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.

More Practice

“Practice makes perfect,” Melanie grinned.

“No,” I replied. “Practice does NOT make perfect. Practice may make you feel better, repeating grooved, routine behaviors, but, those behaviors may still miss the mark. Practice does not make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect. It’s not the repetitions, it’s the right repetitions.”

“But, you always say that we learn from mistakes,” Melanie chided.

“Learning is making mistakes, but you have to learn from the gap. What is the future state of performance, what is the current performance, and what’s the gap?”

“So, there is some analysis going on?” Melanie confirmed.

“And, often that analysis is invisible to you because you are getting comfortable with repetition. But, it’s just a feeling. What’s the difference between training and coaching?”

“Training gets you started, but practice makes you better. Learning from mistakes only works when you recognize the mistake, and figure out how to do it differently. And, sometimes we can’t see the mistake, or the correction, as easily as someone else. That’s where a coach comes in.”

“You said you had been through training,” I nodded, “and you were able to describe the training, as scheduled, with a curriculum. What about coaching? How would you describe coaching here?”

Melanie paused for a very long time. “In my days here, coaching seems elusive. I don’t know if I can put my finger on it. Underperformance is more likely met with reprimand and training, more training, back to training. I don’t need more training, I need more practice, perfect practice.”

Perfect Practice

“The training only got you so far,” I nodded. “But, your comfort level with the skills, competence only came with practice?”

Melanie confirmed, “Lots of practice.”

“What kind of practice?” I wanted to know.

“What do you mean?” Melanie looked puzzled. “I just did what I was supposed to do, over and over, at first in fits and starts, but eventually things got easier.”

“I mean, how often did you practice, what was your duration of practice? What was your depth of practice? What was your accuracy of practice? And, how did you know you were getting better?”

“In the beginning, it was slow, frustrating. I was uncomfortable. Things didn’t turn out as expected. Each way I turned, I thought someone was going to scream at me for doing it wrong.”

“Did anyone scream at you?” I asked.

“Not really,” she replied. “I know I got some sideways glances, and likely people were talking about me behind my back.”

“If no one was screaming at you, and perhaps people were talking about you behind your back, how did you know you were getting better, improving?”

“At some point,” Melanie thought out loud, “I just got more comfortable. Maybe people were still talking about me behind my back, but, it didn’t seem that way. It was just a feeling.”

“I started this conversation by asking you the difference between training and coaching,” I reminded her. “Training was organized, disciplined, it was an event, but it only got you to a minimum level of technical knowledge. Moving toward competence required practice.”

Melanie nodded. “It’s funny. Whenever we see someone struggle in their job, our first move is to send them back to training. And, often that training doesn’t have much impact. What you seem to be saying, is that when someone struggles, they may not need more training, they might just need more practice?”

Beginning of Competence

“What’s the difference between training and coaching?” I asked.

Melanie was a new manager. “I’ve been to training,” she replied. “It’s scheduled, it has a curriculum, it’s disciplined. Someone thought through the sequence of learning, identified specific skills.”

“And, when you emerged from the training program, certificate of completion in hand, did that make you a high performer?”

“That’s was my impression,” Melanie said. “But, that impression turned out to be wrong. The training gave me insight into the way we do things around here, but I was certainly not a high performer.”

“You seem to be comfortable in what you are doing now,” I nodded. “That wasn’t the result of the training?”

“Not hardly. I learned, possessed some technical knowledge about our methods and process, but I was very much a newbie.”

“Technical knowledge, but not competence? On the other hand, you appear competent now. What happened?”

“Practice,” Melanie smiled. “Technical knowledge will only get you so far. Competence requires taking those first steps, hands on, then practice, lots of practice.”

What’s Local Anymore?

“So, it’s important to be Number One or Number Two in our market. I get that. Third or Fourth place just creates a target. Can we use geography to narrow our market definition? I mean, as a local supplier, we have an advantage. We can honestly say that we are Number One in our local market,” Gene explained.

“Yes, if your market is truly a local market. But, Gene, I gotta tell you, I have seen some trucks rolling around town from a new competitor I haven’t seen before,” I replied.

“Yeah, I know who they are. Their headquarters are on the other side of the state. They don’t do any local advertising. I think they are depending on the internet to get their leads. They show up pretty heavy in search engines. But, still, they’re from out of town.”

“Gene, I visited their yard. They don’t have an office, but they have six trucks in your local market.”

Living Off the Crumbs

“Yes, we have a couple of competitors, big competitors, but they pretty much leave us alone. We’re much too small in the market to be more than a thorn in their side,” Gene explained.

“So, as the overall market contracts and the Top Competitors‘ revenues get pinched, where do you think they will go, to hold on to market share,” I asked.

“Well, we always hope they will fight with each other,” Gene continued.

“Why would the Top Competitor in the market fight with Number Two when they can just come in and take out Number Four or Number Five?”

Gene sat up in his chair, suddenly uncomfortable. “Well, Number Four would be us. And they have always left us alone. After all, we just pick up the crumbs that fall off of their cake. Why would the Top Dog want to come after us?”

“Why would the Top Competitor want to spend a lot of money, energy and resources fighting with Number Two, when they can take your customers without a whimper?” I asked again.

I could see Gene’s eyes tracing this chess game in his mind. “Look, Gene,” I continued. “In any market, when times are good, it’s easy to be Number Four, living off the crumbs. But, when the market gets tight, the only place to be is Number One or Number Two. Number Three and Number Four will have their heads handed to them.”

Undergrowth

“It’s strange,” Byron said. “A couple of years ago, we were on top of the world. We were the industry leader, now, with COVID and supply chain issues, things are tightening. You just never know.”

“So, this was not predictable?” I asked.

“No, our growth curves just showed, no turning back. I mean, it wasn’t hockey stick growth, but continued growth just the same. We just didn’t think we would ever have to pull in our horns.”

“So, Byron, what’s the purpose for a forest fire?”

“What do you mean? How can a forest fire have a purpose?”

“From an ecological sense?”

Byron thought for a minute. “I have heard that when a forest becomes choked with undergrowth, a fire can clear it out. Though it appears devastating, that’s what brings on new growth.”

“What could that tell us about business cycles?” I probed.
“Sometimes the market gets overgrown and has to be cleared out?” Byron tested.

“Yes, in fact, if you look at macro economic climates, you will see very distinct cycles. Occasionally, there has to be a clearing of the undergrowth. So, what if you looked at your own internal business cycles, within your own company. What do you now see?”

Byron pondered. “I see that, as we grew, some of the things we created weren’t good for the long term health of the company. They seemed like a good idea at the time, but, perhaps, we were just creating undergrowth.”

Spares?

“Looking at the future,” Glen contended, “we are desperately looking for that new something that is going to help replace some our declining lines of business. We find something, we gear up for it, commit some people to the project, but so far, all of those projects have failed. We end up pulling the plug.”

“Who have you committed to these new projects?” I asked.

“Well, they are new projects, so we generally take those people that we can spare from our core project lines.”

“Are these your best and brightest people?”

“Well, no. Our best people are still running our core projects. But we can usually spare a couple of people from one of their teams.”

“So, you are trying to cobble together a launch team, in an untried project area, where unforeseen problems have to be detected and corrected, and you are doing this with spares?”

Like Herding Cats

“So, how long could they keep that up?” I repeated. “As long as nothing changed, how long could your team simply repeat what they did the day before?”

“Well, forever,” Nathan exclaimed. “But things do change.”

“Bingo!” I said. “Things do change and that is what management is all about. Customers change, technology changes, raw materials change, processes change, even our people change. Management is all about change. Change is your guarantee of a never-ending employment opportunity as a manager.”

I smiled, but Nathan didn’t appreciate my jovial attitude.

“I think I am tuned in with that. So, why am I having so much trouble with my team. They don’t listen to anything I have to say.” Nathan’s head swirled as if his thoughts were making him dizzy and he was trying to stabilize.

“Here is the problem,” I replied, waiting until Nathan’s eyes were settled. “Everyone talks about managing change, as if it is the prime directive. We manage this and we manage that. Here is the clue. People don’t want to be managed. People want to be led. Oh, there is still plenty to manage, processes, systems and technology. But try to manage people and it will be a bit like herding cats.”

Overwhelmed Behaviors

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:

What happens when you realize you were given a promotion and not able to live up to the capabilities? Do you admit it to your superiors? Do you keep it to yourself and risk failure?

Response:

There are many ways to survive in a position that’s over your head, but in the end, it’s only survival. Not a way to live.

I often ask managers, “How do you know, what behavior do you observe when a person is in over their head? Where the Time Span for the position is longer than the Time Span of the person?”

The descriptions come back.

  • They feel overwhelmed.
  • They cover things up.
  • They cut off communication.
  • Their projects are always late.
  • I can’t ever find them.
  • They always blame someone else.
  • They have all the excuses.
  • They never accept responsibility.

So, the short answer is yes. When you realize you are in over your head, go back to your boss. Explain the difficulties you are having. Ask for help. If it is a matter of capability (Time Span), no amount of training, no amount of hand holding will help. It is possible that you may grow into the position, but it’s more likely a matter of years, not weeks that allows for the required maturity (increase in Time Span).

This doesn’t make you a bad person, it just means you were placed in a position where you cannot be effective. Yet!

Planning, Goals and Objectives

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
My role has expanded recently and as a manager, I am expected to participate in our annual goal setting exercise, including setting expectations for my team. How would you suggest I approach this task? I recognize that communicating context is critical.

Response:
Congratulations. Welcome to your new role. Goal setting is actually the second step, not the first in your organizations annual planning exercise. Before you can set goals for yourself and expectations for your team, you have to understand where the organization is going. That always starts at the top of the organization, and, it appears you are now part of that circle.

  • S-V – Business Unit President, goals and objectives, 5-10 years, mission, vision.
  • S-IV – Executive Managers, goals and objectives, 2-5 years, multi-system integration.
  • S-III – Manager, goals and objectives, 1-2 years, single system, single critical path.
  • S-II – Supervisor, goals and objectives, 3-12 months, implementation, execution.
  • S-I – Production, goals and objectives, 1 day-3 months, production.
  • Each layer in the organization should be thinking about, and asking questions related to context at the next level up. It all starts at the top with Mission, Vision. I hold the Business Unit President accountable for leading that discussion, arriving at and defining some conclusions. Then, toward that Mission, Vision, each layer begins to grapple with defining the tasks and activities (the work) including stated targets for each objective.

    The approach, for you, will be to get your arms around the way your company expresses itself in these cascading sets of goals and objectives. Some companies are very formal, some informal, some are loose. Speak directly with your immediate manager.

    • How did the process go last year?
    • How were the results of last year’s process stated, or published?
    • Can you get a copy of last year’s planning output?
    • Is there a schedule for this year’s planning?
    • What preparation do most managers complete prior to the planning process?
    • What data needs to be gathered?
    • Specifically, what formal documentation do you need to produce, as a new manager in your company?
    • Does your planning need to coordinate with anyone else’s plan?
    • Does your plan need to include budget and costs?
    • What has changed during the past 12 months? In your market? In your company? In your department? With your team?
    • What changes in the future do you need to be aware of that might impact your plan?
    • How will the elements of your plan need to be broken down and communicated to your team?
    • When will your plan need to be communicated to your team?
    • What feedback from your team will you need to collect in the preparation of your plan?
    • What milestones will you track (key performance indicators) to make sure your plan stays on track?
    • How often will you review those milestones with your manager?

    That’s probably enough for now.