Being a good human helps me run a successful business: Interview with Jason Foster, CEO at Cynozure

Jason Foster is the founder and CEO of Cynozure, a data and analytics strategy company with a mission to create a better future for all through the open and positive use of data. He is co-author of ‘Data Means Business’ and was recently featured in the DataIQ 100 Most Influential People in Data, 2020 and 2021.

From running and implementing the data capability for M&S’s loyalty and membership offering, to founding Cynozure, Jason sheds light on the importance of a clear goal, clear outcome, and alignment of expectation and how he had “a moment of complete clarity about what they needed to do” when the pandemic hit through a set of principles called “Leading through adversity.”

Check out the full interview here or listen on Spotify and Apple:

Where did you start your career?

During university, I was a business analyst at Debenhams running an end-to-end project to implement a system. It was an incredible experience and they invited me back for the graduate scheme afterwards.

I then joined a small consulting business and helped to grow that company to about 100 people before joining M&S for three years. I helped build M&S’s data capability, growing a team of 30 and implementing their loyalty and membership club Sparks.

When I set up Cynozure, it was obvious to me the idea was to help companies do what I had just done at M&S. I wanted to set up a business that I wish had existed when I was at M&S and ultimately, it’s built on a 20-year career.

Our entire business, our whole team, we’ve all got “scars”. We know what it is like to try and implement change in a big and small organisation. We know what it’s like to be both the buyer and the seller. We know what processes people need to go through. We know what people need to go through to deliver projects and we can help people through that. We can help make our customers be better buyers and we can sell better because we’ve been on the other side of the fence.

What was your reaction to the pandemic and lockdown?

We’d had a challenging 12 months before lockdown, and in early 2020 had started to see a real turn in people’s interest in working with us and solving their data challenges.

We were happy with what we were seeing and had momentum, then this brick wall hit, and we thought it was going to be a disaster. I reflected quite a lot about that moment and after the initial shock, I got my act together and needed to figure out how we respond.

I luckily had this moment of absolute clarity about what we needed to do, and I figured out how we needed to react and respond. We put together principles for the team, which at the time we called “leading through adversity.”

The idea was that we went back to our first principles. What are we trying to achieve here? What do we do? Who are we trying to serve? What are they going through? What is it that we want to be known for?

It’s not rocket science. It was all about making sure, first and foremost, that our team were fine and that we were supporting each other. We were empathetic to each other’s situation and were remembering what our purpose and our core values were as a company.

What have been your biggest learns over the past 12 months?

Learning how people are up for collaborating and particularly in the data community. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how people have come together because in trying times it’s easy to just look after yourself.

Where there’s a clear purpose, a clear goal, a clear outcome and an alignment of expectation, people want to be part of it.

Is there something as a leader that requires more regular attention or effort from you?

I have a terrible memory and I’ve trained myself over the years to get around that by having lists.

Since I set the company up, I’ve never had a performance review, other than anecdotal feedback and what you feel around you. We did a round of performance reviews with the team, and I asked one of my team to do a review for me as if he was my boss. We went through the feedback and talked about what I should stop doing, start doing, continue doing, and then came up with a personal development plan. He coached me through it, rather than the other way around.

To anyone who’s running a business, it was nice to go to one of the team for advice rather than an outside coach.

What does great leadership look like to you?

Having clarity of where you’re heading and a clear set of values that you live and breathe by, not just write down and stick up on the wall.

Best book or podcast that you recommend?

Banking On It by Ann Bowden (Starling Bank)
A World Without Work by Daniel Susskind
No Rules or Rule by Reed Hastings (Netflix)
Data Means Business by Jason Foster

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