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.

Habits of Success?

In my last post, A Level of Competence, I ended with an unspoken question.

What habits do you have that support your success? I am curious to hear from you, so post a comment or reply by email. I will collect, manicure and re-post.

Here are two of my habits.

  • Each morning, I fix a cup of coffee, and spend 60-90 minutes writing. This is where the blog comes from, as well as email correspondence with other thought leaders.
  • When I drive an automobile, I do NOT listen to the radio, only podcasts or I simply drive and think.

What are your habits?

A Level of Competence

“We all have habits that support our success,” I started. “We may have some habits that detract. It is those routine, grooved behaviors that chip away at the world. It is our discipline.

“Emily, why does a star quarterback throw more touchdown passes than others? Why does a singer perform so well on stage? Why does an Olympic swimmer break a record?”

Emily knew there was a very specific answer to this question, so she waited.

“They all do those things because they can. They spend great periods of their life creating the habits to support the skills that drive them to the top. They reach high levels of competence because they practiced, tried and failed, got better and practiced some more, with a discipline to master those skills. They perform at a high level because they can. The great numbers who have not mastered those skills, who are not competent, were eliminated in the first round.

“Those who achieve mastery are a select few. And that includes effective managers.

“It takes a discipline of habits to achieve competency. For a manager, these habits support the leadership skills necessary to be effective. And that is where we will start.”

What Determines Success?

Emily shifted to the edge of the chair in anticipation. “Okay, I’m game,” she said. “If I want my team to make changes, I have to look at myself first. So, I am willing to do that. I want to make things come out better, make my team better, make myself better. I want to make a difference. I want to change the outcome.”

“Emily, we don’t choose the way things turn out. I mean, we may think we choose our success, but we do not. The only thing we choose are our habits. And, it’s our habits that determine our success. What are those grooved and routine behaviors that chip away at the world? If you want to know how to influence others, you have to first understand how you choose your own habits.”

Causing Change in Others

“Sometimes, I think I have to force things,” Emily said. “And forcing things doesn’t last long. I want to know how I can get people to perform, to perform at a higher level.”

“You want to know how you can cause people to change?”

“Yes, that’s it. Exactly. How can I get people to perform better, to stay focused, to pay attention, heck, just to show up on time would be nice.”

“So, Emily, when you look at yourself, how easy is it for you to make changes about your own life, your own work?”

“I’m not sure what you mean,” she replied. “Things are going pretty well with me. For the most part, things are under control.”

“Interesting,” I said. “We think we have the ability to cause change in other people when we have great difficulty seeing the need for change within ourselves.”

Commitment or Compliance?

“I am not satisfied with things,” Emily said. “I know there is more to being a manager than management.”

“You have been a manager for a couple of years, now. What exactly, are you dissatisfied with?” I asked.

“There are times, when it seems, I am only able to get people to do what I want by forcing them to do it. By being a bully, or threatening. Not directly threatening, but, you know, do it or else.”

“And how does that work?”

“Not well,” she replied. “I may get some short term compliance, but as soon as I leave the room, it’s over.”

“Emily, the pressure that people are not willing to bring on themselves is the same pressure you are trying to tap into. If they are not willing to bring it on themselves, what makes you think you have the ability to overcome that?”

“But that’s my job, isn’t it?”

“Indeed.”

When Did This Start?

Marvin was not in his office when I arrived. It didn’t take long to find him among a group of people desperately trying to solve a problem with a machine on the floor.

“It’s always something,” Marvin said. “Just when we get one problem solved, it seems like something else goes out of whack. We are trying to figure out why this thing won’t maintain the pressures we need.”

“When did all this start?”

“Weird, it started just a couple of months ago. We have been making these units this way for ten years. We have tweaked almost every parameter and this guitar is so out of tune, it sounds sick.”

“So, what are the factory defaults on the unit? What are the baselines?” I asked. Marvin just stood there. You could see the blood draining from his face.

“Well?” I said.

Marvin shook his head. “You are suggesting we clear the decks and go back to square one?”

Twenty minutes later, after restoring the defaults and making three adjustments, the machine was holding tolerance. For the first time in two months.

Often, we try to solve the wrong problem.

How to Diagnose Role Fit

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
How does management ability tie into different levels of work. I’m thinking about people who are good at building (S-III) systems (flowcharts, time studies, etc.) but who are miserable at managing the people side of the equation.

Response:
In the workshop you attended, you will recall Elliott’s Four Absolutes. Your question describes one dimension of success, likely two dimensions of underperformance (failure).

Four Absolutes

  • Capability (measured in timespan)
  • Skill (technical knowledge and practiced performance)
  • Interest, passion (value for the work)
  • Required behaviors (contracted behaviors, habits, culture)

A person may have the capability to be effective in the work of the role, but lack other characteristics (of equal importance).

Specifically, a person may have the capability to be effective at S-III system work, yet in a managerial role, may lack the management skills for other key areas (people related). A skill is anything that can be learned, anything that can be taught. For a manager, there is a specific set of skills related to communication, listening, delegation, decision making, team problem solving, planning, coaching, meetings.

For a manager to learn those teachable skills, they must also possess the interest and passion for that work. We have interest in and passion for that work on which we place a high value. A person who values self performance over team performance will suffer mightily as they realize there is no such thing as individual achievement.

There is no priority in the Four Absolutes, they are of equal importance.

The Goal is Not the Next Project

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:

How do you determine the time frame that a manager should be thinking into the future? Given your garden-variety project, do you figure “lead time” for the group? Example: team has to prepare documents for an audit in two weeks, we have an existing pool of docs to update. You’ve discussed this in the past, however your thoughts would be appreciated.

Response:

This question sets the perfect trap for the manager with short term thinking. Of course, this short term project has to be completed prior to the two week deadline. But here is what a manager needs to be thinking about.

What audit projects do I anticipate receiving during the next twelve months? What is the scope of those projects, how long will they take and what technical work is necessary? If I chart out a timeline of the number of projects over the next twelve months, how many overlap, or are there quiet periods in between?

Who will I need on my team to do the technical work, the research, the preparation and the review? Who will I need to perform the administrative work of tracking all of the elements and packaging the audit when the work is completed?

Who do I have on my staff now and who do I need to recruit? What impact will that have on my budget, in terms of expense to the anticipated revenue? When do I place the ads, when do I interview and when do I make the hires?

How long will training take to get these people up to speed to perform this audit work? Who will do the training?

All of these questions require way more than two weeks. These are the issues for the successful manager. The typical timespan (working into the future) for any working manager is 12-24 months.

The Future in Today

“But, what about today?” asked Kristen. “It’s great to think about the future, but I have to get stuff done today.”

“The anchor for the manager has to be some specific time point in the future. Every action we take only has meaning related to that future point in time. Call it planning, call it a milestone, call it a goal.

“You are right. You have to get stuff done today. Action occurs today. The role of the manager is to inspect that future time point and create today’s effective action. Here is the question. What is the destination, and what is the most effective action we can take, today, to get there?

The Difference From Team Leader to Supervisor

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I was just promoted from team leader to supervisor. My boss told me not to worry, things wouldn’t be that different. With all due respect, I think things will be different, I just don’t know in what way?

Response:
The biggest difference is the time span of your goals and objectives. As a supervisor, your focus will shift to the future.

As the team leader of your crew, you thought about what needed to be produced this week. As a new supervisor, you have to think about the schedule for two weeks, three weeks or more, depending on the variables in your system. It’s not just people, also, materials (with lead times), equipment, preventive maintenance, consumables, logistics, raw material specs, system constraints, first piece inspections. Your job will require more prep and staging time.

All of this requires you to think further into the future, using your own discretionary judgment to make decisions and solve problems.