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.

Want to Build Your Business?

This is how it starts. In the beginning, the founder has an idea. This could be a hare-brained concept or even a hobby. (Some hobbies should stay hobbies.) But, the founder, not being able to resist, transforms the hobby into a business.

Admittedly, it is a little business, and who is doing all the work? The founder, of course. Is there work left over? There is always work left over.

So, the founder hires the first employees, mostly friends and family, because no one else will work for those paltry wages. And, what do these people do? A little bit of everything. The founder organizes the work around the people, asking what each employee (friend or family member) does well. “What do you do well?”

Indeed, there is some of that work to go around, and around. The work is organized around the people (scarce resources). Is there work left over? There is always work left over.

The strategic focus for this startup organization is all about sales. Without sales, this fragile organization dies. And, in the beginning, these don’t have to be profitable sales, because in the beginning, the founder puts all the expenses on a credit card, line of credit, whatever it takes to get the company off the ground.

This is proof of concept time. Is there a customer out there, anywhere, willing to buy our product or service, at any price. Why would a customer buy? There must be an angle, something unique. Oh, it must also be cheaper.

All of this requires energy and hard work. Success depends on it. The problem is, the just dessert for hard work is – more hard work.

Never Enough Time To Plan

“I don’t understand,” Calvin shook his head. “It was only a two week project. We are almost finished. Why do you think we need a plan, now? All we have to do is get the last of the barcode labels on the product boxes we missed.”

“You tell me,” I said. “How did the barcode project turn out so far?”

“Well, we’re still working on it. It’s a lot of boxes, and we missed some as we were going through the inventory.”

“How did you find that out?”

“Well, my boss showed up late in the afternoon and started to look around. It’s amazing how he can always find the stuff we missed. It’s almost like he went straight to it. Boom. In five minutes he found 36 product bins that we missed completely. Now he is making us go back through and check every single item.”

“What is that doing to your completion schedule?” Calvin, just looked at me. No answer.

“So, there wasn’t enough time to plan this thing up front?” I said. “There wasn’t enough time to do it right, but there is enough time, now, to do it twice?

“Calvin, I know it seems you are really behind the 8-ball, but I want you to stop. Right now. Stop, and get your team around. I want you to draw out each of the steps with your team on a big piece of butcher paper. I want you to plan how you are going to get all the labels on and then plan how you are going to check for accuracy. You should be able to get that plan done in a half an hour. That half hour will end up saving you eight hours on the back end, and you shouldn’t have to do it a third time.

“Remember, doing it a third time is always an option.”

Practice in the Dark

It sounded like a beer cap hit a marble floor, then like a rifle shot. 100 pounds of air pressure escaped in a nanosecond. In the dark, before dawn, the sound ricocheted off the high condo towers, pierced 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 searched the inside of the tire for a shard of metal, a piece of glass.

Now, the rider of bike number three was doing very little through this entire process. He tried to look in control, but truth be told, his bike was being fixed without him. It was 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?

Conflict Management

“I am sorry, but I have to disagree.” Silence engulfed the room, eyes got wide. Someone cleared their throat. This team was at a cross roads. The next few minutes would determine whether it engaged in productive work or disengaged to avoid the conflict currently on the table.

This is not a question of being able to manage the conflict, more a matter of managing agreement. The more the group tries to manage the conflict, the more likely the agreement will be coerced and compromised with the real issues suppressed, perhaps even undiscussable.

Conversely, if the group engaged in a process to manage agreement, the conflict might be heard, even encouraged, thoroughly discussed. Opposing viewpoints might be charted and debated. Expectations might be described at both maximum success and dismal failure. Indicators could be created with contingency plans for positive and negative scenarios.

Does your team manage conflict to make sure discussions are comfortable and efficient?

OR…

Does your team manage agreement, to encourage spirited discussion of both sides of an issue? When things get uncomfortable, can your team live through the stress of conflict to arrive at a well argued decision?

When I look around a room and see that each person is comfortably sitting, I can bet the issue on the table is of little importance. But, if I see stomachs tied in knots, the issue on the table is likely to be important.

Twinges in the Stomach

Charlie was in my office yesterday. We talked about mostly nothing for a half a minute, when I suddenly became uncomfortable. Something happened inside of me, mostly with my stomach. I wasn’t in discomfort, but there was a significant twinge.

The twinge in my stomach was caused by a short silence, a white space in the conversation. I asked a question about Charlie’s last meeting with his boss. There was no response from Charlie. Silence in a conversation often causes a momentary awkwardness.

I don’t know where this conversation is going next? I thought I knew, but I don’t know now. I wish I knew, but I still don’t know. I hope this conversation get some direction soon, because this awful silence is killing me. BOOM. My stomach told me we were talking about something more important than the weather.

My automatic (unconscious) reaction was to avoid. Do anything to make this feeling go away. The silence was awkward. The automatic (unconscious) response was simply to “talk.” Make the silence go away. If I talk, the silence will be gone, the awkwardness will be gone and I won’t feel this way. Talking would also likely steer the conversation back to a discussion of the weather.

Channel the reaction. My bio-response to Charlie was a twinge in the stomach. The twinge told me that this conversation had potential to be more meaningful. I could avoid it or I could engage. Avoidance would be easy, simply talk to fill the silence, talk about anything.

OR,

I could engage, and let the silence continue. I could let the silence do the heavy lifting to move this conversation to the next level. Something significant had happened between Charlie and his boss and Charlie needed to talk about it. We could have talked about sports, or we could have engaged in a meaningful discussion that had real impact on Charlie.

The twinge in the stomach gives the Manager a heightened sense of intuition and the possibility to channel the reaction to a more productive outcome. Listen to the twinges, watch for white space in conversations.

Interchangeable Commodity

If team members were not interchangeable commodities, what would change about our hiring practices (building the team)? What if, out of the candidate pool, based on the role, there was only one or two players who truly fit? What would change about our approach to recruiting?

If we weren’t so casual, so cavalier in our hiring practices, what would change?

Here is what I see –
Most companies do a poor job of truly defining the work in the role. We have only a half-baked idea what we need from this role. We have not identified the decision making in this role, nor the problem solving required. With this half-baked role idea (role description, poorly written), it is no wonder we settle for an unmatched candidate who has no clearer idea than we do of what they are supposed to do.

So, let’s start there. In the role, what are the decisions that have to be made and what are the problems that have to be solved. Once you have this figured out, then you can begin to look at candidates.

Difference Between Winning and Losing

In any sport, there is the game and there are the players. For both sides of the contest, the rules are the same, the playing pitch is the same. The two primary variables are techniques (methods, processes) and people. Methods and processes are important, but you don’t have to watch a sporting event for very long to see that the discussion is focused on the people, the players, the talent.

Most sporting teams commit considerable budget and effort in recruiting. What is the major difference between a winning team and a losing team? It is rarely technique. It’s all about the people.

The most important part of building any successful company is building the team. Often, we see team members as interchangeable commodities, always replaceable. What if that weren’t true. What if team members weren’t replaceable, interchangeable commodities? What would change about our hiring practices as we build this team?

Turn the Tables

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:

I am at wits end. I have a weekly management meeting, but it seems I do all the talking, especially when it comes to accountability. And when it comes to accountability, all the ears in the room go deaf. Whenever there is underperformance, it is like the team cowers under the table until the shouting is over. I am tired of shouting. Besides, it doesn’t seem to do any good.

Response:

Most Managers are not aware of and do not leverage team accountability. Managers assume the role of the bad guy and essentially let the team off the hook when it comes to holding each other accountable for performance.

Turn the tables. In your next meeting, when a team member reports non-performance or underperformance, stop the agenda. Ask each team member to take a piece of paper and write down how this underperformance is impacting their part of the project. Go around the table and ask each person to make a statement. Then ask the team to create an expectation of how the underperformance should be corrected. Go around the table again. Finally, ask the underperformer to respond to the team and make a public commitment to action.

Team accountability is a very powerful dynamic.

Things Slow Down

“What are you thankful for?” I asked.

The eyes from the other side of the table turned kind.

“I am thankful for this time of year, where things slow down. I stop. I stop being busy and become aware. If we don’t stop, we just keep going. Gratitude is about awareness. When I stop, my heart rate goes down. I am calm. In the quiet, I can take it in. I can watch and see things more clearly for what they are.”

“And, what do you see?” I prompted.

“I see connections, the relationships I have with other people. I play a role in other people’s lives and other people bring value to mine. It’s all about connections.”

“And, what are you thankful for?” I asked again.

“I am thankful that I am not wandering alone. I am thankful for those around me, that are connected to me. It sounds too obvious. That’s why it is so important to slow down and become aware. If we don’t stop, we just keep going.”

During this time of Thanksgiving, I am going to stop. To become aware.

See you next week. With my gratitude.

All in the Way You Think

Management is about leverage.

Most people work on a ratio of 1:1. They work for an hour and they get one hour’s productivity. Managers have to get far more leverage from their time than 1:1. A manager cannot afford to get only one hour’s productivity for one hour worked.

How can you get two hours productivity from one hour worked? It’s a fair question.

The obvious answer is delegation. But the challenge continues. How can you get three hours productivity from one hour worked?

But here’s the real challenge – How can you get 50 hours productivity from one hour worked?
Chicken feed. How can you get 100 hours productivity from one hour worked, every month, month in and month out?

Most managers view delegation from the perspective of time management. Dumping. If you dump enough stuff, you can get five, six, even ten hours of time back, but you are still working on a 1:1 ratio.

Only if you look at delegation as development, do you begin to understand true leverage. One hour can turn into 100 hours productivity. How would you like to work for 5 hours and gain 500 hours productivity over the next 30 days? It’s all in the way you think. So, how do you think?