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.

Role of the CEO

Order and chaos. That is the balance beam, one foot in order and one foot in chaos. Order is what we know. Chaos is what we do not know. We bring order to chaos by exploring its value in relation to what we know. Assigning value is the framework of hierarchy.

The role of the CEO is to bring order from chaos. The most significant chaos is the future. The future remains chaos because it remains unknown (in spite of economists and futurists who claim to know).

That solitary role at the top must make decisions today in the face of that chaos. Why do some (very few) people land in that role? It is not mathematical logic, only one CEO per company that explains why there are so few, relative to the population. It is the value stream of hierarchy. There are not that many people with stamina against the unknown. CEOs are accountable five to ten years into the future. Most people can hardly make plans to account for the uncertainty of next week. Some people can make effective plans for the uncertainty of next month, or next year. But five years is a very long time. Elements of what we know now and call by name are only concepts in the future of five to ten years.

The primary role of a CEO is to think. Think conceptually. Most people are not very good at it. Some people who land in the role of CEO may not be very good at it. Successful CEOs are those who stand in the face of uncertainty, make decisions today, solve problems today understanding the risks of chaos in five years.

Successful CEOs are those with the capability to bring order out of chaos.

Bringing Order From Chaos

Order and chaos. That is the balance beam, one foot in order and one foot in chaos. Order is what we know. Chaos is what we do not know. We bring order to chaos by exploring its value in relation to what we know. Assigning value is the framework of hierarchy.

Organizational hierarchy is the sorting of value according to some value assignment. Before I tip my hat to the value, let’s look at the role of CEO, stand back and just watch. What do we observe about that role? What are the decisions that must be made, what are the problems that must be solved, what are the risks that must be considered and assumed? At the top? In that solitary role, for which no one else is accountable?

The value hat tip is timespan. While other members of the organization work on different things, the CEO must make the longest timespan decisions and solve the longest timespan problems, considering the longest timespan risks.

The most important task of the CEO is thinking. Thinking about what might happen in five to ten years. That thinking is full of uncertainty and ambiguity, it is full of chaos. It is the role of the CEO to bring some sense of order to that chaos. Because, today we have to make a decision. Five years from now, we may know if that decision was good or if it was bad. Who is to say? We just have to wait. But the decision must be made today.

In Praise of Hierarchy

Order and chaos. That is the balance beam, one foot in order and one foot in chaos. Order is what we know. Chaos is what we do not know. We bring order to chaos by exploring its value in relation to what we know. That value sorts into a mental construct called hierarchy. Human beings (and other life forms) do this as a natural process to determine what we pay attention to.

We assign something a value based on what we know. That value will be different for each person, if each person stops to think about it. Some people do not stop to think about what is of value and simply adopt the value chain of other people (without thinking). In this value chain, some things are more valuable than others and in the sort, a hierarchy emerges.

Organizationally, some mistakenly believe that hierarchy creates a rigid “command and control” sequence for making decisions. We don’t understand hierarchy in relation to its value chain. Organizationally, hierarchy is a value chain or value stream where managers bring value to the decision making and problem solving of their teams. This is the central role of management.

When I ask a group of managers if they have “direct reports,” all hands go up. I announce they have already fallen for the mistaken understanding that they are managers so people can report to them. The truth is, everyone in the company reports to lots of different people. But each team member can only have one manager, and the purpose of that manager is to bring value to the problem solving and decision making of each team member.

Organizational structure is simply the way we define the working relationships between two people. That most important relationship is between a manager and a team member. That is the beginning of the value stream naturally embedded in hierarchy. Bringing order out of chaos.

Simple, Subtle, Effective

Rebecca did a very smart thing. During the delegation meeting with Todd, she asked him to take the notes. As Rebecca described various elements of the delegation, Todd wrote things down. Before the meeting was over, she had Todd read back the notes.

It is simple, subtle and very effective. I meet many managers who are stressed beyond belief, thinking they have to do all the “work” in their meetings.

What dynamic changes when this responsibility is shifted to the team member? What can the manager now focus on?

It all started with Rebecca’s request, “Todd, I need to see you in fifteen minutes to go over the progress on the ABC project, and please bring a notepad. I want you to take some notes to document our meeting.”

Levels of Work in an SME

Why would small (SME) organizations have curiosity around the research of Elliott Jaques? Admittedly, Elliott worked with large organizations, containing multiple layers of management, which demonstrates that his research had relevance in very complex structures.

But, will it work for my SME company?
If a large organization has a problem, they have budget and people resources to throw at the problem. And if they miss, they have more resources left over to try again.

If a small enterprise has a problem, they have a smaller budget and fewer resources to resolve the issue. And if they miss, it might be fatal.

Why a structural approach?
Most people call me with one of two issues. They feel they have a communication problem or a personality conflict inside the company. I allow them to explain for about ten minutes before I interrupt and interject that I do not believe it’s a communication issue or a personality conflict. I think it’s a structural problem.

Most SMEs have a flexible organizational framework, which is the beginning of the problem. The company was organized, out of necessity, to focus on things that look non-structural, like sales. Every startup has to focus on sales. If there are no sales, the company dies, sooner rather than later. As the organization creates a sustained momentum of sales, things become more complex and the organizational structure takes shape, without forethought, without discipline.

Organizational structure is simply the way we define the working relationships between people, related to these two things.

  • Accountability
  • Authority

When we fail to define the accountability in a working relationship and fail to define the authority in a working relationship, we get organizational friction that appears to be a communication problem or a personality conflict. You can have all the communication seminars you want, do all the personality testing you want, until you get clear about accountability and authority, the problems will remain and become more persistent over time.

Still the Team’s Solution

“You are still going to use the team to solve their own problem, but you are going to provide leadership to make it happen,” I said.

“So, how am I supposed to pull them out of their malaise,” Rory asked.

“First, you have to be crystal clear with the work instructions.
People will follow general direction with general responses.. If you need specific output, your work instructions must be very specific.”

“So, this is on me,?” Rory clarified.

“Yes,” I said. “That is who I am talking to. You are the leader, this is on you.”

“Okay, what does it sound like?”

“First, does the way that you state the problem have any bearing on the way we approach the solution?” I smiled.

Rory nodded.

“Be crystal clear about the goal. The first step is to make sure there is no ambiguity about what the solution looks like. Then announce there may be several ways to get there. And, it is up to the team to generate those ideas. In that declaration, you have silenced their inner critic and opened the door to explore new paths to solve the problem.”

“I’m listening,” Rory said.

“With only one idea, everyone is a critic. With multiple ideas, we can discuss the merits, workability and effectiveness. Your team will not get there without you. That is your role.

A Manager’s Direction

Rory stared. “You are right, it’s not which method is the best method. Does the team have the confidence to figure out the best method?  As long as they are afraid to make a mistake, they will never generate more ideas to solve the problem.”

“And, where is that shift in mental state going to come from?” I asked.

Rory knew exactly where I was going with this. “I see,” he said.
“You want me to get involved?”
“You are the manager,” I smiled. “In what way could we move the team to generate more alternatives, debate those alternatives and then agree on the best one for today?”

“I was hoping they would figure this out on their own,” Rory replied.

“Well, you could wait,” I smiled. “Or you could move things along as the leader.”

“But, if I get involved, it’s going to slow things down,” he protested.

I nodded. “I would rather spend some time to figure out a committed direction, than wonder about a half baked idea that may or may not solve the problem.”

A Question of Confidence

“Why do you think your team is underperforming?” I asked. “I’m not sure,” Rory replied. “Well, let’s start with what you see,” I nodded. “If you stand back and just observe, what do you see?  What do you hear?” “Okay, if I just report what I see, the team second-guesses itself. They know the goal. They each stand around watching and waiting for someone to make the first move. Somebody eventually does. Then, there is the big question – Are you sure?  Asked in that way, everyone stops.” “Without direction, isn’t it prudent to ask that question?” I wanted to know. “Yes, but it’s not a question of clarification, it’s a question of confidence,”  Rory explained.  “Every member of the team is looking for the down side, to protect themselves, protect the team.” “Protect the team from what?” I probed. “Protect the team from failure, I guess.  I am a pretty easy going manager, so I know people are going to make mistakes, but, even still, when there is a setback, they can tell I get a little testy.” “It’s a natural reaction.  When we touch a hot stove, it’s a good idea not to linger.”  I squinted to look inside Rory’s eyes.  “Getting testy comes with the territory.  It’s a gut reaction to let us know something is wrong. The question is what do you do about it?” “What do you mean?” Rory asked. “Do you let the team wallow in ambiguity, wondering what you will do with your disappointment?  Or do you circle the wagons and work your way out?” “My question is the same,” Rory said.  “What do you mean?” “The team came up with one way to proceed, but didn’t have confidence in the direction.  You and I both know there are at least a half dozen different ways to get the job done, any of which will work just fine.  The team is afraid they will pick the wrong one.  This is not a matter of methodology.  This is a question of confidence, confidence to explore, confidence to debate, confidence to disagree, then agree and commit.  The question is what do you, as the leader, do about it?”

It’s Not Communication

“I don’t think you have a communication problem,” I said.

Sarah was quiet.  “But, it looks like a communication problem.  The sales manager is having trouble communicating with the operations manager.”

“I don’t think you have a communication problem,” I repeated.  “I think you have an accountability and authority problem.”

“What do you mean?” Sarah asked.

“Is the sales manager the manager of the operations manager?”

“No,” Sarah replied.

“Is the operations manager the manager of the sales manager?”

“No,” she repeated.

“So, when they are required to coordinate together, who is accountable for what, and who has the authority to make what decisions?”

“What do you mean?” Sarah, always with the same question.

“If the operations manager has a backlog of eighteen weeks, does he have the authority to tell sales to stop selling?”

“Of course not,” Sarah looked a bit shocked.  “That decision is the sales manager’s decision.”

“So, if the output of sales outstrips the output capacity of operations, who decides to stop?” I asked, politely. 

“What do you mean?”  Sarah asked, once again.

“You see, I don’t think you have a communication issue.  I think you have an accountability and authority issue.”

A Failure to Communicate?

“I have a communication problem,” Sarah insisted.  “My sales manager doesn’t communicate effectively with the operations manager.”

“And?” I asked.

“Operations has been struggling.  Our backlog is best when we have about six weeks hard scheduled.  But, right now, operations has an eighteen week backlog, that’s five months.  My sales manager is apoplectic.  He says he can’t sell a project that we can’t start for five months.  He says the operations manager won’t listen to him, stonewalls him in meetings, doesn’t respond to emails.  I think we have a communications problem.”

“What have you tried?” I wanted to know.

“Well, we hired a communication consultant.  He came highly recommended.  We had four seminars, one week apart, but at the end of a month, the sales manager still had the same complaint.”

“What did the ops manager say?” I pressed.

“Oh, he says that the sales manager is unrealistic, that his operations team is working as hard as they can to keep up and the sales team has no appreciation for their effort.”  Sarah sounded a bit despondent.

“So, you think you have a communication issue, and you had a communication workshop, but the problem didn’t go away.  Do you think maybe it’s not a communication problem?”