Interviews

Making the CEO redundant: Tech innovator Charles Towers-Clark on how it revolutionised his business

15 min read

23 April 2019

Features Editor, Real Business

We've all heard tales of CEOs 'who couldn't let go'. However, Charles Towers-Clark, founder and (un-traditional) CEO of IoT frontrunner brand, Pod Group, is exactly the opposite of that. He relinquished all power as CEO and let his staff run the company, a move that's led to 50-100% YoY growth and little to no staff turnover.

Will the rise of AI mark the end of human-led innovation in business? Not if we make some real changes in our workplaces, says IoT CEO, Charles Towers-Clark. But what will put a stop to this dystopian inevitability? Dismantling hierarchal norms in the office, he says. He believes that stripping all decision-making power from the CEO is the best place to start, and Towers-Clark is speaking from experience here. But was this move really effective? Let’s find out from the man himself…

Tell me about your company, Pod Group, and why you can call it an innovative business?

Charles Towers-Clark is unafraid of workplace democracy. Source: growthbusiness.co.uk

Pod Group provides international multi-network cellular connectivity across 185 countries and 600+ networks. We specialise in remote or mission-critical applications that have to stay connected at all times, regardless of the circumstances.

In terms of why I think we’re innovative, well, given that telecoms has become increasingly impersonal and dominated by huge companies that don’t serve business needs, we aim to provide a much more personalised service, capable of innovating in line with our customers’ needs.

Do you consider your company to be something of a forerunner when it comes to the IoT sector?

As we started in 1999, we were ahead of most of our competitors in terms of providing actual machine to machine connectivity. In this respect, yes, we were somewhat of a forerunner. One of our key solutions was awarded a prestigious grant by the European Union, which preceded many of the uniform industry protocols that exist today.

How long before the IoT industry becomes mainstream?

The IoT industry is already a hive of activity (after all, many consumers are very aware of it). On the other hand, however, the lack of standardisation is really slowing down mainstream uptake. I think it will take another five years before the IoT becomes a naturally integrated part of all applications.

How can humans compete against AI in the workplace?

The fact is that AI as we know it (mostly machine learning derivations) runs on statistical models that require a huge amount of data and can’t extrapolate outside a given task. So, while AI can easily become better than a human at a specific task, Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) is still a long way off (if we ever actually reach it). What this means in a real-world context is that AI is perhaps the most useful tool that humans have come up with – but, as a tool, it still has benefits and risks dependent on how it’s used.

Businesses should prepare their workforce to think for itself, and, in doing so, promote the most human and abstract characteristics to ensure people learn to use AI for routine tasks and use their power of generalisation, contextualisation and social manoeuvring to improve the way we work alongside it.

Organisations should always, always be structured around the emotions of the people working there. Suppressing emotions and moulding people in one particular niche will no longer work once AI is handling all our manual tasks.

What was the trigger moment that made you want to re-evaluate the way your own company was run and how your employees worked?

Some years ago, I used to run a company with 150 employees. I worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week and my time was consumed by making decisions that others could have made instead. After this experience, I vowed never to employ people again. – A vow I broke 10 years later when I decided to grow Pod Group.

This is when I carried out a change process within my own company, Pod Group to ensure that people think like owners, not employees.

This time, however, I was determined that people would work more independently. The real stimulus for me pushing active self-management and the WEIRD attributes throughout the organisation came after reading Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Hariri.

Once I’d finished reading it, it hit me that we really have to change the way we work if we are to survive in an AI-dominated world. This is when I carried out a change process within my own company, Pod Group to ensure that people think like owners, not employees.

What’s the meaning behind your company acronym, WEIRD?

WEIRD stands for Wisdom, Emotional intelligence, Initiative, Responsibility, and (self) Development. Wisdom is about knowing what you don’t know and asking for advice from others; Emotional Intelligence is required to understand how to work with colleagues; Initiative is the hardest because it actually means taking the decision; Responsibility is required for the decision taken;  And, finally, it is necessary to understand how to develop oneself further.

These attributes themselves bring about a culture in which everyone takes responsibility for their own work and is accountable to the rest of the team, rather than an executive that’s too far removed from the day-to-day to understand how things work.

The reason this methodology has succeeded at Pod Group is that it promotes these attributes, which are all our most human traits, rather than dictating what a workplace should look like or how employees should behave.

These attributes themselves bring about a culture in which everyone takes responsibility for their own work and is accountable to the rest of the team, rather than an executive that’s too far removed from the day-to-day to understand how things work.  

How did you transform your company?

My HR Director and I went for a couple of days to an internet-free house in Andalucia, Spain, to try and put together some kind of framework. We then brought these ideas to the team in cross-department groups of five or so at a time, gave them some time to read around the subject and post their questions, suggestions, and recriminations on our intranet forum.

I took the responsibility of deciding how we would proceed. I made this choice because, ironically, moving to a system where everyone has responsibility and value, requires a firm push to get the ball rolling.

Once it became clear that many of their ideas could be divided into separate groups, we asked for proposals from each of these new self-formed groups as to how we should proceed, making it clear in the process that we would be moving to a self-managed form of management.

I took the responsibility of deciding how we would proceed. I made this choice because, ironically, moving to a system where everyone has responsibility and value, requires a firm push to get the ball rolling. Once we had decided what the most popular outcome was, we simply started doing it – and since then the WEIRD methodology has evolved and changed to fit the team, with a little extra impetus from me.

How can employers reintroduce a human approach to management and daily operations?

Traditional hierarchical management structures have kept people restricted to one role – do your job and don’t ask about how it fits into the organisation as a whole. This has led to an environment where people don’t enjoy their work, they suffer breakdowns from stress and become disengaged with the company they work for – aside from receiving a payslip every month.

To fix these deeply ingrained issues in the workplace, managers need to understand the daily operations on the floor and give more control to those who know their speciality best.

How we feel about work is the most important factor contributing to productivity. Organisations should always, always be structured around the emotions of the people working there.

Employees not only feel happier and more motivated when they can make their own decisions but having this control also promotes a way of thinking about work that is both challenging and satisfying, which also means managers have less to stress about.  

How we feel about work is the most important factor contributing to productivity. Organisations should always, always be structured around the emotions of the people working there. Suppressing emotions and moulding people in one particular niche will no longer work once AI is handling all our manual tasks.

How did you know that these big changes needed implementing in your own company? What have been the major results?

For two reasons. First, when it became clear that I was making too many decisions (easily measured by my stress levels and time spent at work). Second, when analysing why mistakes were made that affected our customers, it became apparent that decisions that could have, but had not been taken, were due to employees not being empowered or being afraid to take initiative.

We have almost no staff turnover and continue to grow at 50-100% per year. But, most importantly, our employees are fulfilled. I often get comments from visitors about the positive vibe they get when they come into the office. That positive vibe has trickled down to customers and thereby the profitability of the company.

How can other businesses learn from your example?

Because WEIRD is a mindset, not a comprehensive set of rules that need to be followed, companies should absolutely create their own methodology to suit them. One of its founding principles is to move away from prescriptive business processes and return to our most human way of working.

At its core are the guiding principles of freedom and responsibility – two sides of the same coin – companies shouldn’t be afraid to take the ideas and make them their own, as increasing adaptability and human potential is the only way to avoid severe employment shortages once automation through AI becomes more mainstream.

When will a more human-focused work culture become the norm?

The challenge posed by AI makes it particularly critical for CEOs to start changing the way they treat employees now. Emotionally intelligent workplaces are already becoming more popular as younger staff value their quality of life. However, the key shift will be when larger organisations pick up these ideas and realise that they can be much more productive with happy and responsible employees if they can relinquish control.

You propose that ‘making CEOs redundant’ gives employees more responsibility, accountability, agency, and motivation for what they do. How did you ensure you overcame your own ‘CEO ego’ to step aside in this way?

Whilst I take your point about ego, I never really thought about it this way. For me, it was more important to ensure my own happiness and sanity, and it turned out that the only way I could get close to doing so was to let others do their job, instead of trying to do it for them.

Many CEOs and managers gain great satisfaction from the feeling of importance that comes with making one decision too many. Personally, I think that an excess of issues to be solved creates stress and poor decision making. Divorce and heart attacks are extremely good (if a little extreme) ways of persuading CEOs to let go.

Will this form of ‘non-leadership’ spook shareholders?

It shouldn’t, I believe that shareholders should also embrace WEIRD CEOs as it reduces the need for succession planning and the cult of a ‘star CEO’.

My favourite analogy is the difference between dictatorship and democracy, an effective dictator will be very beneficial to an organisation, but a bad dictator could cause the destruction of an organisation, whilst democracy may not lead to such good results in the short term, but in the longer term it will always win out.