Zahid is an ex-physicist and academic researcher who co-founded Fry in 2000 after being inspired by Ricardo Semler’s book: Maverick. He is married with three teenage children who help keep his ego in check. He is interested in work-place culture, AI and science fiction.What do you think are the qualities of a successful leader? 

Someone who can create an environment where people are able to make decisions and have all the information (and freedom) to do so. This involves not getting drawn into day-to-day issues but trying to look at the bigger picture and create an organisation which enables people to solve their own problems. There are lots of other qualities such as patience, being a good listener etc but I don’t have those so can’t really comment!

When in your career did you find you really began to be an impactful leader and what gave you proof of this? 

I don’t feel like I have really had a career, as such. And I don’t really feel like an impactful leader. If I was to pick anything it is that we seemed to be succeeding in moving from bespoke software development to creating cloud-based repeatable software products that help improve the training of doctors and healthcare workers. Almost 50% of medical students in the UK, for example, are now assessed using our software products. What pleases me is that we have managed to do this but remain a transparent, non-hierarchical organisation which gives our people a lot of freedom to do what they think is right.

Share with me your greatest leadership success/experience. 

I think having helped to create an organisation where people are free and not coerced or line-managed has been really pleasing. It does have many challenges and stresses, just not necessarily, the usual ones.

Recall your biggest managerial challenge. Tell me how you handled this. What did you learn that you might do differently next time? 

I am honestly not good at managing at all which is why I have been drawn to try and create a self-managing organisation. All I can say is that it is really hard to create a self-managing organisation and we have been trying for 15 years. We have had some success but also a lot of pain. Some people take to self-managing really quickly but for others it can be a challenge. I think that one of the reasons for this is that we are taught from a very early age (in our education system) to take instruction from authority figures. Of course, much of industry couldn’t be more pleased with that, but it is short-sighted of them. I find it depressing that secondary schools are trying to turn themselves into mini IBMs and turn out what they think the workplace will value.

I think people like Ricardo Semler, Frederick Laloux and Jos de Blok have shown us that there are other ways of working where people can be themselves, don’t need line managers, motivation seminars, appraisals, performance related pay, fixed hours and all the other rules and policies that seem to pervade the modern workplace. What we’ve found is that giving people trust, freedom and meaning as well as trying to create an organisation where people are able to relate on a human level rather than being a cog in a machine unleashes their potential.

It can be difficult: we try not hide things so if there are problems or issues it is not the job of a paternalistic headquarters to resolve them. Everyone can see the figures, income and costs and can see for themselves why things are happening the way they are or that things are not done well.

It can also be very difficult for new people when they first start. For example a recent hire was finding it difficult that there was no expenses policy. Should he take business class flight to Australia or economy? Should we have rules governing what class of travel people can take, depending on how far away destination etc? We just said use your common sense and do what you think is right – there will never be an expenses policy, we trust you! He was worried that he might be spending too much and really wanted the security of a policy. He soon got used to not having one and not worrying.

The other thing that people find very difficult is that no one can really tell anyone else what to do or make people do things that they don’t agree with. That is hard if you’ve come from a more traditional background where you are used to be able to tell people what to do. I like the idea of the Silver Rule: “The principle that one should not treat other people in the manner in which one would not want to be treated by them” which a variation of the Golden Rule.I recently read about it in Nassim Taleb’s book Skin in the game and I It’s an interesting and subtle idea that has a lot of relevance to “management” in the work-place.

What vision or goal are you working towards in your career? What accomplishment would you like to retire with?

I would love to have helped create an organisation where people have maximum freedom to do what they think is worthwhile.

Our mission is to help improve and save people’s lives through technology. We are on a journey – but to create an organisation that can fulfil this mission, while giving people in the organisation freedom without silly rules and coercion, would be amazing.

Common opinion states that in order to be succeed in business one has to be ruthless. A quick survey of world’s most domineering companies seems to support that view. Do you think it’s possible to be very successful in business and still be a nice/kind person?

I think it depends on how you define successful: if you are the sort of person who thinks maximising shareholder value is the ultimate goal, then maybe being ruthless will be a good strategy to achieve that. But at what cost? Life is just too short to spend it being ruthless to achieve “success”. I think the success will be hollow. I believe creating an organisation where people find meaning and value and don’t feel used is a better measure. That is not inconsistent with being profitable and successful monetarily but those are not the key measures of success. If you are not the biggest company in the world – so what?

Let’s talk about managing pressure – how do you control your own emotions and temper when things don’t go to plan? Not lashing out on those around you is a skill – what are your tips?

Have children and then wait until they are teenagers – you will get plenty of practice! I am not very good at dealing with pressure or controlling my emotions so one of my tips is to try and create organisation where pressure is reduced. In theory, one way of doing that is to make sure that people have plenty of slack and spare time. I really wish we could do that, but we haven’t had much success, so far.

I’ve found reading the Stoic philosophers, such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, a genuine help in dealing with pressure and emotions. A couple of quotes that I have found useful:

“Limiting one’s desires actually helps to cure one of fear. ‘Cease to hope… and you will cease to fear.’… widely different [as fear and hope] are, the two of them march in unison like a prisoner and the escort he is handcuffed to. Fear keeps pace with hope… Both belong to a mind in suspense, to a mind in a state of anxiety through looking into the future. Both are mainly due to projecting our thoughts far ahead of us instead of adapting ourselves to the present” – Seneca (Letters from a Stoic)

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.”Marcus Aurelius (Meditations)

I think Marcus Aurelius had a lot of very useful advice for leaders.

At times, we all hit a low point. How do you motivate yourself?

By telling myself that, at the end of day, we are all going to be dust and what seems really awful and important now is not that big deal. I don’t try to motivate myself, if I am not motivated then I don’t do it.

Working in an organisation where business culture isn’t people-oriented, how do you create an environment where people want to work for you/in your department?

I haven’t really ever worked for a business so can’t really say. The main thing, for me, would be to give people freedom and try not to interfere – that seems attractive to many people.

Most large organisations today have a strict bonus and pay raise policy, which makes it difficult to reward people even when you know they truly deserve it. In the absence of monetary rewards, how else do you keep people motivated?

I don’t. I don’t really believe in motivating people – it just feels coercive and giving “them” rewards is just like going back to school (see my point above about self-management). We have a 25% profit share but literally the only thing we decided was that it would be 25% across the company (ie not by business unit). Everyone votes on how profit share should be divided – that was fun to watch in the beginning!

Some managers believe in a strict hierarchy and the “do what I say approach”, sighting cultural norm as an excuse. What are your thoughts on this? 

Stupid and wasteful of people’s lives.

How do you decide to be available to your team and to support them? How do you determine the best way for them to contact you that does not interrupt your workflow? 

I am not good at being supportive and it doesn’t come naturally to me. I try to help unblock problems, if I can, but usually I try to just ask questions that might help them help themselves. I try to create an organisation where I am not depended on and people can help themselves. I try not to be very contactable and don’t have a public diary or anything like that. Everyone knows my email and mobile but I don’t get many emails or calls and have quite a bit of time to think. This is definitely a bit of a shock to your ego (people don’t need you) but I’ve got used to it quite quickly!

How much do you value transparency of information at work? To what extent do you share information with your team?

I don’t see how people can make decisions without transparency. Being transparent keeps you honest but also it helps people to understand why things are going the way they are going. We are very transparent, internally. We have open-book accounting and everyone knows our income, costs, profit, how much we have in the bank, everyone’s salary (including mine) etc. It’s one of the best things we did. We could be better at being more transparent about decisions but we are small and busy and it can be difficult to find an efficient way of being transparent about discussions that may be going on.

How do you best harmonise your work and personal life – for a healthy balance? What are your biggest challenges around this? 

Like everyone else, I control my own time and what I commit to doing. I work from home (as do most people) and I am not beholden to any line manager who tells me what to do and neither are others in our company. Of course, there are always demanding clients but then we are trying to help save and improve people’s lives! I think what people value most is being trusted, treated like an adult and being given the freedom to do things without control and micro-management.

The really hard thing is not to feel guilty when you are in a gallery, cinema or cafe when the rest of the world seems to be stuck in an office from, at least, 9-5. We have found the opposite problem to what people might expect: not having monitoring, fixed hours and holidays actually means that most of our people are working much too long and liable to suffer burnout. Something that we have not addressed as well as we should.

How do you respond to employees / colleagues who are diagnosed with mental disorders, e.g. depression or anxiety?

We are small company where everyone knows everyone pretty well and people will respond individually to help as will the team in HQ. We have had people share those sorts of problems with us and have helped but I think we could be better and I am concerned that giving too much freedom and not monitoring is causing burnout in some people and we need to more be more proactive. We are growing so this will require a more systematic solution.

Sometimes an employee is not working out despite your best efforts and you know that this relationship is not serving them or the business. At which point do you decide to part company and how do you go about it? 

We try to always be open honest about the issues – it is often a case of not being a good fit for the work or people not being able to play to their strengths. I’ve found that being open and honest, is by far the best way of dealing with people who might not be working out. We are small and it is very rare that we have this problem. I would like us to get to the stage where it is really a case where people decide amongst themselves how people are engaged or not.

How do you create, manage and motivate an efficient team when your team works remotely?

It is hard to work remotely (most of do, now). We aim to have four gatherings a year where everyone meets for a few days. The individual units and teams will also meet together to work face-to-face at, say, an Airbnb in various countries as well as the office in London.

What are your top three book titles that you were most impactful for your leadership development?

  1. Maverick by Ricardo Semler
  2. Reinventing Organisations by Frederick Laloux
  3. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

The Best Boss Coaching Project brought to you by Talent Investors is here to promote excellence in the workplace. Throughout 2018 we are speaking to people from across the world, and across different industries, regardless of the companies’ size or their job title. Over the course of 52 weeks, you will be introduced to 52 bosses, from 52 backgrounds, answering 20+ questions. All designed to motivate you to lead, and grow effectively. We are here to provide wisdom from, and recognition for those making every day other people’s lives better.