CommonSense Blog

Going. Ahead. With Gage: Interview with Colin Foster

By Gage Grammer | Jan 27, 2016

Colin FosterWelcome to another Going. Ahead. With Gage interview! I had the privilege of interviewing Colin Foster, Managing Director at Twist, A W2O Company, who shared insight on being a leader and how his teams operate. I hope you all gain some valuable insights and enjoy the read!

What are you doing to ensure that W2O Group is at the cutting edge?

I think the most important thing I’m doing is reinvigorating Austin. Austin has been the engine of innovation, change, new ideas, new models and new functions for the firm since it was founded. For example, Analytics was born here and has since scaled to virtually all W2O Group offices. Not only that, it has become one of the most critical assets for our clients and us as a firm. MDigitalLife was born here and is infusing itself into our offering. Right now, it’s focused mostly on healthcare, but we are quickly evolving the approach to help clients in other verticals.

My hope is that stepping up to lead Austin will accelerate our innovation engine and help keep us out front for years to come. The Austin “mindset” helps, as does the talent that’s on the ground, and I believe that we can incubate a lot here, scaling what works for the whole firm.

In a few words, describe what your team does for the company.

We have a highly diversified, matrixed company and I think my team is like a microcosm of that reality. I guess I like to think of my team as a geographically dispersed, super swat team of change agents.

In my “direct” team, I’ve got a healthcare engagement guru thought leader, a digital swiss army knife, an events magician and a digital strategy master wrangler. But to me, the idea of a team is actually really flexible. Building solutions for our clients require all kinds of people with all kinds of knowledge and experience. The way I see it, I have access to a whole firm full of people with super powers from offices around the world. Depending on the solution we are designing, I’m either leading or being led. I like the multifaceted approach to teams that we have in the firm; it keeps us nimble and innovative.

Thinking of your most successful current employees, what characteristics do they share?

They are highly accountable self-starter problem-solvers. Each one really owns what they say they are going to own, delivers on it, communicates and enrolls others in it and then moves on to the next thing. They are quick to share the good, the bad and the ugly so we can all learn in real time.

But there are so many layers under that:

There’s the willingness to take risks, the tenacity and persistence to get it done. There’s the pushing through hurdles and the energy to enroll others because nobody does anything alone in this company – there are too many great minds to tap! It’s this holistic approach that brings relationships and accounts to the next level. It’s why we keep growing faster than most other companies in our space.

How do you empower your employees to do their best possible work?

I give my team…my teams :)…a lot of room to succeed or fail. If you don’t fail you don’t learn what success really means.

I don’t like to micromanage or sit on their shoulders and direct their movements; be the master puppeteer. I learned my lesson on that many years ago. Doing that fosters an environment of complacency and reliance on me to make all the decisions. Wrong way to go.

If I see something veering too far off course and I feel compelled to step in, then I will. I think it’s key to establish that as part of the contract with the people I work with. It gives us space to diagnose the challenge and put it back on course together. But, I can’t always see things going off course. I work hard to build trust with my team so they pull me in and ask for help.

It’s also important for my team to establish stretch goals that push them outside of their comfort zones. It helps them learn and grow in new ways that they wouldn’t expect. I see this all as part of our contract and promise to each other.

How do you encourage creative/innovative thinking within Twist? 

It’s about setting a vision, showing my personal passion behind that vision, putting a structure in place to help us go in the direction of the vision and then getting hand-raisers to own and drive it. The key is not to over design the initial structure, instead give lots of leeway to the team so they can define it and make it happen.

A good example is my thinking about Austin. The office was in a place that it shouldn’t have been in and passion took over. I realized that I needed to harness my frustration and turn it into a solution. I noodled on that for a few days and came back to the office with a rough vision of four pillars to help get us on track. These four pillars evolved as soon as I enrolled the team and we got into a deeper discussion. People saw what I was getting at and coalesced around it, and then quickly started to own and shape it for themselves. Now the team is running with it.

Key lesson: you can’t just put a bunch of people in a room and say: “be creative, solve the problem.” It doesn’t work that way. You have to lay out a vision, set a good context and communicate a sense of urgency so we can figure out how to make it happen together.

What is the most difficult leadership decision you’ve had to make in the recent past?

Stepping up to lead Austin is probably my most recent difficult decision. I moved to Austin six years ago and I’ve had a pretty big hand in helping build it. But, my job keeps me on the road quite a bit, and I’ve used that as my excuse not to step in and step up. When I sat down to make my “list,” I realized that traveling was the only thing in the “don’t do it” column and the “do it” column was so much longer…

What did you learn from that experience?

Actually, I’ve learned that I’m in a constant state of learning. Kind of meta, I know, but as I gain experience I feel more and more confident as a leader. I may not show it, but I still second-guess myself, especially when I venture into the unknown. This applies especially to my global role, which is another hat I wear. Given my experience living in several countries working in global roles over the years, I know what I know about the global environment and I’m passionate about driving global business, but it’s a huge place and there are a lot more unknowns there.

As we look to evolve the firm into unchartered waters, I’m finding myself being stretched in totally different and unique ways. And now that I think if it, I guess I need to apply the learnings from my Austin leadership experience to help energize my global leadership role. Can’t stop here. I guess it’s in my genes to keep raising the bar, reaching it, then raising it again 🙂

As seen on LinkedIn

To read more Going. Ahead with Gage Interviews, click here!