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Executive interview: The Weird approach to leadership

Letting others make their own decisions leads to a more dynamic approach to running a business, suited to the demands of an AI-fuelled economy

There is a lot of debate over how artificial intelligence (AI) will impact people’s jobs and livelihoods. Surveys often find that while many think AI will impact jobs, it will not affect their jobs.

For Charles Towers-Clark, author of The Weird CEO and founder of internet of things (IoT) connectivity business Pod Group, everyone needs to change their attitude to work, to adapt the way they work to the era of AI.

He says: “In 2017, I started thinking about a book because of the issue of AI and that AI will take jobs. There are lots of people saying jobs will be lost, but how do we resolve this?”

Towers-Clark believes the global trends of AI, climate change and the gig economy are coming together, and that these disruptors are interconnected. “The gig economy came along due to new business models thanks to technology innovation,” he says.

In many organisations, people often feel like a cog in a wheel, which can make them disillusioned. “More hierarchical companies find it harder to empower people,” says Towers-Clark. The Weird CEO is a book about how to lead in a world dominated by AI by empowering staff to make their own decisions.

Towers-Clark’s “Weird” journey began 20 years ago, when he founded a company to surf the wave of e-commerce that began in the late 1990s, when people needed some way to have online deliveries when they were not at home.

“Everyone wanted delivery to home,” he says. “We developed a proof-of-delivery box and got a proof-of-delivery box patent. It was a box with a whole lot of electronics, and had a modem, barcode and sensors to communicate that delivery had been made.”

Although the initial idea was for online shopping, Towers-Clark pivoted the product to field service engineers. Rather than have a part or component shipped to the site where it is required, “it is easier to get a part to an engineer at their home”, he says.

The company evolved the idea and eventually put the software into mobile applications for delivery companies to track packages.

Prior to founding and running Pod Group, Towers-Clark was running a company employing 150 people spread across several offices around the globe. “I was working 16 hours a day,” he says. “I wanted to work in a different way, because all decisions were coming up to me."

The Weird way

Towers-Clark believes CEOs generally change their attitude to how they run their business following a divorce or a health scare. For Towers-Clark, this change in attitude is equivalent to the democracy versus dictatorship approach to leadership.

“With a good dictator, the whole country does well,” he says. “But if there is a bad dictator, the country will fall off a cliff. In a democracy, however, a country will never fall off a cliff.”

In effect, the more decisions that are pushed down, or come from bottom up where people are empowered, the more resilient an organisation becomes, he says.

“People will want to make decisions,” says Towers-Clark. “They never make bad decisions – they only make decisions based on what they know. If you remove constraint, people make better decisions.” This is the premise behind Weird, which stands for:

  • Wisdom
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Initiative
  • Responsibility
  • Development (self)

Towers-Clark describes Weird as a process that focuses on encouraging people to take responsibility for their own decisions. One example from the book involves purchasing. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a big-ticket or small-ticket item,” he says.

IT is strategic, and the small decisions that are made often have a huge impact, says Towers-Clark. “It doesn’t matter if it’s small or big, the process should always be the same. Get advice from people, but then take the responsibility. Why is it that in business you can can take responsibility for a £100 decision, but not if the purchase is more?”

In the book, Towers-Clark describes a theoretical example in IT, which he later experienced for real in his own company. “A system admin came to me saying ‘we need more space, and we need more gigabytes [of storage] and processor speed’. He says we should use AWS [Amazon Web Services] because it’s cheaper and more reliable. Then he asks if we should do it [purchase the AWS instance].”

For Towers-Clark, this is not the Weird way. “All IT decisions are complex and best made by specialists,” he says. “The CEO may not have a clue what the specialist is talking about.”

Take responsibility for your salary and budget

The Weird philosophy goes further than purchasing decisions. People should take responsibility for all business decisions, and that includes the salary they get paid, as Towers-Clark explains: “At Pod, we have salary transparency and allow people to choose their own salary. The reason for doing this is to make people responsible. They can analyse what they do and all expenditure is available to everyone in the company.”

In Towers-Clark’s experience, basing motivation of employees on salary increases is ineffectual.

“At Pod, we tried to come up with a new formula for pay, but trying to make a formula was incredibly difficult,” he says. “If you don’t allow people to see what they are earning, they assume they are being paid less. If people are paid even just a few pounds less than someone else, they will be dissatisfied.”

According to Towers-Clark, as long as people believe they are being paid a fair wage, paying them more makes no difference.

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“People get far more motivation from their peers and colleagues than anything else,” he says, and being recognised is key.

“The last thing you want is to lose good people. The opportunity of having someone good and keeping them satisfied is way more valuable than any increase in their salary.”

Clearly, this needs to be done in a way that reflects the local employment environment, says Towers-Clark. “It is very unlikely they will find a higher-paid job elsewhere,” he adds.

But salary is just one parameter in the transparency formula that enables people to make informed decisions. Towers-Clark says: “As an IT admin, you can’t make a decision in isolation. If you want to start a new project, you need to understand the finances of the business. One of the biggest costs in business is people, and it is impossible to make an investment decision if you don’t know the people cost.”

So for Towers-Clark, it makes sense for staff at Pod to know everyone’s salary because it allows them to get a fuller picture of the resourcing costs of their project.

The Weird process began at Pod in 2016, and by 2017, the company was coming to the end of the first phase of its implementation.

From his experience of the Weird roll-out, Towers-Clark says: “Each organisation needs to do this in their own way, because there are different individuals. The idea of empowering people, and getting people to start thinking, is really important because any job that can be processed, can be automated. People need to be given freedom to make their own decisions.”

Towers-Clark firmly believes that by doing so, people will be better prepared for a business world where more jobs are being automated by AI.

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