Dr. Colm Foster
MBA '99, PhD '11
A member of UCD Smurfit School’s adjunct faculty, lecturing in strategy, strategy implementation, operations management, finance and organisational behaviour, Dr Colm Foster (MBA 99) is also a co-author of the recently published Step Up: Lead in Six Moments That Matter, which draws on his extensive experience in business and academia to deliver a practical guide to stepping up and demonstrating leadership when it most matters.
About Dr. Colm Foster
Foster’s background is in finance: he qualified as a chartered accountant with Ernst & Young (now EY) in Dublin and subsequently spent several years with PwC in Australia. He also worked for Diageo for nearly 14 years, initially in a finance role and then as finance and strategy director. As he moved into the boardroom, he was given the opportunity to do an executive MBA in the Smurfit School.
“Having the deep functional expertise from the professional background was fine to get you to the top of the functional ladder, but as well as being head of finance I was a full board member expected to contribute outside of my function,” he explains. “I think the MBA is the perfect vehicle to expand your horizons and I recommend to any functional head that when they want to spread their wings beyond their functional capability, the Smurfit MBA is the gateway to that.”
After completing his MBA, he returned to do guest lecturing on finance modules and then became increasingly involved with the school.
In Diageo, meanwhile, he was appointed operations director for third parties, which was a global role that involved him being based in the UK for two or three years. “But I got tired of travelling and the family got tired of travelling so I left Diageo and came back to Ireland to start my own business.”
He received a generous pay-off from Diageo that gave him a three or four-year cushion when he knew he wouldn’t need to work. He set up a consultancy business and began talking to people in the faculty about doing a PhD, something he had always been interested in pursuing. “It’s not expensive to do, but you do lose earning capacity,” he says. “So I had that opportunity to effectively work part-time and give over part of my constructive life to doing a PhD and I indulged myself. I didn’t have a plan to monetise my PhD: I did it because I wanted to do it and I had a very supportive family and, luckily, a bit of a financial cushion.”
Prof Frank Roche agreed to supervise his research, which focused on emotional intelligence. He started in 2007 and it took around four years to complete.
His subject choice was driven by an interest in the people side of things, he says. “The best and worst times I had in Diageo were all to do with people. The things I’m most proud of are all to do with developing people. And the things that I’m most ashamed of or regret are all to do with failing to develop people. I came out of Diageo thinking that sometimes I’m great at this and sometimes I’m terrible at it and I need to be consistently better at it. And that led to emotional intelligence and to a PhD.
“Through that association, I ended up doing quite a bit of teaching on the MBA programme and executive education programmes. I now also teach on the foreign programmes in Singapore and Hong Kong and this year I’m teaching in Sri Lanka for the first time. So, as well as having the consultancy business I’ve tried to keep the academic life alive.”
At this stage, he reckons he spends an equal amount of time over the course of the year between his academic and consultancy work, with the latter focusing on helping people to implement their strategies. “Increasingly the work has been around developing leadership capability in senior leaders so the strategy works,” he says. “Emotional intelligence is one of the ways you can develop leadership capability in your senior leaders so that they can go on and implement the strategy you have helped them develop. It’s not really about leadership development for its own sake. It’s about what you need to do and then helping you to do that.”
Foster runs his own business in Ireland, but is also a senior associate at US organisation Dynamic Results, which has a similar focus. “So I’m able to scale my business internationally by having a strategic alliance with a US organisation.”
Writing about leadership
The co-author of his new book is the founder and managing partner of Dynamic Results Henry Evans. The decision to write it came out of discussions over the last couple of years between Foster and Evans about the leadership canon and all the literature that’s available on the subject. “We believe that practically everything that’s said about leadership has a common denominator in that it’s cognitively simple, but behaviourally complex.
“The secrets to success in leadership are relatively simple. So, you’re reading a book and it’s listing all the things you should do, and you’re nodding along saying, yeah, I know all that. So, that was an interesting read, I really enjoyed that book, but where’s the call to action, what are you going to do differently next week, in that meeting when you’re sitting in front of those people, what will be different?
“We had that experience a lot. Because the advice tends to be quite simple, people shy away from giving it. The thinking is – if I tell people to do the simple stuff, they’ll think my book isn’t worthwhile; so I’ll give a this very complicated description, but I won’t give them any practical advice in case I dilute the apparent scientific rigour of what I’m saying.
“We thought, we work with executives all the time, we give them advice all the time, and the advice we give is simple and it works. We should just write this down and be brave and have the courage of our convictions to say this does work, we don’t have to dress it up or make it sound any more complicated than it is. Leadership is not a difficult, esoteric concept; leadership is about behaviour. When times are tough, do you know what to do, or do you not? And if you know what to do, do you have the courage to do it? Oftentimes, the answer is no.”
So the book is based on six critical moments when anyone can demonstrate leadership, regardless of their title or role in an organisation. “We slimmed our list down to the six things that trip people up that happen most often and are the ones that people struggle with the most. The book explains what these patterns are so you can recognise them and then what you do to deal with it.”
The six main topics are around remaining intelligent while genuinely angry; avoiding terminal politeness – having the right level of conflict about the right things; being prepared to make a decision; accepting that you play a part in certain problems and trying to change your part in that; realising that pessimists have a role in organisational life and listening to them early in the process rather than running blindly into obstacles; and inspiring others to take action rather than restating problems. Of the last point, Foster says: “If you’re the person who consistently kicks the group out of problem definition into options around solutions, then you are a person who will be seen as a leader.”
He says the aim of the book is not give people skills that they can do to others to make them better leaders. “The spirit in which all of these things should be used is the spirit of emotional safety, which is making it safe for others to bring things to you that you mightn’t like. If people are anxious about your reaction to bad news, they will avoid bringing you bad news until they have to, or they’ll give you a version of events. That makes you highly dangerous, because you make big decisions with tainted data. We’re looking for people to use these tools and techniques in a way that makes the people around them grow.”
The book was launched in April in the US and in Europe in May and has so far received “some fantastic reaction”. “It’s an Amazon top 10 business book. Inc magazine called it the No 1 business book to read this year. We’ve been in Forbes and a whole bunch of online forums. Marshall Goldsmith wrote the foreword, which is a tremendous endorsement. It is grounded on solid theory and Jack Mayer’s endorsement of the theoretical foundation was just massive.”
Foster’s next book, which he hopes to begin in the next month, will be based on the qualitative part of research he carried out into the Jesuits and the marines and what leadership means to them and how you develop it. His first academic article on emotional intelligence, co-authored with Prof Frank Roche, looks at how EI is used to assess leadership and was published in Leadership Development and Organisation Journal in May. And he’s collaborating with Ciaran Heavey from the UCD Quinn School on another article that has been submitted to the Journal of Management. “We’re anxiously waiting for feedback from that,” he says.