Book says AI will drive a different approach to staff management

Leaders need to change and ask their staff to be self-managing, says Charles Towers-Clark, author of The Weird CEO.

These are pretty weird times so it perhaps feels less surprising than usual that a recent book recommends running a company where staff can help to set their own salaries, accounts are accessible to all, where there is no formal hierarchical management and where holidays are unlimited.

You perhaps thought, as I did, that this is the latest crank manifesto from some business guru who has never so much as run a chip shop, but that's not the case. The author, Charles Towers-Clark, is not a fast-talking mouth for hire on the conference circuit but the founder and group CEO of Pod Group, an international company in the Internet of Things (IoT) space.

We only meet by phone but my impression is of a mild-mannered man who thinks differently, rather than a limelight-seeking self-publicist. Even when we talk about IoT he swerves the upbeat outlook, provided by many in his position, of sunlit uplands and gravy all the way.

"The problem we've got is standardisation: there are 450 platforms because nobody knows who's going to win the race .... There's no BetaMax versus VHS story yet," he says, referring to the standards battle that ended with VHS becoming the dominant format for video cassette recorders. (If you're under 35, ask your parents.)

That situation not only slows the growth of a fledgling sector but can also lead to uncertainty and risk. There are "known unknowns", Towers-Clark says, evoking Donald Rumsfeld, where standards that don't allow for new data coming along in future that could be combined with the old data.

This new Age of Uncertainty that applies to the future of IoT might have some connection with Towers-Clark's recently published book, which is called The WEIRD CEO: How to lead in a world dominated by Artificial Intelligence.

The WEIRD of the title is an acronym compiled of the author's suggested list of attributes for modern enterprise builders: Wisdom, Emotional Intelligence, Initiative, Responsibility and Development. Towers-Clark's modest proposal is that with AI on the eve and with technology generally automating more and more human processes, people need to take ownership of their jobs and actively transform their organisations. He argues that the new employees will need to be decisive and take the initiative rather than participate as digital serfs asking for permission of bureaucratic organisations with layers of approvals.

"We're asking people to take responsibility for what they do," he says of his own company where he implemented the formula for self-management. "We're almost 50 per cent women, which is great, considering the industry we're in. But I was having to micro-manage [and I want to get the point where I am] relying on 40 brains, not one."

Nothing if not honest, he admits that the process towards realising self-management was "very painful" and the hardest part of that process was opening up on salaries where there is a reluctance to break these ancient shibboleths.

"What surprised me was how people are unwilling to make change," he says. "[The attitude is often] ‘we're comfortable with what we've got'."

Towers-Clark says that despite appearances, the approach is far from a free-for-all. There are basic tenets such as "don't leave colleagues with lots of work" when going on holidays, but he says the changes were real and staff are expected to work from wherever they feel best equipped to excel at their jobs.

Scrambling around for comparisons, I ask if Pod Group's approach was analogous to that of Zappos.com, the online shoes-to-apparel retailer that espoused self-management, playfulness and casual social communications between staff and customer and was acquired by Amazon.  Apparently not…

"They're using Holacracy, which I'm not very keen on," he says. "[Staff are] enacting what they're told from above."

His real breakthrough in thinking about how companies operate was from a previous role working in central Asia where he says he spent "all my time making minor decisions". Despairing of this, he read Maverick! by Ricardo Semler, the tale of how a Latin American company gave over key decision-making responsibilities to staff. But there are other companies that embrace self-management, he says, pointing to tomato paste producer Morning Star and Gore, the maker of the Gore-Tex material.

There are yet other examples of companies that at least try to flatten out hierarchies with various degrees of success but Towers-Clark's differentiating point, it seems to me, is the argument that AI will make human innovation a necessity to survive in many working environments. While many technologists suggest that there is little to fear from AI and that it will only augment human intelligence and even liberate us from drudge work, Towers-Clark, refreshingly, is not nearly so sure.

"People say, ‘Hey we've had industrial revolutions … it doesn't matter'. I keep hearing this argument and it frustrates me. It's good that we can make the world more efficient but that brings dangers with it too and, whether we like it or not, it's going to happen. And my theory is its going to make the world better for some. Human beings will create new jobs but the problem is the timing of it. It takes a generation."

AI might make those earlier industrial revolutions look minor. Take call centres, for example or driverless vehicles: these are changes that could wipe off millions of jobs. If we don't act now then, as with climate change, arguably, there's a danger that we miss the chance to take responsible actions until it's too late.

Towers-Clark believes that organisations need new models and self-management can at least help. And here's the good news: since bringing about changes, he says Pod Group has increased customer acquisition by 45%, seen 97% employee retention, 94% of employees have agreed to total transparency in salaries and 93% of employees have agreed to responsibility for managing themselves.

Towers-Clark says that since his book was published there has been no shortage in requests for public speaking, but he says he has no interest in becoming the toastmaster for a new generation of enterprises. "I don't want to be a guru," he says. But he is at least helping us to think about what the future will look like and how it will change us as individuals and employees.

 

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