Tag Archives: leadership


Ted bit his lower lip. “I am ready,” he said. “Right now, being a manager is not much fun. If I was better at this, if I knew what to do, things would be easier. I want to make this happen.”

Wanting is not enough,” I replied. “You have to make it necessary.”

Ted looked sideways. “What do you mean, make it necessary?”

“You may think that high levels of performance are driven out of desire, team spirit and rah, rah. But that sputters out eventually. When you don’t feel well, your desire gets weak. When your team has an off day, the rah, rah disappears. All of that will impact your performance.

“The only way that high performance can be sustained is if that high performance becomes a necessity. It will only be sustained if there is no other way. Necessity. Necessity drives high performance.”

“I am still not sure I understand,” Ted said. “What makes something necessary?”

“Something is necessary only when there is no other way. Look, Ted, you think you want to be a better manager. That will only sustain you when you feel like it. Unless becoming a better manager is necessary, you will ultimately fail. But if there is no alternative, if becoming a better manager is a necessity, then you cannot fail.”

A Manager’s Speech

Hank surveyed the floor, timecards in hand, shaking his head. “I don’t understand it,” he observed. “They know they are supposed to be here at 8:00a sharp, but, look at this, only two people punched in on time. The next nearest one is 8:06, then 8:09, then 8:12. A couple of people were 20 minutes late. And it’s this way everyday. So, everyday, I have to make my little speech, but it just doesn’t seem to work.”

“And you know this just by reviewing the time cards?” I asked.

“Of course, that’s why we have punch clocks.” Hank looked sideways at me, wondering if I had never seen a punch clock before.

“I understand, but you didn’t actually see when they got here.”

“Oh, no, I don’t have to be here until 8:30a when my manager’s meeting upstairs starts. I’m a supervisor now, I don’t have to be here until then.”

“And, your team doesn’t listen to your daily speech about being here on time?”

“Nope, I will remind them again this afternoon before the shift is over, just to make sure they remember,” Hank replied confidently.

“Here is the thing, Hank. Sometimes, what we do speaks so loudly, they can’t hear what we say.” -Tom

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, 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

Leadership is Observable

The group worked for ninety minutes in a simulation to complete a complex task. Once the task sequence and its steps were decided and practiced, the test was to complete the entire sequence in a twenty minute time frame.

I stopped the simulation to ask a simple question. “Which of you is the leader?” There had been no formal selection, but the group immediately looked at Sam.

“What is it about Sam, that made him the leader?” I asked.

The team members exchanged glances, wondering if they were all thinking the same thing. “Well, Sam seemed to know how to organize this thing together,” Marvin volunteered.

“How did he do that? You have not worked together as a team before.”

There was a brief moment, then Kyle piped up. “Sam pulled us all together, asked questions about what each of us thought. Within three minutes, he had a plan, assigned some individual responsibilities and we started working.”

Sam was chosen as the leader because he understood the complexity of the situation better (at least faster) than the others.

At that moment, Emma stood up. She was sitting on the sidelines, in fact, I wondered if she was paying attention.

“I think we can complete this task in five minutes, instead of twenty,” she said.

All eyes turned. In an instant, a new leader emerged. Leadership is an observable phenomenon.

Malicious Water Cooler Talk

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

I was recently hired in to a new organization as a manager. It is evident that one of my team members was passed over for the role. He has been here for ten years and contributes well in his current role, but I can see why he was passed over. Unfortunately, the rest of the team doesn’t see it that way and I am getting stone-walled. He is also well-liked by a couple of board members, so I am getting squeezed on both sides.

As I look at the staff, there is complacency, some have been coasting for years. The company invested in some new software a year ago and still no one is using it. It’s the software we used at my old company, so I know it works well. That’s why I was hired.

The team’s behavior is passive-aggressive. I get agreement in meetings and excuses on the back end.

  • Just too busy this week.
  • Not sure how the software works.
  • Our old system is better.
  • Easier to do it the old way.

At the end of the day, I will be held accountable if we can’t get this new software integrated into our routine. The water-cooler talk is malicious. I don’t have a single friend in the bunch.

Someone made a decision to hire you. And my guess is, unless you make some progress, that same someone will also fire you. But, for now, they are in your corner. That is where I am going to hang my hat.

You are the manager of the team, but you also have a manager. Your manager is your coach. Schedule regular meetings and play this straight. You have a job to do and you need solid counsel. But, do NOT go in empty-handed.

You are new, and in the beginning, you should be in high data gathering and diagnosis mode. You have been given an objective, get the new software going and people using it. What’s your plan? How long will it take? Is the software installed and configured? Is there training available or are you on your own with help files and manuals? What are your short term milestones, medium term milestones and long term milestones? This is stuff for you to review with your coach.

You have been given a team. What is your assessment of your team? You have talked to them and worked beside them for a couple of weeks. What are your observations about their capabilities, skill levels, interest and value for the work? This is stuff to review with your coach.

You need some small wins, and they might have nothing to do with the software. You need to get to know your team. What attracted them to the company? How long have they been there? Best part of their job? What gives them juice? What challenges them? Gather data. Your team will tell you how they work best together. When was the last time the team faced a real challenge? How did they approach it? What problems did they have to solve? What decisions did they have to make? I know you feel like this software is your project, but it is really the team’s project. This is more stuff for you to review with your coach.

Then work your plan. My guess is that no one has taken this team to a new place in quite a while. This can be a challenging journey or the team can stiff-arm you until you quit.

Could Have Been Fired

“So, you were surprised that you didn’t get fired?” I asked. Kim and I were talking about her near disaster with a forklift.

“I was certain I would get fired. It was a boneheaded move on my part. But my manager used it as leverage. He knew he had my undivided attention over the forklift. He also knew that I was motivated to make things right. So he got someone (me) to run the safety program, where it benefited the most.” Kim replied.

“How did that bring value to your thinking and your work?”

“Well, he could have fired me, he could have yelled at me. He could have embarrassed me in front of the team. He could have called me out to his boss. He could have suspended me. But what he did was to make me think.

“He had me motivated to sit down and learn more about how serious this safety stuff really is. It was one of the most important lessons in leadership that I ever learned.”

It’s All About Empowerment, Really?

But, as the budget dollars piled up, Kevin DuPont could smell trouble. “Look, guys and gals, boys and girls. I know you all have important projects, but all this costs money. And you know very well, I am accountable to the board to make sure this company is fiscally sound. I am afraid that I have to take issue with the budget you have presented.”

There was silence in the room. After all, the executive team just followed instructions. They followed Al Ripley’s instructions, before. They followed Kevin DuPont’s instructions, now. Finally, one person had the courage to speak, Javier Ramirez.

“Mr. DuPont, with all due respect. We are only doing what you told us to do. You said you empowered us with group decision making. Give us a problem to solve and leave it to us. Well, we decided on a budget, and I know that the expenses are more than our current revenue, but if we are going to grow, we have to take risks. The group is willing to take that risk, but now, you are pulling the rug from underneath us.”

Kevin turned a red tinge around the rim of his ears, his pulse quickened. “That was not my intention. I want each of you to feel better about being a part of this management team. That is why I empowered you. But I also know my board and they will not stand for another losing quarter. The government is auditing the subsidies on some of our routes. This airline has to learn to stand on its own.”

“But, you said you trusted us, it would be our decision,” Javier stood up. “It is a matter of empowerment.”

“I know, I know,” Kevin continued to defend. “But I am accountable to the board. If we lose money next quarter, you will all still have your jobs. You are not accountable to the board. It’s me whose job is on the line. You are only accountable for the performance of your departments. All I can say, at this point is, I’m sorry. Meeting adjourned.”

Excerpt from Outbound Air, Levels of Work in Organizational Structure, by Tom Foster, now available on Kindle, soon to be released in softcover.

Outbound Air

Who Carries the Keys?

“They called me KEYS,” Ryan explained. “I had the keys to every door and portal in the building. I was important. I was the person the company trusted with the keys.”

“And, what did you discover?” I asked.

“I thought the keys were a sign of power, and that power translated into being a manager.”

“And, why did you think that?” I pressed.

“No one could do anything without my permission.” Ryan replied. “I thought I had a great deal of authority.”

“And, now?”

“Now, I realize that carrying all the keys to the building has nothing to do with being a manager.”

“So, what did you change?”

“I found another trustworthy person to carry all the keys.”

Leading With Power

“But, I am the team leader,” Marion protested. “The company made me the manager. They gave me the authority to lead the team. But, when I look back over my shoulder, I am not certain that everyone is following.”

“So, you are the leader?” I asked, without waiting for an answer. “You believe, as the leader, that you are now vested with certain authorities?”

Marion shifted her posture. She was suddenly, not quite so sure. “Well, that’s what I understand about leadership,” she finally replied.

“Marion, let’s think about being a leader, not as a person, but as a role that has to be played. What is leadership? What are its authorities, what are its accountabilities?”

“Well, I assign tasks for people to complete. I determine what people do, or what they don’t do.”

“Anybody in power can do that,” I said. “Just because someone has the power, doesn’t mean they are a leader. Someone with power can simply be leading the team astray, screwing things up for everyone.”