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.

When You Are Wrong

The tension in the air was growing. The silence lasted longer than Troy’s patience. “Okay, Henry, you screwed up. Not the end of the world. And you need to make it up to the team.”

But how? How could Henry face his peers? Firewatch on the rooftop had been his responsibility and he took a shortcut. The resulting accident had been scary, there was some property damage but no one was hurt. Three people had been in danger and the re-work would put the team a week behind, still with a hard deadline.

As the Manager, Troy could not afford to have the team blow up. He would need all-hands-on-deck, even Henry’s. Henry had to be humble, not defensive. Henry needed to apologize. Henry needed to demonstrate a new attitude of responsibility. Not just a promise, but a demonstration. For this to work, Henry had to save face. Anything less and the team would find itself short-handed, perhaps at odds against itself.

How do you save face when wrong?

Admit it immediately and emphatically. Take responsibility, don’t blame circumstances. Don’t blame lack of sleep, fatigue, the fate of an accident. Be strong. You are responsible.

The Anabolic Window

The meeting was almost over. Butts in chairs began to shift toward the door.

“Take this 3×5 index card and write your name on it. Below that, write down the one thing you are going to do in the next week based on what we talked about, today.” The puzzled faces gave way to ideas for action and the writing began. Forty-five seconds later, we started around the table, each in turn, in front of the group, making a public commitment.

At the end of each meeting, there is an anabolic window that most managers never take advantage of. This window is a short period of time in which growth occurs. Ten minutes later, the window is gone.

Public commitment to action. Your team was engaged the past twenty minutes in a meeting about improving the work-flow process. At the end of the meeting, you could adjourn and lose the window, or you could stop and ask for a public commitment to action. It could be the most powerful three minutes of the meeting.

Oh, bring your 3×5 card to the meeting next Monday. We want to know how you did.

Communication Protocol

The paceline moved north, into a headwind, pulling 19 mph. “Walker up!” The shout came from the lead cyclist on the nose. He pulled his right hand off the handlebars, arm straight out, pointed to the pedestrian in the bike lane. One second later, he pats his butt and moves left into the active traffic lane. Though the rest of the paceline may not be able to see the walker, each cyclist knew about the hazard and knew to follow the lead bike to avoid it.

Intentional, agreed-upon communication. It was simple, efficient and effective. As the paceline continued north, there were other hazards to avoid, potholes, a tree branch in the road, narrowing traffic lanes, overtaking cars. Through a series of hand signals and audible shouts, the group made its way safely through urban traffic.

How does your team communicate in its daily routines? Do they have simple, efficient protocols to warn of impending hazards, delays, material shortages? Do they have agreed-upon signals to provide each other with feedback?

Chances are good that prior to a delay, prior to a material shortage, prior to a change in schedule, somebody knew. Someone could have warned the group and the group could have acted according to an agreed-upon protocol.

Get your team together and play the “what if” game. What problems occur and how they are best solved. Then create the “signal.”

“Walker up!”

Not Enough to Listen Attentively

Isn’t it funny, in school, when we think of the three “R’s,” only one starts with an “R.” (Reading, writing, arithmetic) Isn’t it funny, when we think about Communication in the organization, it’s always about talking, presenting and writing.

  • “How many of you, at some point in school, learned how to write?” All hands go up.
  • “And how many of you, at some point in school, learned how to read?” All hands go up.
  • “And how many of you, at some point, took a class in debate or public speaking?” Many hands go up.
  • “And how many of you have take some formal class of instruction in listening skills?” Few hands go up.

Let’s examine different levels of listening.

  • Level I – Ignoring (my wife says, I must be good at this, as much as I practice)
  • Level II – Pretending to listen (my wife says my skill definitely exceeds the ignoring level)
  • Level III – Selective listening (I always hear the part about the score of the football game, yet miss the part about taking out the garbage)
  • Level IV – Attentive listening (finally, some serious listening happening here)

It is only with Level IV that we are able to make headway to improve the quality of communication. Yet, most of our attentive listening consists of eye contact, some positive body language and focus on the other person’s lips, waiting… waiting… waiting… for them to finally take a breath, so we can break in and… respond. Most attentive listening is listening to respond.

To improve the quality of communication, attentive listening must move to a deeper level, listening for understanding. It is only at this level that we begin to truly understand the other person. Listen for understanding.

Yet, take it one level deeper and you will see exponential benefits from your conversations. Listen for discovery. Discovery is that intersection of the other person’s direction and your direction. That point of intersection is communication magic. It’s like that common ground you find when you discover that both parties grew up in Texas. The conversation changes, a new level of trust occurs. The real discovery, however, the true payoff, is the discovery of intersection in the future. In what direction is the other person headed? What direction are you headed? Where, in the field, will you meet up? Listen for discovery.

Practice in the Dark

It sounded like a beer cap hitting a marble floor, then like a rifle shot. 100 pounds of air pressure escaping in a nanosecond. The sound ricocheted off the high towers, piercing the early morning silence. Bike number three had a flat.

The undercurrent of grumbling was short-lived. The back of the pace line maneuvered around as bike number three dismounted and hopped up the curb onto the sidewalk under a street light. Within ten seconds, the entire pace line assembled around this carcass of carbon fiber and limp rubber tubing called a bicycle. Two headlights brightened up the rear gear cluster. One held up the bike, another spun the crank moving the chain down to the highest gear. Another popped the brake, grabbed the quick release and jerked the axle free. Two bikers set up a perimeter to ward off errant traffic. Someone had already unfolded a fresh tube and spiked a CO2 cartridge. The old tube was out and careful fingers were searching the inside of the tire for a shard of metal, a piece of glass.

Now, the rider of bike number three was actually doing very little through this entire process. He was trying to look in control, but truth be told, his bike was being fixed without him. It was really a smooth process, not a lot of talking, mostly joking going on. Seven minutes later, with a small tailwind, the pace line was back at 24 mph, snaking their way down the quiet city street.

When your team encounters a problem, what do they look like? When a team member runs up against an immovable obstacle, how quickly does the rest of the team pitch in? When the rest of the team assembles, how cooperative do they work, how synchronous are their efforts? How often does your team practice having flats in the dark and fixing them by flashlight?

Measuring Complexity

Lester had just returned, “That’s it boss, all done, what’s next?”

And with those innocent words, Lester has just defined the time-span for that specific task. Why is the time-span of a task so critical to the definition of that task? It is an attribute often overlooked. Time, hey, it takes what it takes.

For simple tasks, that take less than a day, or even 2-3 days, the importance of time-span is not so critical, but extend the time-span of a task (or a role) out to a week, out to a month, out to three months, and the dynamics become interesting.

What differences are there between a task that takes 3 days to complete and a task that takes 3 months to complete? In one word, predictability. Most of the elements required to complete a 3 day task are known, very specific, very concrete. Some of the elements required to complete a 3 month task may be unknown or may change prior to the completion of the task. This predictability (or unpredictability) is what makes one task more complex than another. “Yeah, so what’s the big deal about that?”

The “big deal” is that time-span, as an indicator for complexity, can become a discrete unit of measure for the complexity of any task. How complex is a task? If you can describe the time-span of the task, you have just described the complexity of the task. The importance of this measurement is that time-span can be described very specifically. I may not know how to specifically measure the “complexity” of a task or project, but using time-span, I can nail it to the wall: This project has a three-month time span with a deadline of February 15.


  • If I can measure the complexity of a project using time-span, can I select a Project Manager using time-span?
  • If I can determine the maximum time-span of a person, can I determine suitability for a role in our company?
  • Can I test a person on the basis of time-span , as they grow and mature, to determine capability for more responsibility?

Hint: the answer is yes.

Playing on the Road

  • Ufnfamiliar Turf
  • Jeering Crowd

Why do sports teams statistically have better records for home games than road games? In their championship series, why do sports teams jockey for playoff positions that award home-field advantage ? What impact does home-field advantage have on Motivation?

The locker room for the home team has individual accomodations, with names on each locker. Each player sleeps in their own bed the night before, life routines are simply routine. If a problem arises, any team member (including coaches and administrative staff) can tap into readily available tools, or hit the supply cabinet (readily stocked).

The visiting team is in unfamiliar surroundings, life routines are interrupted. Accomodations are adequate but anonymous. If a problem arises, the team member might have to improvise or “do without.” No hugs from family here, just the cold hard reality of a rival field of play.

Though there may be occasional fans supporting the road team, the majority of the cheering crowd is firmly in support of the home team. What is the impact of an engaged stadium full of “positive noise?”

What are the lessons in home-field advantage for the working manager?

  • Identity
  • Comfortable familiar environment
  • Problem solving systems
  • Available resources
  • The right tools
  • Ample supplies
  • Hugs (Support from the extended team)

The challenge for the manager, in the supervision of a team is to create an environment of home-field advantage in the workplace.

Wasn’t My Fault (Was It?)

Eight managers and a senior VP sit around the table, this table of Eager Beavers, Vacationers and Hostages. What will prevent them from participating? What will drive them to contribute with enthusiasm?

“Houston, we have a problem!!” booms the senior VP. Enter FEAR stage right. The VP just raised the spectre of fear. Here’s the question, “Does the way you state the problem have anything to do with the way people approach the solution?”

I could see the Face of Fear as I looked around the room. The silent responses were predictable. The darting eyes spoke volumes. Beneath the whisper level, emotions pounded.

  • It wasn’t my fault, (was it?)
  • It couldn’t have been my fault, (could it?)
  • It was supposed to happen that way, (wasn’t it?)
  • Since it wasn’t my fault, it must have been Tim’s fault (right?)
  • I didn’t approve that, (did I?)

Multiply those responses by the eight managers and then calculate what has been accomplished so far. What headway has been made toward solving the problem in Houston? Worse yet, if no headway has been made, what direction is everyone looking?

Does the way you state the problem have anything to do with the way people approach the solution? The mindset around the table is looking for blame, a scapegoat, something, anything to deflect responsibility for the problem in Houston. Everyone is checking out, the quicker the better, last one standing holds the bag. Disengage, no eye contact, pass the buck, Chuck.

As the Manager, you don’t know who has the idea that is going to save the day. You cannot afford to have a single person disengage from the meeting. You need full engagement from everyone in the room for the entire meeting. One idea, one phrase, one twisted word may trigger the solution.

Does the way you state the problem have anything to do with the way people approach the solution? Take the problem and create a positive question that points toward the solution.

IWWCW. In what way can we increase sales in our Houston territory? Take the problem and create a positive question that points toward the solution. Now, look around the room. You will find positive engagement. It is impossible not to. (Sorry, for the double negative.)

A bit of science. The human mind cannot “not answer” a question. (Another double negative.) The way the human brain is wired, when presented with a question, it is impossible for the mind to do anything other than search for the answer. If you want to engage the mind, ask it a question. If you want to engage a team, ask them a question. If you want to engage a team to solve a problem, state the problem as a postive question that points toward the solution. In what way can we…?

What Tone Do You Set?

What is more contagious than a positive attitude? A negative attitude, of course!

I always ask, “Think of one positive thing that has happened to you this past week.” Often, I receive blank stares, quizzical looks, some hard thinking going on there. Given another thirty seconds, most can finally come up with something. What makes this exercise so difficult?

A much easier question would have been, “What is the worst thing that happened to you this past week?” People never have trouble coming up with that one. They are happy to tell you about things not working out in their lives. Interesting that makes them so happy.

Thinking negative thoughts is largely an unconscious activity. People express negative thoughts without thinking. Idle gossip is rarely intentional, it just happens and those who get sucked into it are not even aware they are traveling in that direction.

As a manager, if you want to set a positive tone, you will have to challenge your team to think about positive things. The expression of positive thoughts is a conscious activity. It requires active thinking. It is work to think that way. Positive thoughts and positive expression only occur intentionally. As a manager, it is your responsibility to challenge your team to think this way.

Think of the tone it sets for the rest of the meeting/day/week?

Company Growth, Personal Growth

“I know I need to delegate more,” Hannah shook her head side to side. “But, I am often disappointed when I give someone a task and they don’t complete it to my standards. It’s just easier to do it myself.”

“Okay, I will agree that you can complete the work better than anyone else on your team,” I replied. “As the manager, if you have to complete all the work, how much work can you do in an 8-hour day?”

“I know where you are going with this,” she said. “If I do all the work, our output capacity is limited to how much I can personally get done. Not to mention, everyone else will be standing around all day.”

“There is more to it than a capacity issue, output for a day,” I nodded. “It’s output capacity, forever. If all you produce is what you can personally produce in a day, the company will never grow. More importantly, you will never grow.”