Category Archives: Leadership

If We Had Only Known

“But, how could I possibly know, a year in the future, what my team members will do?” Melanie asked. “I don’t even know what I am going to do a year from now.”

“That’s an interesting question,” I replied. “What questions could you ask? Think about the two supervisors you just lost, who graduated from night school. What questions could you have asked?”

“Well, I could have asked them if they were going to night school.”

I smiled. “You already told me you knew they were going to night school, so somehow you managed to ask that question. Think deeper. Think further into the future.”

Melanie’s mind began to crank. “I could have asked them what they were studying. I could have asked why that interested them. What they hoped would happen as a result of going to school.”

“And if you had known the answers to those questions?” I prompted.

“I guess I would have found out if what they wanted was something they could find here, in our company.”

“But you didn’t get that chance, did you?” -Tom

Your Problem is on This List

“I don’t understand why my team consistently underperforms. We have a target to produce five units, they produce four. We are supposed to finish a project this afternoon, it doesn’t get completed until tomorrow,” Frances complained.

“You are the manager,” I observed. “What do you think is the problem?”

“I really don’t know. Before every project, we have a meeting to go over the project, all its elements. I try to keep those meetings upbeat, optimistic.”

“What if it’s not a problem with your team?” I asked.

“Then, what could it be?” Frances pushed back.

“Yes, what could it be?” I repeated.

I could see Frances racing through possibilities. Could it be equipment failure, substandard materials, faulty tools. “What if it’s me?”

“You are the manager?” I replied. “What are the productivity levers every manager has to work with?”

“Well, I pick the team, or I pick the people who end up on the team.”

“What else?” I was taking notes.

“I am the one who assigns the task. I set the context, describe the vision of the project, set the quality standards, quantity. I estimate a reasonable amount of time to finish the project, the deadline. I tell them what resources are available.”

“And?”

“And, I watch, to see how well the team does.”

“And if they screw things up?” I asked.

“We have a conversation,” Frances nodded.

“And if the team member continues to screw up?”

“They are off the team.”

I finished writing down what Frances described and slid the paper across the table.

  • Selection, who is on the team?
  • Task assignment, quantity, quality, time and resources?
  • Evaluate effectiveness?
  • Coaching?
  • De-selection?

“As the manager, this is what you control,” I said. “Your problem is on this list.” -Tom

It’s Time

“The possibilities for the improvement of the social and political quality of life in our free enterprise democracy are awesome. It is therefore a matter of the greatest good fortune that the people systems that will most benefit the feelings, outlook and morale of its citizens will, at the same time, contribute optimally to the successful operation of the people systems in which people work on the one hand, and to the well being of the nation, on the other.

“Good managerial systems bring out mutual trust and commitment in people. Bad systems breed extreme self-interest.” -Elliott Jaques, Social Power and the CEO, 2002.

It’s time to get back to work. -Tom Foster

Some Get It, Some Don’t

“Some of guys get it and some of them don’t,” Germain explained.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean, we train them. We have a great training program. We send them to St Louis for two weeks at corporate. But when we put them in the field, some do well, but some struggle.”

“What do you think the problem is?” I pressed.

“I don’t know. Maybe they weren’t paying attention in class.”

“It’s one of four things,” I said.

  • Capability. Does the candidate have the capability necessary for the role?
  • Skill. Does the candidate have the skill, were they trained in the skills necessary for the role? Do they continue to practice the skill?
  • Interest or passion. Does the candidate have the interest or passion for the work? Do they place a high value on the work or a low value on the work?
  • Required behaviors. Does the candidate engage in the required behaviors necessary for the work? Some behaviors, you contract for. Some behaviors are driven by habits. Some behaviors are driven by culture.

I looked directly at Germain. “Which one is it?”

“I’m not sure if I know,” he replied.

“Germain, you are the hiring manager. Those four things should guide you in the interview. At this stage of the game, you shouldn’t be wondering.” -Tom
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Management Myths and Time Span
The Research of Elliott Jaques
Public Presentation
October 6, 2016 – 8:00a – 12:00 noon
Holy Cross Hospital Auditorium
Fort Lauderdale Florida
More information and registration

Impact of HR at S-IV (Integration) Level of Work

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I read, with interest, your post about the impact of HR at Stratum III level of work. What about Stratum IV?

Response:
When companies are able to pull the silent switch in HR from S-II to S-III, they shift HR from a cost center to a value add center. The shift in HR at S-III to S-IV drives HR from a value add center to a strategic center. Sounds glib and trite, but here is what that means.

Understanding tactical to strategic can be measured in time span. The shorter the time span, the more tactical, the longer the time span, more strategic. HR at S-III maintains a 12-24 month outlook, HR at S-IV maintains a 2-5 year outlook. We still call it HR, but the roles are very different. There are three challenges for the HR professional in search of the context for this S-IV role.

The first challenge is to get beyond the annual strategic planning retreat, because most annual strategic planning retreats are really tactical planning retreats. To prove this, look at any published action plan from any strategic planning retreat. No goal or objective is beyond 12 months time span.

The second challenge is that conversations have to happen at levels-of-work above S-III. Conversations with managers S-III and below still arrive at tactical issues less than two years time span. So, this conversation has to happen with S-IV managers and the S-V Business Unit President.

The third challenge is the futile reference to the company’s strategic documents, Mission and Vision statements. As they exist, they are rarely helpful, mostly filled with Pollyanna statements about premier providers and exceeding expectations. So, yes, we have a problem.

Most small to medium size companies don’t think out 2-5 years, at least, not very clearly. Specifically related to HR, here is a short list of S-IV workforce issues.

  • Aging of the workforce, succession planning at all levels of work, 2-5 years.
  • Workforce trends of generational transitions, boomers, Xers, millennials, 2-5 years.
  • Impact of technology on workforce, 2-5 years.
  • Market scarcity of workforce, 2-5 years.
  • Wage management, 2-5 years.
  • Skills training of workforce, 2-5 years.

A funny thing happened during the last recession in some construction markets. As constructions projects slowed and finished, with no new backlog, foreign workers returned home while others discovered air conditioning. Now, as construction resumes in a growing (albeit slowly) economy, there is a shortage of direct labor. Market scarcity of workforce is driving up wages for work inside fixed amount contracts. This is an S-IV HR issue.

Business models are shifting. McDonald’s built into their business model a young transient workforce. Using automation and with an emphasis on training, they were able to constantly recruit first-job employees with the knowledge that employee was going to leave in 1-2 years to their second job or college. Now, McDonald’s is faced with a work-force that chooses life-long employment in the fast-food industry, demanding a minimum wage of $15 per hour. This is an S-IV HR issue. McDonald’s is already testing self-serve kiosks to replace some of their fast-food workforce.

Technology is replacing labor. Robotics replace welders. BIM (Building Information Modeling) reduces labor hours, at the same time requiring new skills to run the software. This is an S-IV HR issue.

John Donovan, Chief Strategy Officer and Group President of AT&T Technology and Operations describes AT&T as a company with very little turnover, 3rd generation employees, now facing competition from Google and Amazon armed for war. Basic math tells them that “ten-thousand employees are behind the curve, about 50,000 are about to be behind the curve, and in the next 24 months another 20,000. 80,000 employees are in an alarm state of need to change.” That is an S-IV HR issue.

Greg Coppelli, CEO, Apollo Education Group says that most organizations who spend (billions) recruiting talent see an ROI on that effort less than 50 percent of the time. That is an S-IV HR issue.

Here are some HR S-IV questions to ask.

  • What do we see happening in our market over the next 2-5 years?
  • If we do nothing to respond in the next month, what will happen?
  • If we do nothing to respond in the next year, what will happen?
  • If we do nothing to respond in the next two years, what will happen?
  • If we do nothing to respond in the next five years, what will happen?

HR and Levels of Work

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I was hired in an HR role about six months ago. So, I have settled in. I know who the players are and have made a bit of headway. I published a new employee handbook, negotiated the renewal on our health insurance plan and straightened out a very messy vacation policy. But, I still don’t feel like I am part of the company. There is so much more to be done, but, I don’t get invited to meetings with top management. Most often, I find myself in my office listening to some teary eyed employee who feels they were mistreated by a co-worker. Is this all there is to this job?

Response:
This trap is set in most companies I visit. The HR role feels necessary, but most organizations do not know how to define it, and settle for a role below the level of work they truly need, or outsource this function to their payroll company, from a lack of understanding or simple frustration. A recent article in Forbes, describes the problem.

CEOs identified talent supply and retention as their No. 1 “hot button” issue in 2016, and talent shortages are cited as one of the primary constraints on corporate growth. Coupled with the pricey tab that employees’ salaries represent – salaries can account for up to 80% of operating costs – HR cannot afford to cling to its compliance and administrative heritage instead of shifting to a more strategic contribution. Most organizations concur – 85% of global companies believe that HR must undergo a transformation in order to adequately address emerging business priorities.

The article continues with some generic thoughts, but nothing to assist you in an emerging HR role.

Looking at levels of work will bring us more insight into what is necessary. If people are our most important asset, the organization has to figure this out. Otherwise, the search for talent will become the biggest constraint, choking off growth and creating chaos.

HR role, Stratum I level of work (Time-span = 1 day to 3 months outlook)
This is all the compliance filing that must be completed and properly organized. I-9 forms, employment applications, health insurance registration, COBRA forms. It is enough to make your head spin, but has to be done. The good news, there are many software platforms (cloud-based) that can help store all this stuff. Payroll services can be helpful by providing the necessary forms and a place to electronically keep them. But recognizing this level of work does not mean the company would survive an audit or actually have the documentation to defend a claim or lawsuit.

HR role, Stratum II level of work (Time-span = 3 months to 12 months outlook)
This is the minimum level of work that will assist the company in surviving that audit or defending that claim. Stratum II managerial level of work is described as make sure work gets done. It is one thing to have a health insurance form available to be filled out by a new hire, but it is at level II, that we ensure the form was filled out correctly, completely and within the time deadlines required. It is this level of work that conducts self-audits, that creates a filing system (using cloud-based software or a payroll service) to make sure that all compliance issues are accurate, complete, on-time and appropriately filed. Do not entrust this to an outside service or software. This is an internal role. If a health insurance form is not filed on-time and a new hire is diagnosed with cancer, it is the company that is on the hook.

But if this all that HR is, the company is missing the boat and truly does not understand what is necessary.

HR role, Stratum III level of work (Time-span = 12 months to 24 months outlook)
This is where the leverage for HR begins. If Human Resources is really about humans, then it is time to dig in and create the system of acquiring talent. This is a system like any other system in the organization, yet one that receives the least attention (except by the HR professional in the role). Most companies can see the necessity of a capital equipment purchase. They look ahead, create flow charts and make budgets to buy that capital equipment. Most companies overlook the necessity of workforce planning, defining the level of work in necessary roles. Most managers are too busy getting work done to spend sufficient time on the people side until it is too late, the project is under contract and we suddenly do not have the personnel capacity to perform the work. The biggest contribution from HR is to instill the discipline, with every functional manager, to make sure they anticipate their human capital needs looking 1-2 years into the future. That look-ahead must be backstopped with a talent acquisition system that delivers the right team at the right time, with the required capability, trained up and ready to go.

HR role, Stratum IV level of work (Time-span 2 years to 5 years outlook)
But, for HR, this is where the real game is played and most companies never see this. Stratum IV managerial roles contemplate all the existing systems and sub-systems and integrate them together. This is an integration role looking out 2-5 years in the future. This is a strategic role. HR professionals that work at this level, DO get invited to senior management meetings, not to sit in the back of the room, but front and center. The success of any company in building a business model, shifting strategy, responding to new markets, depends on the right people in the right roles.

Funny, that is what Jim Collins told us in Good to Great. Unfortunately, he shrugs that off. “I am not going to belabor all five levels (of work) here, as levels 1-4 are self explanatory and discussed extensively by other authors.”

Shame on you, Jim Collins, this is where the game is played. Most companies fail because they do not truly understand levels of work and fail to field the team required to execute.

And this is where HR professionals can make great contribution, sitting at the strategic table, asking the questions and defining the people system required to support the best laid plans of mice and men (and women). -Tom

How Big is Your Story?

Sitting across the table, I could tell Brett was thinking.

“Brett, let me ask you, how big is your story?”

“What?” he replied.

“How big is your story?” I repeated. “You are building a department inside this company. How big is your story?”

“Well, the company has been pretty successful, so far. We are holding our own against competitors. Lots of market opportunity.”

“So, how big is your story? You see, Brett, the bigger your story, the higher the level of work. The higher the level of work, the more you will depend on finding competent people. The most important decision you will make, as a manager, is who to hire. The people you hire will make you successful or will be the crucible of your downfall. The bigger your story, the more critical this decision.”

Brett continued to stare.

“As a manager in this organization, you are writing a story of the future. The people you cast into the roles of your story will determine its ending, intentional, or otherwise.”

How to Destroy Development Opportunities

“You will never, ever get what you want,” I was calm. “You will only get what you focus on. How will you focus? You think you can determine your future, but you can only determine your habits and your habits will determine your future. How can you build focus into a habit?”

Meredith replied. “I know what my business plan lays out. My goals are well defined. There are three. I will print those out, on card stock, tape them to the bottom of my computer screen. So, when I feel compelled to get buried in my email, those objectives will stare me down.”

“And what is the first of those three goals?” I asked.

“It’s funny,” Meredith smiled. “Develop my two lead technicians to take over supervisory tasks so I can focus on our system of production. And, every time I follow-up on a project detail, I destroy a development opportunity for my lead technicians to follow-up.”

How Will You Focus?

“Quick breakdown,” I pushed. “What are the three things you have to get accomplished this year?”

“Well, that’s easy,” Meredith replied. “Those three objectives come from my business plan.”

“And, you have your three objectives for the year broken down into quarterly goals?”

“Yes,” Meredith nodded.

“So, how do you keep those three objectives in front of you when you stay buried in your email, handling all the traffic and details of your projects?”

“It’s tough,” Meredith shrugged.

“I know it’s tough, but if it wasn’t tough, how would you do it? How would you focus on your top three priorities each and every day?”

“One thing is for sure,” Meredith smiled. “I won’t find them buried in my email.”

“You are correct,” I agreed. “For many managers, email is counter-productive to focus. Email is efficient, it is self-documenting, but it can also be a distraction. How will you focus?”
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Which Details Demand Attention?

“Those problems come to me because I am the manager,” Meredith protested. “Being a manager is a big job and I take it seriously. That’s why I am so busy.”

“That is why you are so busy, or that is why you are so distracted?” I wanted to know.

“These are not distractions, these are important details,” she continued to push back.

“Don’t you have people on your team to handle these details?” I asked.

“Yes, but I am accountable. Sometimes, these details demand my attention.”

“How can you tell the difference, between the details that other people should handle and the details that demand your attention?”

Meredith sighed. “I don’t know. I guess that’s why I stay buried. I am trying to handle all the details.”

“Meredith, when you were a supervisor, you WERE handling all the details, but you are a manager now. We expect you to take a step back and look at the patterns in your team, the patterns in your work flow. Yes, there are some details that demand your attention. The way you lay out your system should surface those details that demand your attention. But, your system should also allow for most detail to be handled and tracked by your team. There is appropriate decision making at every level of work. Let your team be busy, so you can look at the pattern of work.”