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.

Real Leverage

It all starts with purpose And there are only two purposes.

If you make a list of all the benefits to the manager from delegation, you get an impressive inventory (Be selfish, think only of yourself):

  • More time for golf.
  • More time for lunch.
  • More time for surfing the internet.

That’s nice. But you also get:

  • More time for thinking.
  • More time for higher level work.
  • More time for planning.
  • More time for organizing.
  • More time for analysis.

Things you were hired for in the first place, but have no time for.

Now, list the benefits of delegation to the team member:

  • Cross training.
  • More responsibility.
  • Eligible for promotion.
  • Understanding of the bigger picture.
  • Feeling of importance.
  • New skills.
  • Credit for a new “job well done.”
  • Feeling of pride.
  • Eligible for higher compensation.
  • Feeling of teamwork.
  • Higher level of motivation.

Two different lists, one for the manager and one for the team member. Look at the themes. What do you see?
List one, for the manager, the theme is unmistakably time.
List two, for the team member, the theme is unmistakably development.

And, so these are the two purposes for delegation.
One: Time (Delegation is your most powerful time management tool)
Two: Development (Delegation is your most powerful people development tool)

So, which one gains the manager the most leverage?

Best Measure of Performance

The best measure of performance is performance. – Lee Thayer

Fitness. A team can have all the necessary elements, but if they don’t have fitness, they will not be able to pull off the strategy. My colleagues get that blank stare when I talk physical fitness. The eyes glance from side to side. “He’s not talking about… being fat, is he?”

If the project calls for a ten hour day, can you work it and then go home with enough energy to be with your family? No way, unless you are in shape. Yes, physical fitness, exercise and nutrition.

And mental fitness.

  • Create four alternative solutions to every question, to make sure we include unlikely possibilities.
  • Create an argument for the other side when this side seems so obvious.
  • Pull the team together for fifteen minutes to make sure we “check-in” before we make a major decision.
  • Discipline – use a consistent mental process for problem solving and decision making.
  • Discipline – focus on a single task until it is complete.
  • Discipline – follow-up on due date projects.
  • Discipline – have the difficult conversation when it is easy to avoid the confrontation.

Physical discipline and mental discipline go together, critical for execution. Most companies do a fair job of planning and organizing. But effectiveness is all about execution, physical and mental discipline. I will take a mediocre plan well executed, anytime, over a great plan that is poorly executed. Where does your team stand on the fitness scale?

Can’t Trust My Team

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I have this ongoing discussion with my boss about whether I delegate enough to my team. There are some things that I just don’t feel comfortable delegating to other people. I have been let down too many times before.

Response:
Most management “skills” or management behaviors, we learned from our parents, a teacher or coach when we were young. That’s just the way it happens. As much as we might think that we read and learn better ways of doing things, we find ourselves migrating back to the days in our childhood. Whether or not we delegate has little to do with technique and everything to do with what we believe…about delegation.

Most people believe (because they were taught by their parents) that if they want something done right, you have to do it yourself. You have been let down by a team member in the past (which reinforces your belief). Here’s the real question: “Is your belief accurate, or is it just something that is holding you back?” What we believe is much more powerful than any skill we possess.

To explore this further, make a list of why you don’t delegate more often. Your list will include things like:

  • I can’t trust my team to follow through.
  • No one is trained to handle this delegation.
  • I don’t have enough time to train someone to do this.
  • I can do it myself in one-quarter of the time.
  • My team is better at squirming out of responsibilities than I am at holding them accountable.

It is quite a formidable list. Whatever technique or model you use to organize your delegation, it has to deal with your beliefs. If you still believe this stuff, you will hesitate and ultimately continue to do things by yourself. You will lose the leverage of your team and ultimately underperform as a manager.

Difficult to Backtrack a Promotion

As a young project manager, Mario was successful at meeting deadlines and holding profit margins on each of the four projects he completed. Paul, his manager, wanted to give him a promotion, but was gun-shy.

“The last project manager I promoted did well on smaller projects,” Paul described. “But the accountabilities of longer timespan projects overwhelmed him. In the end, I had to let him go. It was almost as if the promotion ruined a good junior project manager.”

You don’t test a person by promoting them. Though not impossible, it is difficult to backtrack a promotion. Instead, test a person’s capability by giving them project work, longer timespan projects. Only if they are successful, do they get the corner office.

Don’t promote the person to test them. Test them with project work to earn the promotion.

Calibrating Time Span

“My team tells me that I don’t follow-up with them often enough, and that is why I am sometimes disappointed,” complained Sherry.

“How often is –not often enough-?” I asked.

“It seems to be different for different people.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“I don’t know,” Sherry paused. “One person can just go longer than another person without me peeking over their shoulder.”

“Sherry, I want you to think in terms of Time Span. Time Span is the length of time that a person can work into the future without your direction, using their own discretionary judgment to achieve the goal. And each person on your team has a different time span.

“Here is your exercise. Make a list of your team and beside each name, I want you to guess the length of time that each one can work independently, based on the tasks you delegate. Your guess will be the first benchmark for how long you leave them to work without follow-up. Keep a log. Once each week, for a month, write down your observations of each team member’s time span.

“The data you get from this exercise will help you know better what you can delegate and the time interval for follow-up.”

Things I Don’t Know

“The biggest change for me,” said Renee, “is that I have to spend time learning. I thought I finished learning when I finished school. I was wrong. Things I learned today weren’t invented when I was in school.”

Renee paused and looked around the table. “I have to keep an open mind that there are things I don’t know. There are things we do that can be done better. There are new ways to reach our customers. There are new ways for our customers to reach us.

“There are new products in our market that are better than our products. We have to see where we need improvement. We have to keep an open mind that we can always get better.

“The main thing is, I can’t keep coming to work every day, thinking, all there is to do, is the work. If I want to be more effective, I have to keep learning.”

Multi-system Integration

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
When you talk about the COO role, you use the words multi-system integration to describe its purpose. I understand silos, and you said we put the silos there for a reason. You said not to get rid of your silos, but to integrate them together. What does that mean?

Response:
Yes, as companies move from Adolescence to Prime, the silos will kill them without system integration. The COO role will necessarily focus on operations confronting two main system integration issues.

  1. What is the performance standard of the work output from each function (department, system, silo) as work moves to the next function? Each function has marching orders (from us) to be efficient, internally profitable. This necessitates an internal focus to the function. Many critical handoffs occur as work moves from sales through project management into operations. When there is a defect in the handoff, we may not discover the problem until we have poured concrete around steel. It is much easier to unwind in the handoff stage than the jackhammer stage.
  2. The other system issue relates to each function’s capacity for output. Without someone paying attention, easy for one system to outstrip the capacity of its neighboring system. This may manifest as a breakdown in communication, when the underlying cause is two internally focused systems, heads down not paying attention to the other functions around. Discussions of single system capacity rarely emerge below S-IV, much less the impact of one system onto another system.

One of the critical functions for the COO is to calculate the company’s operational (ops) capacity as operations is most likely to be the constraint in the midst of the other systems.

Any Decision, Any Problem

Think about any decision. You have to think about, not only the consequences of that decision immediately, but also the consequences in a month, three months or a year. An immediate positive consequence may create the circumstance for a negative consequence in three months time.

Same thing goes for a problem to be solved. You have to think about, not only the consequences of that solution in the near term, but the consequences in a month, three months or a year. An immediate solution may create the circumstances for a larger problem in three months time.

Take a high mileage vehicle and extend its preventive maintenance cycle by 30 days. You will save the cost of a maintenance cycle. In three months time, you will not likely notice any difference, but over two years time, you may experience catastrophic vehicle failure. And, it may not just be the cost of the repair, but the delay in the critical path of a project (just to save an oil change).

State of Panic

“Tell me how it sounds, to focus the mental state of the group on the real issue,” I invited.

Darla took a deep breath. “I have been thinking,” she started.

“Good, using I-statements is good.”

She started again. “It seems to me that we are not making progress on the project we started last week. I expected to see some changes in our process already, measuring some of the samples coming off the line. AND, I see the same team doing the same thing we have always done. No sampling, no inspection. I am curious.”

“Good, I like I am curious.”

“I am curious about the way you feel about the project. We are all in the room. Everyone will have a chance to participate. I would like each of you to speak for yourself. Who would like to start?”

“I like it,” I said.

“But, what if no one says anything. What do I do then?” Darla was visibly off center.

“You put the issue on the table. Your team will now go into a state of panic. You have moved the mental state of the team from collusion behind your back to a state of panic. Every manager before you has always rescued them from this panic. Believe me, your team has specific feelings about this project. They have verbalized those feelings at the water cooler. They pair up at lunch and talk about the way they feel about the project. You are drawing those same conversations, that they have already practiced, into the team meeting, so the team can deal with them. Your primary goal at this point is to outlast the panic.”

Is It a Real Issue?

“How do you change the mental state of a group?” I repeated. “What do you think is slowing down the pace of the team?”

“Based on what we have talked about, the reason the team is slow-walking the project is that they don’t believe in it, and that if it fails, they will get the blame,” Darla explained.

“How will you explain that to the team?” I asked.

“You want me to confront the team, tell them they don’t believe in the project?” Darla pushed back.

“The most effective managers are not those who tell people what to do. The most effective managers are those who ask the most effective questions. Ask a question.”

Darla composed herself. “Wouldn’t it be better to talk to each team member privately. This discussion is a little scary. If I talk to the group together, they might gang up on me. They might all walk out, quit.”

“Every issue that affects the group, must be dealt with by the group. Your job as the leader is simply to put the issue on the table.”

“I have to tell you,” Darla looked uncomfortable. “My stomach is upside down just thinking about this.”

“If your stomach is upside down, then you know you are dealing with a real issue.”