There are several frames in which to look at company culture –
That unwritten set of rules that governs our required behavior in the work that we do together. It is an unwritten set of rules in contrast to our written set of rules, policies, procedures. And, culture is often more powerful than any policy we may write or attempt to officially enforce. Sometimes, culture even works against our stated policy.

What is the accountability of a manager in the Key Result Area of Company Culture?

These are the four questions in the Culture Cycle.

  1. What is the source of culture, where does it start?
  2. How is culture visible, how do we see it?
  3. How is culture tested?
  4. How is culture institutionalized, reinforced and perpetuated?

What is the source of culture, where does it start?
The source of culture is the way we see the world. It includes our bias, our experience, our interpretation of our experience. Culture is the story we carry into our experience that provides the lens, the frame, the tint, the brightness or darkness of that story.

How is culture visible, how do we see it?
Culture, the way we see the world, drives our behavior. We cannot see our bias. We cannot see our interpretation. We cannot see the story we carry in our minds, but, we can see our behavior. Culture drives behavior. Behavior makes culture visible.

How is culture tested?
Behavior, driven by culture, is constantly tested against the reality of consequences. For better or worse, behaviors driven by culture are proven valid, or not. Where there is congruence between behavioral intentions and the test of consequences, intentions (the way we see the world) moves forward. Where there is a disconnect between behavioral intentions and the test of consequences, intentional culture stops DEAD.

How is culture institutionalized, reinforced and perpetuated?
Those behaviors that survive the test of consequences become institutionalized, for better or worse. Positive behaviors that survive the test against reality can become the customs and rituals that reinforce the way we see the world. Alternatively, counterproductive behaviors that survive can be institutionalized in the underground of our organization and will prevail, more powerful than our official rules and enforcement.

You get to decide. What is the accountability of a manager in the Key Result Area of Company Culture?

Key Areas for a Project Manager

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I was in your workshop last week. When you look at qualified candidates for a role, you say “It’s all about the work.” We are looking at a project management role. What do you consider the three most important parts of project management?

Response:
Project Management is a classic Strata II role. From a macro level, it involves the coordination of people, materials, equipment and project sequence. Three core Key Result Areas (KRAs) drive the project forward.

  1. Project Planning (creating a comprehensive project plan including milestones and accountabilities).
  2. Task Checklist (documenting and tracking all the details for completion and quality).
  3. Project Schedule (creating and monitoring the project schedule, prioritizing and sequencing time frames associated with changing elements of a project).

The value adds for Project Management are project control, accuracy to project specifications, timeliness and completeness.

Other KRAs would include –

  • Pre-con Hand-off Meeting (critical meeting where pre-construction hands the project over to project management).
  • Punch List (audit of the project checklist, when everyone else thinks the project is complete).
  • Buy Out (assembling the list of material suppliers and subcontractors, with competitive cost information).
  • Customer Relations (creating the necessary customer relationship that addresses project discrepancies, project change orders and avoids litigation)

All of these would make the basis for a comprehensive role description for your Project Manager. -Tom

Who Gets the Resumes First?

“It’s really difficult to find good people out there, these days,” complained Byron. “Look at these resumes.”

He pushed the stack over to me. I glanced at the page on top.

“I will take your word, that none of these resumes meets the standards you are thinking for the job. Tell me, how did these resumes make it to your desk?”

“Oh, we have a good process to weed out the bad ones,” Byron replied. “By the time they get to me, I should only see the top three or four candidates. But none of these people are qualified.”

“Do you think some overqualified people got cut from the resume pool?” I asked.

“Oh, sure, our people know what we are paying for the job and they can spot someone who is overqualified as easily as those who are under qualified.”

“And who is involved in this process?”

Byron’s head turned to the side and his eyes went up the far wall behind me. “Well, the hiring manager.”

“So, the hiring manager directly receives the emails from your job posting?”

“Well, no,” Byron backpedaled. “I don’t want to burden him with looking at all the resumes, so we have them sent to a generic email box. Irene is our receptionist, and she opens the emails and forwards the resumes she thinks are the best.”

“What do you mean, that she thinks are best?” I asked.

“Well, she deletes the ones from out-of-town and then marks the ones with two years experience. I don’t want the hiring manager wasting his time.”

“And then she delivers them to the hiring manager?” I tried to get the details of the sequence.

“Well, not exactly,” Byron continued. “Irene forwards them to one of the supervisors to cull over. I really don’t want the hiring manager wasting his time on unqualified resumes. He has enough other issues to deal with.”

“I see,” I nodded. “I think I am getting the picture.”

A Shift in the “Why?” of Delegation

“I know I have to actually delegate something to make progress,” Ruben confirmed. “But I get to work, things start to happen and before you know it, I am up to my elbows in problems.”

“Tell me what you want to happen,” I prompted.

“It’s not what I want to happen, it’s one thing after another. For example, I can take you through yesterday, minute by minute and you’ll see what I’m up against.”

“I believe you could take me through, minute by minute, but explaining what happens doesn’t change things. Tell me, Ruben, what do you want to happen?”

“I want to be a better delegator.”

“Now, change one element of your thought. Change want to necessary. It is necessary for you to be a better delegator.”

Ruben looked at me with lizard eyes.

“Why is it necessary for you to be a better delegator?” I asked.

“So, I can be more effective?” Ruben floated.

“No, it is necessary, because if you don’t delegate, you can’t play the role. And if you can’t play the role, then we have to find someone who can. That’s why it is necessary for you to become a better delegator.”

The Practice of Delegation

“I’m a little disappointed,” explained Ruben. “Disappointed in myself.”

“How so,” I asked.

“Since I was promoted to manager, everyone said I should delegate more stuff. So, I tried.”

“What have you tried?” I prompted.

“Well, I bought three books on delegating. I finished one and I am reading the second.”

“So, what’s changed, for you?”

“Nothing really. I mean, they are really good books, but I still do everything myself.”

“Ruben, delegation is a skill, a skill that can be learned. Every skill has two parts. The first part is technical knowledge. That’s the stuff you have been reading about in those books.”

“What’s the other part?” Ruben asked.

“The other part is practice. You actually have to get out there and practice. I really don’t care how much you know. I am interested in what you can do.”

Even If It Wasn’t Effective Before

How do most managers manage?

Most managers manage the way they were managed, even if they hated it. Especially under pressure, most of us return to routine grooved behaviors, even if the behavior was not effective back then, even if the behavior failed back then.

Learning something new is only half the battle. The other half is changing your habits to integrate something new. It takes conscious thought and a bit of persistence. -Tom

Routine Grooved Behaviors

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
In the Four Absolutes, under Required Behaviors, you talk about habits. How do you interview for habits?

Response:
Habits are routine grooved behaviors kicked in by the brain in an approach to problem solving or decision making. To set the context, here are the Four Absolutes (required for success in any role).

  • Capbility (stated in time span)
  • Skill (technical knowledge, practiced performance)
  • Interest, passion (value for the work)
  • Required behaviors

Under Required Behaviors, there are three strings attached.

  • Contracted behaviors
  • Habits
  • Culture

To be successful in any role, there are some required behaviors. When I interview a candidate, I examine the role description, in each key result area (KRA), I identify the critical role requirements (required behaviors) and identify the habits that support and the habits that detract.

We all have habits that support our success, we also have habits that work against us.

Reading the resume
Habits are patterns. Read the resume from the back page to the front page. Most resumes are written in reverse chronological order, very tough to see a pattern going backward.

Identify the habit, then look for it
When I hire for a project manager, one habit I look for is planning vs improvisation. Improvisation is fun, but creates chaos. Improvisation may get the job done (once), customer may be very happy, but the cost is organizational body bags and friction, negatively impacting project profitability.

Effective project managers possess the habit of planning. Planning is a behavior that I can interview for. I will look for patterns of planning behavior as I move through the resume from past to present. Then I specifically look for planning behavior with specific questions.

  • Tell me about a time when you worked on a project where planning was required?
  • What was the project?
  • How long was the project?
  • What was the purpose of the project
  • How many people on the project team?
  • What was your role on the project team?
  • At what point during the project did planning begin?
  • Step me through the planning process for the project?
  • What was the form of the plan? written? whiteboard? verbal?
  • How was the plan used during the course of the project?
  • How often was the plan referred to during the course of the project?
  • How were revisions to the plan handled during the course of the project?
  • How were revisions to the plan documented during the course of the project? written? whiteboard? verbal?
  • What were the results of the project in comparison to the original plan?
  • Step me through the debrief (post mortem) of the project in relation to the plan?
  • What did you learn from the project debrief that impacted your plan on the next project?

Habits are those routine grooved behaviors automatically initiated by the brain in response to a problem that must be solved or a decision that must be made. -Tom

Too Hot? Too Cold? Just Right?

“So, how do we measure Hector?” Eduardo asked. “I’m all ears. I understand how to measure the time span of the tasks that Hector is responsible for. And, the longest task is three months. But, how do we measure Hector?”

“It is really very simple. You now know the time span of the longest task in the role that Hector plays. Here is the question.

“Does Hector, in your judgment as his manager, have the capability to perform the tasks in his role as freight supervisor? Or does he fall short in his capability to perform those tasks? Or does he have the capability to perform tasks with a longer time span?

“It’s like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Is the porridge too hot? Too cold? Or is it just right?”

Eduardo squinted, “That’s it? Too hot, too cold or just right?”

I nodded, “Which is it?”

“Well, Hector does most of the job okay, but when it comes to the more complicated stuff, he falls short.”

“So, to recap your judgment, as his manager, Hector falls short?” I repeated.

“But, I knew that already,” Eduardo complained.

“Yes, you did, but you did not have a way to measure what you already knew. Now, you know that Hector falls short in capability at three months. If you define the time span of the shorter tasks he completes, you will have a very precise measure of his capability.”

Eduardo was quiet, then spoke. “Hector handles the one month stuff well. But falls short on the three month stuff. Hector’s time span is on the up side of one month, but the short side of three months.”

“So, now, is the question. How is this helpful to you as his manager?”

What’s the Level of Work?

“Where do we start?” Eduardo asked.

“Where do you think we should start?” I replied.

“We are trying to measure Hector’s capability. Is he big enough for the role. That’s the goal of this session,” Eduardo established.

“So, what unit of measure have we talked about when it comes to defining the tasks involved in his job?”

“We talked about time span,” he said.

“And, what was the measure of the longest task in Hector’s job?”

“We said, one month. Hector is in charge of shipping, but it’s more than just getting freight out the door. He is responsible for proper crating, working with vendors to select the proper crating materials, collecting information about product damage in transit. It is really a big job. Some of the problems that have to be solved involve testing in-house, you know, crash testing and then field testing.

“So, I don’t think one month is accurate. I think, to be successful, the longest task is three months. It takes that long to solve some of the material damage issues in that department,” Eduardo concluded.

“Okay, three months is the longest task required. To be successful running the shipping area requires the ability to work three months into the future, without direction, using his own discretionary judgment?”

Eduardo nodded, “Yes, I need Hector to carry the ball the whole way. I may check up on him more frequently to see if he still has the ball, but I need him to supervise the resolution to some of these issues without me. If I really have to get involved, then Hector is not doing the necessary work.”

“So, success in the job requires a time span of three months?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“That is step one. Firmly establishing the time span of the longest task, establishing the required time span for the role.

“Are you ready for step two? The next part is to measure Hector.”