Inspirational Leader: Geoff Foster

Geoff Foster was a Lancastrian and although he lived in the South he retained his broad Northern accent and I first met him in the late 1970s.

Among his many roles Geoff was the ‘training director’ at Coopers & Lybrand Management Consultants. I was a new consultant and it was his job to knock me, and many others, into shape. When I joined there were less than a 100 of us and I was in awe of the intellect around me. I can honestly say they were the brightest bunch of people I ever worked alongside, but intellect and brightness didn’t always lead to streetwise skills and it was Geoff’s job to knock those into us.

We can learn a lesson at any time in our life, but Geoff was the provider and source of many and fortunately they were at the very early in my working life. I want to give just three which have as much relevance today as they did for me, then.

The first was simple. He was also an expert in manufacturing and told me that the first task in a new client was to walk around the site, ask questions and listen and if I was any good I would understand the problem within 24 hours. The job then was to get the data and convince the client of the solution. Look and listen before talking remains great advice.

The second and third were at what I remember were bi-annual, all grades, residential, three-day training courses, run by Geoff. The style of the course was always ‘role plays’ when we played through different practice scenes, often a grade or three above where we were. It didn’t matter where I hid in the room he would always find me.

In his broad accent he would say, ‘Cryer, you can be senior consultant.’

This meant I would be given a card with my role while a compatriot was given the role of a director. I read my card. ‘You are a senior consultant who has been given a task, which we you haven’t completed, and you have a meeting with your Director. Prevaricate.’.

We were given a few minutes to get our thoughts together. My ‘director’ sat behind a make shift desk at the front of the room, watched by 50 of our colleagues.

‘Knock, knock.’ I shouted and walked into the ‘room’. I had a plan. I was going to drown him in chit-chat.

‘Hello,’ I said, ‘did you watch the football last night? Weren’t Chelsea awful? I have no idea how they could play so badly……’ and almost without a breath I talked about anything other than work. I don’t know how long Geoff allowed us to carry on. It seemed like a long time but was probably only 2 or 3 minutes.  We were getting nowhere. Geoff stopped us.

‘I’ll be director,’ he said taking the seat at the desk. I thought I would follow the same tactic.

‘Knock, knock,’ I said.

‘Sit down,’ he said as I was about to start off again. I was going to talk about Burnley being a Lancashire team. I opened my mouth.

‘Have you done fucking work,’ he said. It was loud and intimidating.

‘No,’ I whispered.

‘Well, fuck off until you have,’ he said, and I sulked off stage to laughter around the room, but the point was made.

The third lesson was less public. Maurice Hill, our ex Spitfire pilot and computer expert, had written a business game. We were divided into teams of half a dozen and again I was picked out, this time to be the CEO. I appointed people to the obvious roles. We were 2 or 3 iterations into the game and Geoff came to listen in to our deliberations and discussion. I thought he was about to move on but as he stood he said, ‘come with me for a moment.’

We moved a few feet away from the team. He put his hand on my shoulder, in rather a paternal way, and simply said, ‘you need to decide if you want to make friends or profit. Now get back there.’

I am writing about events nearly 40 years ago, but I still hold in my mind an image of the room and the circumstance. His personality and force remain vivid in my thoughts. He was never brought up to be a trainer but he had a rare and inspirational skill.

These were three of the many lessons that Geoff taught a generation. He was an inspiration to us all in the early and pioneering days of management consulting in Europe.