Until recently, Charles Towers-Clark was the chief executive of Pod Group, a supplier of connectivity for IoT devices. Three years ago, he transformed the company into a W.E.I.R.D. organisation – the acronym denotes Wisdom, Emotional Intelligence, Initiative, Responsibility and Self-Development – to make it into a self-managed business. The W.E.I.R.D. methodology works on the principle that everyone in an organisation, not only the chief executive, should take decisions.
Here, Towers-Clark looks at five leadership challenges facing public figures and gives his expert advice on how, in a business context, these types of difficulties can be overcome.
Leadership challenge #1: Trump and Iran
US president Donald Trump was recently embroiled in a tense stand-off with Iran. How do you lead effectively in a volatile business environment, and what measures can a leader take to calm an inflamed situation?
Whether you are dealing with a hostile takeover or dealing with unpredictable people, the advantage of being a leader is that you have the authority to get people in a room together. This is different to international negotiations between independent parties, where there is no leadership figure to force communication, meaning that the hardest part is ensuring that people continue to speak to each other.
Former US senator George Mitchell was one of the key instigators of the Good Friday agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland in 1998. I talked to him a couple of days after the deal was signed and he spoke of his frustration: the parties had been in the same room but wouldn’t talk to each other, so he had to convey each party’s demands to the other. In the end, he succeeded in getting them to talk directly to each other.
Most of the time, conflicts arise when one party – or both – doesn’t want to understand the other’s view. So, before any conflict can be resolved, a leader needs to get all of the interested parties into a room. At times, it is necessary to keep everybody there until they have not only heard the other’s opinion, but have also questioned it.
Good leaders should not stamp their authority on a situation, but sometimes you need to use that authority to force people to talk to each other. Even if you are dealing with unpredictable people, an understanding can be reached if they are made to communicate.
Leadership challenge #2: uniting the Labour party
The Labour party is choosing a new leader, amid bitter recriminations over Jeremy Corbyn’s election defeat in 2019. How do you unite people who have long-standing disagreements? And should new leaders build on their predecessors’ legacy or start from scratch?
I recently talked to the founder of a charity who is investigating how purpose-led companies can be a force for good. He previously worked in government, but left when everything he had been working on – reducing poverty among the poorest groups in the UK – was thrown out because a new prime minister was elected.
The initiatives on which he had been working were sound and positive. Throwing out a predecessor’s legacy, regardless of value, can be compared to children in a playground throwing away a toy because they weren’t given it first. This lack of maturity is why people feel marginalised from politics: people want good policies regardless of who came up with the idea. At the end of the day, a prime minister, or any leader, will be judged on results.
I have just stepped into the role of chairman at Pod Group and we now have a new chief executive. He is building on some of my policies, but I am delighted that he has also used his intelligence to throw out some of the things I implemented that were not working.
Using experience, emotional intelligence and a little gut feeling, those leaders who gain the trust of their employees will be the ones whose decisions are based on sound reasoning, rather than playing favourites or self-interest. Once this type of leadership comes into effect, uniting groups with very different ideas is simply a case of showing them where their interests overlap.
This is not always easy, but a leader who can bring people together is one who will be respected across perceived boundaries, and one who may make those boundaries disappear as a result.
Leadership challenge #3: Harry and Meghan depart
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are carrying out a “conscious uncoupling” from the royal family. How can leaders reconcile employees to unwanted responsibilities? What are the best ways to achieve compromise and “buy-in” when people are struggling with their roles?
Encouraging self-development is one of the most important things a leader can do, so changes to roles and responsibilities should be organic and self-driven wherever possible. Of course, such changes are often imposed by circumstance, and may not always go down well with the team or person who needs to take on extra work.
To smooth the transition, it is vital that the need for new responsibilities and tasks is communicated clearly, and in advance, so that employees do not feel imposed upon. It is also a good idea to make sure that adequate hands-on training is provided, perhaps by the person or department most closely related to any new responsibilities. It is much easier to accept additional work if the load is spread among your peers.
A satisfying compromise may be impossible to reach, so a better approach is to aim for a sense of community, with the result that no one individual feels put out by unavoidable change.
Leadership challenge #4: satisfying Boris Johnson’s new voters
The Conservatives have a majority in Parliament, but prime minister Boris Johnson faces a new challenge – retaining the support of those who have “lent” him their vote. How can leaders win the confidence of those who may be sceptical about them?
Confidence comes from trust, and trust requires authenticity, so leaders need to be themselves. It is possible to accept that somebody you don’t trust has particular skills, but any trust will be limited to their ability to carry out tasks related to those skills.
To gain their colleagues’ trust, leaders need to be open and vulnerable in order to be authentic. Only then can confidence be built around a leader’s personality, regardless of cultures or beliefs.
Leadership challenge #5: “weirdos” at 10 Downing Street
Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s most senior aide, recently called for “weirdos and misfits” to apply to work with him. How does a leader maintain harmony while welcoming employees with very different approaches, mindsets and skills?
As an advocate of W.E.I.R.D. – albeit in a different way to that implied by Cummings! – I was very happy when I heard this announcement. The more originality of thinking in government and business, the better. The advantage of “weirdos and misfits” is that they don’t conform to what society expects, so they will always come up with new ideas. The disadvantage is that these ideas might not gel with the rest of the team.
Building a team of people whose experiences and outlooks complement each other is the dream of any business leader, but finding employees with the perfect set of attributes for your purposes is an impossible task, so the most important thing to look for is people who will take the initiative and think for themselves.
Harmony in a business context is not achieved when everyone agrees; it occurs when everyone respects other people’s opinions and ability to contribute. One of my biggest failures as a chief executive was not creating a strong enough “safe zone”, in which people could challenge each other without recriminations – and it should be called a “challenge zone”, not a “safe zone”.
Harmony is incredibly important in any workplace, but sacrificing creativity and expression is not a viable option for any company that wants to succeed. I need to study this in more depth, but I suspect there is a direct correlation between the success of a business and its employees’ willingness to challenge each other.