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.

Capability Plus Skill Set

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
How does someone make the leap from technician to manager? I see it all the time in IT work, and I think it’s why there are so many bad managers out there. Isn’t this the Peter Principle, where people are promoted to their level of incompetence?

Response:
It’s more than a leap. It is a completely different skill set. The technician is an expert in a technical skill. The technician does the production work.

One level of work above is the supervisor. The supervisor does NOT do the production work. The supervisor makes sure the production work gets done; completely, accurately, no missing segments and on time. The tools of the supervisor are checklists and schedules. This is not a subtle concept and most companies don’t get it.

The role of the supervisor is coordination. Success requires two things. First, the person has the capability to make longer timespan decisions and solve more complex problems. Second is the development of a new skill set related to schedule making, checklist making and meetings. The failure is most supervisors are promoted to a role where they are expected to use a skill set they have not developed and the company is not prepared to train.

Getting Your Juice

“What is the hardest part about delegation?” I asked. Matthew winced. The more we talked about delegation, the more he hated it.

“Giving it up,” he said. “I was the best technician in the field. I could handle two more stops than any of the other service trucks. At the end of the day, I put my numbers on the wall, and they were almost always at the top.”

After a moment, he continued, “Now, I have to wait. It is really tough to know whether or not what I do, as a Manager, is really having an impact. Numbers will be down for a service tech and I wonder if it is my fault or is he just having a bad day.”

“You are pretty results-oriented, aren’t you?” I asked.

“I guess so,” Matthew replied.

“It’s more than a guess, Matthew. That is why you really liked being a technician. You got results (your juice) on a daily basis. You could stick your results on the wall and look at them. If you wanted, you could even pull your results off the wall, take them home to show your wife. You are in a different game now. The results are not so tangible. You don’t get your juice every day. The results have to do with growth and development of your team. Welcome to management.”

The Game Changes Over Time

Howard didn’t like the list. The top three tasks I asked him to delegate were three that he enjoyed the most. He defended, saying these tasks kept his technical skills sharp, kept him in the game.

“Look, Howard, you are a Manager. You are now the coach who cannot step on to the field without getting a penalty flag. Five years ago, it was important for you to keep your skills sharp, to be the expert, to be faster. Your role has changed. The most important thing you can do now is to develop your team, make them faster, sharper. They are your new technical experts. Five years ago, it was important for you to be successful. Now, it is important for you to make your team members successful. If you fail at that, you fail as a Manager.”

One Crab in the Basket

“All my team wants to do is complain. I know things aren’t perfect, but we still have to get the work done. They shoot down every idea I have,” Chet shook his head.

“Have you ever been crabbing?” I asked. “Crabbing, you know, where you trap crabs, pull them out of the water and throw them into a basket?”

Chet looked at me a bit sideways. “What’s that got to do with my team?”

“Here’s the thing, Chet. If you only have one crab in the basket, you have to really pay attention, because the crab will crawl out of that basket lickety-split. The trick is to catch more crabs quickly. With a bunch of crabs, when one starts to crawl out, the other crabs attach to the legs and pull him back into the basket. You would think they would all try to crawl out, but that’s not what happens. Sometimes, teams are the same way.

“Before you describe a possible solution, go around the table and have each team member describe the major benefits if we are successful at solving the problem. If you can get them to focus on the benefits, they are less likely to focus on the crab (you) trying to crawl out of the basket.”

Idea Connection

“Why can’t I get more participation in my meetings?” Janet asked.

I nodded. “Some say that it is the fear of disagreeing with the boss, but I find it is a more universal fear. It is the fear of floating an idea that carries the possibility of rejection.”

I let that sink in a moment. “As a Manager, if you want to promote deeper, richer, more truthful conversations in your team, try this. As ideas are contributed, create a follow-up comment that expands the idea, creates an insight to that idea or connects the idea to a higher purpose, goal or solution. Breathe life into every contribution.”

Two weeks later, I overheard one of Janet’s team members talking at the water cooler. “Our meetings have really gotten better. Janet makes all of our ideas sound so smart.”

Ideas really are smart when you can connect them to a purpose, a goal or a solution.

Meetings De-Railed

“I’m tired of my team, whining and complaining in meetings. Then, they look at me, like I have to come up with the solution,” Janet shook her head.

“How are you going to fix that?” I asked.

“Not sure, every meeting seems to get de-railed.”

“Then why don’t you de-rail the meeting. Before the whining begins, re-state the purpose for the meeting (the problem to be solved), and ask everyone to write down two possible solutions. Only give them 45 seconds, they don’t need a long time.

This accomplishes two things:
1. It points everyone in the direction of a solution before the conversation has a chance to get de-railed.
2. It communicates that it is the responsibility of every team member to contribute in the solving of a problem.”

Never Run a Press Before

Cindy’s assignment was simple. As a successful supervisor in another division, she was transferred to a line unit that was having trouble keeping up. After her first meeting, she wasn’t so sure she was up to the task.

From the back of the room, “So, tell us about your background. Have you ever run one of these presses before?”

She admitted that she had not. “So, how do you expect to be our supervisor when you don’t know the first thing about how we do the job?” She had never been challenged so directly. Worse, it was a perfectly valid question.

Now Cindy was in my office. “Here is the central issue,” I asked, “how can you bring value to their problem solving and decision making?”

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t know how to run the press, but does that really matter? How do you bring value to their problem solving and decision making? How do they know when they are doing a good job? How do they know when they are doing a poor job?”

“Funny, I know the ops manager was complaining that they did not meet the production quota last month. But those numbers were never broken down on a daily basis so the line never had a clue whether they were ahead or behind. The last two days of the month, somebody came out and yelled at them to pick up the pace, but it was too little, too late.”

“So, you can bring value to the work by giving the floor feedback on daily production runs, perhaps accelerating things a bit, but avoiding a hysterical crunch at the end of the month.”

One month later, Cindy’s crew was ahead by 150 units, yet had worked no overtime, even taken the press down for a half day of preventive maintenance. Every morning, Cindy had a two minute huddle meeting and posted the day’s production goal. At ten and two she posted updates with a final count at 3:30 when the line shut down. Though she had never touched the press, she was bringing value to the problem solving and decision making of her production crew. The skills to be a successful supervisor are quite different than the technical skills of the crew.

The Porpoise

“Purpose?” Phillip squinted.

“Purpose,” I repeated. “The first step to having important meetings is to be crystal clear on its purpose. We tell Project Managers they need to have meetings, and then we wonder why their meetings fall apart. Bottom line is that most companies don’t train supervisors and managers on how to conduct an effective meeting. They just expect it to happen, like magic.”

“So we need to start with purpose?” asked Phillip.

“Everything starts with purpose. Meetings run amuck when there is no purpose, or where people attending have different purposes. Until we get those purposes out on the table, our meeting is going to meander aimlessly.”

“How do we do that? Send an email out before the meeting?” pondered Phillip.

“Yes, it’s as simple as that. But think about it. How many meetings did you attend during the past month where there was no stated purpose and no agenda?”

Phillip didn’t have to think long. “You know, I don’t think I went to a single meeting last month where there was a published agenda, much less, a stated purpose.”

“Now, I know some things managed to get done in those meetings, but they could have been much more effective. Do that one simple thing, and teach your PMs to do the same and you will see an improvement.”

Critical, But Never Taught

Phillip didn’t have to be briefed on the difference between meetings that were important and meetings that were a waste of time.

At the same time, he was uncomfortable. “You know, we do a pretty good job of training people on the technical stuff we do, how we make things, how we deliver our services, but we don’t train on how to run a meeting.”

“I know. Interesting, isn’t it? One of the most important things a supervisor does and your company doesn’t spend any time teaching it.”

“Okay, I’ll bite. What do we need to do first?” asked Phillip.

Third Leg on the Stool

“More?” Phillip asked.

“Phillip, one of the biggest mistakes a company makes when it hires people, is underestimating what is required for the person to be effective in the position. The role of a Project Manager requires a new skill set, a skill set that most companies never train.”

“We talked about schedules and checklists, but you said there was another tool, a third leg.”

I nodded. “Perhaps the most important tool. Meetings. Most PMs know they need to have meetings, but they just gut their way through. Nobody likes their meetings. The team would skip them if they could. Participation by team members hardly exists.

“Think what a meeting could be. It makes communication consistent because everyone hears the same thing. It provides the opportunity for interactive participation and questions. It encourages participation and promotes buy-in. It can be used as an accountability tool.

“But effective meetings rarely happen, because most managers don’t know how.” Phillip’s turn to nod. It began to sink in. Running the job is completely different than doing the job.