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.

Purpose for Each Interview Question

“But, I really want to know where they see themselves in five years,” Raymond continued.

“Why?” I asked. “What’s the purpose? Every interview question needs to have a purpose. What’s the purpose?”

“I want to see if they have plans. I want to know if they have initiative. I want to know if they have the drive to learn,” he replied.

“Those are all noble purposes, just a lousy question,” I smiled. “Let take each noble purpose and reorient the question so the candidate doesn’t make up a bunch of stuff they think you want to hear.”

Purpose – does the candidate engage in planning for the future?

  • Tell me about a time when you worked on a project that required planning?
  • What was the project?
  • What was the purpose of the project?
  • Were you a member of a project team?
  • What was your role on the project team?
  • Step me through the planning process?
  • Who led the process?
  • Was the plan formal or informal, verbal or written?
  • At the start, what was the vision of the project on completion?
  • What were the specific goals or milestones inside the project?
  • What guidelines or constraints existed on the project?
  • Step me through the project timeline?

Purpose – does the candidate have initiative to self start on a project?

  • Tell me about a time when you worked on a project that required you to step up, take initiative, that without you, the project might have failed?
  • What was the project?
  • What was the purpose of the project?
  • Were you a member of a project team?
  • What was your role on the project team?
  • Tell me about the circumstances around the project that left it up to you?
  • What did you do first to take charge of the project?
  • What did you do to get other team members engaged in the project?
  • What made the project difficult to get other team members engaged?
  • What was the outcome of the project?

Purpose – does the candidate have the drive to learn new skills?

  • Tell me about a time when you worked on a project that required you to learn a significant new skill or learn new technical knowledge around a process?
  • What was the project?
  • What was the purpose of the project?
  • Were you a member of a project team?
  • What was your role on the project team?
  • What did you have to learn?
  • How did you identify the specific skill or specific technical knowledge that had to be learned?
  • Step me through the learning process for you?
  • Were there any books, manuals, journal articles about the subject?
  • Was there any formal training available to learn this new skill?
  • Did you have access to other people to discuss what had to be learned?
  • Did you have a designated coach to assist you in the learning?
  • As you acquired the skill, what practice was required to become more competent?
  • What was your frequency of practice, depth of practice, duration of practice, accuracy in practice?
  • How long before you became proficient?

“These questions will give you real data about the candidates experience in those noble purposes. The responses will be real, based on things that actually happened, not some guess about five years in the future.”

The Famous Question

“I still think it is a valid question,” Raymond remained adamant. “I want to know where they think they will be in five years. I think I can interpret a lot from that.”

“Raymond, I don’t want you to interpret anything in the interview process. The likelihood that you will misinterpret the response is too high for that to be a valuable question. It will give you minimal insight and introduce confusion into the interview process. You will make a hiring decision based on something you are trying to interpret. Your interpretation is likely to be wrong and it will tend to color the rest of the interview.”

Raymond’s face betrayed his stomach. He remained defensive. He had hung so many interviews on that one famous question.

“Raymond, you end up relying on your gut feeling, because you have not established anything else in the interview process on which to base your decision. It is no wonder you are not satisfied with the candidates you have hired in the past.”

Mama Told Me

“My mother taught me that if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself,” proclaimed Judith, repeating the sage advice she learned in her youth.

“Interesting,” I replied. “Why do you think your mother said that?”

“Well, people just never do things the way we expect them to be done.”

“And, why is that?” I wanted to know. “Why do you think they might miss the quality standard?”

“I don’t know,” Judith replied. “I tell ’em what to do, they just fall short.”

“Did you explain what the project should look like when it’s done?” I pressed.

Judith paused. “I just told them to get it done.”

“So you told them what to do, but not how well or by when?”

“Shoudn’t they be able to figure that out?” Judith sighed.

“I assume they did figure it out, it’s just what they figured is different than what you figured. Didn’t your mother also tell you if you don’t like what’s for dinner, you should say something sooner?”

Change or Shift?

“Look,” I said, “if you want to fire this guy, or just cut him off at the knees, you don’t need this. Do this, only if you want to see him correct the misbehavior. Otherwise, just fire him and get it over with. You don’t need me for that.”

“I just don’t see any other way,” Alice stated flatly. “I gave Barry a list of about 15 things he needs to change if he wants to stay on the team.”

“What about the other five that didn’t make the list?” I grinned.

“You’re right, I guess I was piling on.”

“Look, if the solution seems difficult,” my grin disappeared, “what is the likelihood that Barry is going to jump in and make everything right?”

“Not much,” Alice replied.

“If you want to raise the probability that Barry will actually change his behavior, he has to truly believe that the solution will be easy for him. You have to break it down to its simplest terms so he can understand that we are not asking him to scale Mount Everest.”

“So, I need to just pick one thing he needs to change?” Alice said, narrowing her list.

“Instead of asking Barry to change, why don’t we start by asking him to shift. Shift is a lot easier than change.”

An Expensive Meeting

“One more thing, there is one more discipline that is critical to the success of this time management system,” I responded. “I was taught this several years ago by a firm who truly understood its power, it’s the weekly review.”

“Each Monday, every Monday, without fail, even if some members of the team were absent, there was a special meeting to review the action plans for the week. Daily was too often, monthly was too long, weekly was just right. The firm did this as a group.

“To that meeting, attendees would bring all the tidbits, scraps of paper, file notes, phone slips, due date reports along with the schedules of every person in the firm. The purpose was to review every possible action step in the time frame of that week, to make sure every person and every thing was fully scheduled.

“Around the table sat approximately $3000 per hour of billable personnel. The meeting lasted two hours so double that number. This was a $6000 meeting. That was the value the company committed to that meeting.

“The value of a full-on action-step-review on a weekly basis has been proven time and again. If you work alone, you need to meet with yourself to schedule your personal weekly calendar. If you work with other people, a mutual meeting can accomplish both personal calendars and cooperative calendars. The meeting can happen face to face or through some technical hookup when necessary.

“I always look for leverage. This is one powerful lever.”

Get It Off Your To-Do List

“I’m struggling with my to-do list,” Sarah sighed. “Very depressing.”

I nodded. “And?”

“Two days ago, I had ten things on my list,” she started. “At the end of the day, I had twelve things on my list. The next morning, yesterday, two more things were added overnight. I finished three items during the day, but that was replaced by three more. I never seem to make headway and it is getting me down.”

“How do things get off your list? As a manager, you have a lot on your plate and we can’t have depressed managers walking around infecting everyone else.”

“I just work really hard. I come in early, I stay late, take work home with me over the weekend, but, my list stays full. I have trouble knowing what’s important, what to do next, if I am going to miss a deadline. There is no rhyme or reason to my priorities.”

“When you look at your list, how do you decide what to work on next?” I asked.

“Whatever I think I can get accomplished. It feels really good to get something off my plate that day, but all the other things on my list pile up, distract me, make me anxious.”

“Would it feel good to get some things off your list? Not get them all done, but get them off your list?”

“I can’t just cross stuff off the list. It ALL has to get done, eventually,” Sarah complained.

“There are three ways to get things off your list,” I explained. “You are only using one, that is the do-it-now strategy, which works but leaves you depressed. Here are two other strategies to get things off your to-do list. Schedule the task on your calendar. Commit the necessary amount of time in the future, before the deadline to get it done. Cross it off your list.”

Sarah thought and finally replied. “If I do that, I can see my priorities clearer. My deadlines show up, but are under control because I know I have committed time to complete. But, what if my calendar gets full? I have more tasks to complete, but no more committed time.”

“Yes, and you said it ALL has to get done. If you have no available time to commit, and it ALL has to get done, you have no choice but to delegate some of the tasks out to other people on your team. This is management, it all has to get done, but you have to use the other two strategies –

  • Do it now, get it done, myself.
  • Schedule it on my calendar, with committed time, before the deadline.
  • Delegate it.

“Now, when you delegate, it doesn’t mean it’s done. You still have to check on it, but don’t put the check-in on your to-do list. Where do you put the check-in?”

Sarah smiled, looking way less depressed. “I put it on my calendar.”

When Does It Start?

“What’s the timespan of this task?” Reggie wanted to know.

“It depends,” I replied. “When does it start and when does it end?”

“It depends,” he smiled. “Depends on who you ask.”

“I’m asking you, you’re the manager. Timespan is a manager’s judgement. When does it start and when does it end?”

“Depends on the role I am thinking about.”

“Exactly, different roles at different levels of work see the timespan of the task differently, indeed, they see the starting point and the ending point at different places. The starting point and the ending point create the timespan of discretion, the point in the project where they have the authority to make decisions and solve problems. On the same project, we have different roles with different timespans of discretion.”

“So, right now, in my department, we have three projects under three different project managers,” Reggie mused out loud. “I have three project managers who have the authority to make decisions only within the scope of their one project. They are concerned about resources available to them, the project schedule they agreed to, the contingencies within that project when things goes sideways. They have a very sharp focus and don’t spend any time thinking about the other two projects assigned to other project managers. The project starts when the contract is signed and ends when the punch list is complete and accepted by the customer.”

“And you? When does the project start with you as the Senior Project Manager?” I pressed.

Reggie nodded. “For me, it starts way before the contract is signed. I have to work with our sales department to see what we have in our pipeline and what is likely to close. Based on our closing ratio, I have to decide if we have enough project managers with the capacity to handle all the projects that are likely to come under contract. I have to continuously monitor that pipeline to make sure we have enough work to keep everyone busy as project managers cycle off completed projects. I have to figure out what they are going to do next. So, the project timespan for me, over multiple projects, begins long before the contract is signed and I am accountable for the workforce long after specific projects are complete. It’s a different level of work.”

A Manager’s Goal

“I thought I was very clear,” Marianne grimaced. “It was important for the team to understand and take ownership. This is a very important team goal.”

“Describe what you see?” I asked.

“Their words are supportive, but their actions are passive. There is no skip in their step, no sense of urgency, no critical eye for detail. It’s as if they are just going through the daily motions.”

“You described the project, what you are trying to accomplish. Whose goal is it?” I wanted to know.

“Well, it’s a team goal,” Marianne explained, sounding like I should have figured that out on my own. “I need the team to work together, support each other, cooperate. That’s why it’s a team goal.”

“Have you ever heard that if it’s everyone’s accountability, it’s no one’s accountability?”

That was a stumper to Marianne. A slow burn in her brain. “So, I have to single one of them out?”

“If it’s not the team’s goal, whose goal is it?” I repeated.

Marianne did not like the realization. “If it’s not the team’s goal, it must be my goal,” she flatly stated.

“And, if that’s the case, what changes?”

Written vs Verbal

Reggie was adamant. “I believe that using a written memo is the best approach to communicate my vision of the project, because it ensures consistency and allows everyone to refer back to the information whenever they need it. I feel that face-to-face communication might lead to misinterpretation or forgetting important details.”

“Written memos are useful,” I replied. “Tell me more?”

Reggie was quick to continue. “Sometimes I feel like the message gets lost or diluted when I communicate verbally. There have been instances where team members seemed distracted or didn’t grasp the complete vision during our face-to-face discussions. That’s why I thought a written memo would provide a clearer message.”

“Maybe that’s the downside of a verbal conversation. What about the upside?” I pressed.

There was a pause. Lasted forever, but silence often does the heavy lifting. “A verbal discussion, in a meeting, allows for immediate feedback on the project, understanding its purpose, its scope, its sequence. It may also surface questions that everyone has, but most are too timid to ask about. It might also create a sense of connection and trust in the team.”

“In what way could you combine both the clarity and consistency of a memo, a written description, with the improvisational value of a robust discussion?”

Out of Sequence

“I’m having a tough time with my team, struggling to meet the project expectations I set for them,” Sheila explained. “It seems they have different interpretations of the project deliverables, a bit of confusion, making it difficult to nail down accountability.”

“So, tell me what you told them?” I said.

“We had a team meeting about the project, making the message consistent to everyone on the team, so, I’m not sure how people got off track. I’m not even sure how what they are thinking, I just know each of them has a different take.”

“How so?” I pressed.

“It looks like everyone started at a different place in the sequence. This is a linear project with specific steps, one after the other. But, one person is starting on step three and another on step eight. They told me they were trying to think ahead, so when we got to that step, it would already be done.”

I wasn’t skeptical, but wanted to more detail. “And, the problem is?”

“Step three depends on the outcome of steps one and two, it’s a dependent step. We might even be able to skip step three depending on how steps one and two turn out.”

“And, I am sure you clearly described this?” I smiled.

“No, I just assumed the team would figure that out,” she explained.

“So, if you had to do the meeting over again, what would you, as the manager, do differently?”