The W.E.I.R.D. CEO, book review: Leadership in the AI age

It may not have all the answers, but this book is a useful reminder of the questions that business leaders need to be asking.

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The W.E.I.R.D CEO • By Charles Towers-Clark • Weird Group Publishing • 219 pages • ISBN 9781916468801 • £7.99 / $9.75

Employment contracts haven't changed much since ancient Roman times: they're all about showing up and doing the job, not about whether the job will be satisfying or whether the employee will get the tools and authority they need to do the job. Startups may have free snacks and lots of perks, but once they grow into large companies it tends to be business as usual, with hierarchies and managers whose priorities might not actually help employees deliver what the business needs. Could a CEO taking a radically different approach do better?

That's what Charles Towers-Clark explores in The WEIRD CEO: How to lead in a world dominated by Artificial Intelligence. 'Weird' doesn't mean strange in this case: it's an acronym for principles that are intended to make employees more independent and, at the same time, more involved and invested in the success of the organisation.

Wisdom, which Towers-Clark glosses as getting employees to ask if a decision is the right one to make. Emotional intelligence — how does this decision affect other people? Initiative — letting employees implement the decisions they make. Responsibility — the Spiderman-style obverse to the power of being able to make and implement decisions. Development — what employees can learn from how each decision works out.

These aren't entirely novel ideas: there are similarities to the hierarchy-free holacracy at Zappos (although the discussion of what's different is a long way into the book), the unlimited vacation policy at various startups, and Microsoft's 'learn it all rather than know it all' growth mindset. The WEIRD principles all have downsides that the author brushes past briskly before going back to the pressures of change — AI, IoT, automation — and then returning to talk about businesses like Ricardo Semler's Brazilian company Semco Partners that already work this way. The book then jumps between the principles of responsible AI, whether education needs some fundamental changes, and the various studies and initiatives that attempt to prove or disprove whether universal basic income could work.

All of this is interesting, but rather disjointed. The WEIRD CEO is also uneven. Towers-Clark makes a lot of assumptions: that the kind of general artificial intelligence that can creatively solve problems will show up; that millennials are really as entitled as all the headlines say; that autonomous cars are going to take over. The extensive references at the back of the book are as likely to be blogs and opinion pieces as peer-reviewed research. Comparing GDPR to the inefficiency of getting the plumbing repaired in the Soviet Union (because bureaucrats have too much authority) is a strange metaphor, especially when it comes right after the fascinating point that New Hampshire is the only US state where people — rather than hospitals or smart device makers — own their own health data. The potted history of deep learning is rather shallow, but it does lead into an interesting discussion of which job types are more or less likely to be replaced through AI and automation.

A book of two halves

The second half of the book is much more useful, because it's about how the WEIRD principles work in practice at Pod Group — the company where Towers-Clark is CEO. Allowing employees to choose their own work and set their own salaries is rather more radical than leaving decisions about which cloud provider to choose and how many VMs to provision up to the person who will be managing that cloud hosting day to day. Semler's guiding principle that 'self-management is self-interest' makes sense but also sounds rather abstract, so the details of how the organisation handles seating plans, salaries, disagreements, egotistical 'rock stars' and employees who aren't performing well are critical.

SEE: 10 ways to communicate more effectively with customers and co-workers (free PDF    

If your first thought is that switching to self-management is going to be confused, controversial and chaotic, then the chapters documenting the process at Pod Group confirm that people don't like change, and that communication is vital when you're asking them to be more autonomous. Written as blog posts while the company was undergoing these changes, the chapters reproduce the uncertainty rather than looking back with 20:20 hindsight. They're a little too raw to give you a blueprint of how to proceed at your own organisation, but as Towers-Clark points out, every organisation is different.

A little more structure would make this a more useful book, and you'll have to dig through plenty of anecdotes and summaries to access the insights. While it may not have all the answers, The WEIRD CEO is a useful reminder of the questions that every business leader needs to be asking.

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