Interview with Paul Bowers, Part 3: Chemist and Conductor

Late in November 2020, I caught up with Paul Bowers, CEO of the Australian sustainability organisation Renew, for a brief chat. (You can read the first part here and you can read the second part here).

Renew evolved from the Alternative Technology Association of Australia, and today it advocates for sustainable living in homes and communities across the nation. In the final part of our conversation, Paul and I spoke about interdisciplinary thinking, new forms of leadership, and the next steps Paul will be taking as CEO.

What does it mean for Renew to get through this big transition, to negotiate the actual pivot point, especially when, as you said, your prior success was built on hackers and homeowners, and now you need to think about engaging tenants, landlords, a wider community?

It’s really hard! That’s a really live question for us right now, in this highly febrile moment of post-pandemic and looming recession. There are all these binary oppositions: the homeowner-hacker versus a different community in the future; a small, scrappy, financially precarious member organization versus some kind of super-slick consulting lobby group. Fast urgent change versus slow sustained change. And there are a multitude of other axes besides! For me it’s about a kind of dialectic: How does the value come from the tension between the two poles of each issue?

This is also all caught up in the culture wars, something which lingers in the Australian body politic and which has been exacerbated by what we had to do to survive the pandemic. Here at Renew, we had to make a few staff redundant; a painful, horrible thing. Some people will see that as evidence of villainy; that any organization which makes staff redundant at any time must be corporate shills. Others take umbrage at anyone who has an objection to an organization seeking to be financially sustainable for the coming decade. There are differences of timescale and perspective, with people holding strong beliefs across the board; this is a very passionate community. My job is to harness both ends of the spectrum, if I can, in order to bring value to those people we are actually here for.

In terms of knowing who that is – who we are here for, ultimately – I’ve learned in Australia this trick of going back to founding documents and trusting that founders are wiser than we ever give them credit for. So when I was at Museums Victoria, I read the legal statute, the founding document, of that body. The original law specifically mentions enjoyment as a function of the Museum Board of Victoria. It puts it alongside education in a clause. So in other words, you can do something that’s completely frivolous and just for a laugh, but you’re still meeting the original purpose of the museum. That kind of wording was really useful in discussions, for example, with a particularly academically minded curator, you could show them that purely fun activities were actually being true to our legal purpose.

Our constitution at Renew is really powerful in this regard for me: it talks about knowledge, expertise, and inspiration on sustainable tech and lifestyles – for communities and households. It doesn’t say homeowners. It doesn’t say just for members, it explicitly includes community. That’s really forward thinking. It also specifically highlights independent, credible knowledge based on technical expertise and our members’ practical experience. You get the professorial kind of academic knowledge alongside what it’s actually like to be on a roof with a screwdriver fitting solar panels, and our organisation, by its constitutions, exists in this space to explicitly yoke these together for the sake of the community.

I come back to the bizarre definition of the word “cleave”, which has two opposing meanings: to sever something or to stick it together. An axe cleaves a piece of firewood in two, but when we cleave to a belief, we cling to it.

Our organization could choose to cleave or it could choose to cleave. I see my role as being about amplifying the bits where there are synergies and dialling down the bits where there aren’t. Then we can ask: how does the practical experience of this member, yoked with this tech expertise, enable us to persuade a government technical committee that something should be different in the building code. It’s knowing how to ask the members, it’s knowing how to deal with what the members say, knowing what it means when applied in the language of legality and economics and building code.

I try to hold those things in a productive tension. You can have two different musical instruments playing two different notes at different volumes. They can be in harmony or dissonance. As a conductor, you shape and structure what those interests are doing; instruments wax and wane according to what you’re trying to achieve. But when the orchestra happens to be playing a section where the strings are playing and the woodwind is quiet, the woodwind players don’t get up and walk off the stage! We’re in this together. We build an understanding of how we’re stronger together than we are separate.

In a museum context, that was about helping front-of-house staff to understand an artist’s intent, while conversely having artists understand that this piece must exist in a real space with real humans, that we might need to stop them from touching it, or not have exposed live wires hanging out of an object, or whatever. It’s the same principle of dynamic tension.

You speak so confidently about questions of emotional literacy, you’re comfortable performing a close reading of an organisation’s founding texts, and you’ll use conducting an orchestra as a metaphor – but you were actually a chemistry student back in the day, weren’t you? How does that shape the way you think now?

Well, I might have gone down a different path sooner; it depends a lot on the encounters you have at an early age. At age 12, an art teacher told me I couldn’t draw, and from that moment on I put the pencil down and wouldn’t pick it up again.

Meanwhile I was bullied at school, and one of the escape routes for people who get bullied at school is to hang out in a space where they have certainty. For me that was science and maths; they offered a degree of safety I could build for myself. And I stayed there until I had this beautiful encounter with a Marxist feminist historian of science, who pulled the rug out from under me when I was doing my Master’s in science communication at Imperial College.

She essentially took a load of science grads and said: “Everything you think you know about science is just a load of social conditioning.” It was one hell of a lecture. It unlocked my own immense frustration with all scientists, and with the Enlightenment, which had not made good on its promise to look at evidence. I mean, if you promise to do so, then you discover that scientific knowledge is sometimes contested, or that scientific practices are sometimes racist, you have to address that and change on the basis of the evidence – that’s what science teaches you! But I wasn’t seeing that happening.

Also, very fortunately, my first job out of university was working with designers in a museum consultancy.

I hadn’t come across designers previously; there wasn’t a design school at my college. Art college students might be the people you bought the drugs off, but you didn’t encounter them doing chemistry any other way! 

In designers, I encountered a group of people who would always ask open-ended questions: “What if? Could we do this? But what if we did that?” And this was so different to science, where you’re trained into getting beyond the open-ended question to a closed question which you could test in an experiment yielding a yes or no answer.

Photo by Edward Jenner on

I had been one of those annoying children, endlessly curious, always asking why. My parents almost bankrupted themselves buying a set of encyclopaedias which I would endlessly rifle through, and we went to the library every Saturday morning. Those experiences taught me that inquiry in itself was interesting. Even in chemistry, what appealed to me was stuff like the group of enzymes in our bodies which are protected against the oxygen-rich air, they are in us and predate from the days when Earth’s atmosphere didn’t have oxygen. There are enzymes in us, made of iron and sulphur, that predate oxygen being in the air. I’ve never lost that childish sense of wonder, and it was strengthened through my contact with those designers after my Master’s degree.

Subsequent to that, I was also fortunate in having managers who created a permissive environment in which you could try new things. Even when those new things weren’t so welcome or permitted, I suppose one of the things about being bullied as a teenager is, that I can’t be hurt by people knocking what you’re doing. There’s an invulnerability; not cockiness or arrogance, but a strength which stems from having already felt that pain, so therefore your criticism, your stinging words, are meaningless to me.

I often lack formal scaffolding for most of the things I think about and believe; that can be an advantage or a disadvantage. I’m a nonspecialist who is always trying to piece things together in order to create some kind of semblance to what’s useful in the context I find myself in. I try to externalise that work, that patchwork thinking, and share it – “Look, I read this thing last year that might be applicable to our situation.” Sometimes it’s useful, sometimes not. But it’s a different way of thinking, and that can provide value in itself.

Coming back to your original question, I almost feel that studying chemistry was the aberration. But in fact the issue is that we teach science and maths entirely wrong. It’s still caught up in the Enlightenment lie of objectivity, the third person passive being used to describe your high school experiments: “Fifty millilitres of acid were added to the beaker.” Nonsense! I put 50 ml of acid in the beaker. I stirred it.

What would it be like for the natural sciences to go through something like the new journalism of the 1980s? You see people being confident to place themselves in the narrative and say: “I have agency, I am in here.” I do believe that that is something that the sciences are missing out on. And they miss this partly because they’ve got this incredibly powerful tool, right? It can find a vaccine in not much more than a year. That’s an amazing thing! Why would you change its rules? And yet it is hindering science in comparison to what other other areas can do.

I’m also much more in favour of working in the real world than just the domain of pure abstraction: I want to make a difference in this life. There’s the old joke about mathematicians and engineers, where a mathematician and an engineer are each told, “You can kiss me, but each time you step towards me you must reduce the distance by half.”

The mathematician says, “Well, there’s no point then.” The engineer says, “Close enough!”

From science I took this idea of applicability. Don’t continue to invest in mistakes just because you spent a lot of time making them. You should embrace this sense of joy, wonder, and curiosity that comes from observing the world and thinking about it in this way, and then put it to use in the world.

That doesn’t mean you can do that single-handed. I don’t regard myself as being particularly good at many things; I’m kind of okay at a lot of things, without being great at any one thing. That means I can also be relatively ego-less about what I can and can’t do. It gives me an even deeper sense of wonder in the mystery and fabulousness of other people, and lets me be really relaxed about other people being amazing.

I’ve got a team now who encompass traits like patient long-term rigour, implacable strategic focus, and the ability to slow me down when I think things can be done overnight, but also the capacity to deliver things under immense pressure of time and immense challenges – like the Sustainable House Open Day. I have this diverse crowd of amazing people and I can be relaxed in the knowledge that their combined talents will make things happen. I only have to conduct the orchestra — I don’t actually have to play the instruments.

Right, and from what I understand, conducting itself is as much a listening skill as a directive or didactic ne.

A lot of people mistakenly think that in order to lead, you have to be able to do the jobs of those you are leading. That’s a really pervasive, strong belief. But I couldn’t do an analysis of the government’s energy policy against a 10 year economic plan. People on my team can, though; they’re great at it. I can help them communicate the results, but I can’t do the work itself. I’m okay about that. I don’t have to prove that I can do it in order to feel that I can perform the role again.

That chimes with what you said at the outset – coming into a new sector and community where there was a certain expectation from more engineering-minded souls that you would be clear and directive and tell people what to do, and that was how you showed your competence. 

Yet in fact, at the head of this hierarchy at Renew now, there is this magpie-like creature called Paul, a curious child that in his life has known the security of the hard sciences, the openness of the design mindset, and a long experience of striving to make a difference in the messiness of the real world. 

What’s it like, bearing in mind your comments about emotions and relationships and vulnerability, to be the vessel for all those collective hopes and fears and expectations in the chief executive role?

You know when you go to the pool and you hear the hubbub of everyone else all around you – then you go underwater and it’s all muted? You can still hear the hubbub but without being able to distinguish any of it. You’re both affected by it and distant from it. The pandemic has made everything a bit like that for those of us who’ve been locked down. And the nature of my role is a bit like that too.

I don’t yet know what I’ll say about this role in a year. It takes a long time to gain perspective; it was only when giving a talk for early career professionals last week that I reflected on my time at ACMI and really recognised how difficult that experience had been, as a cultural misfit within the organisation. It was like being a shark in the jungle – you’re still a great predator, but you’re just in the wrong place, and the jungle is great too, but it hasn’t much use for a shark.

What I can say about my role now is that my outsider status and newcomer status make it easier to feel empathy. I am new to so many of these relationships, so I can begin by listening and observing, recognising how people are feeling without immediately presuming to leap in and cure or resolve a given emotion or tension. Right now, I can be the person who takes it all on board, and over the coming year I’ll be working and learning what to do with all that emotion, all those relationships, to reach our goals for sustainable living in Australia. i

It comes back to that question of timeframes, doesn’t it? What’s the right time horizon for a given conversation, a given undertaking, a given goal.

Often, new chief executives do experience some surprises. Betty Sue Flowers spoke with me and said that when she got the job as the director of the LBJ Presidential Library, she then immediately discovered water damage in the basement which she was going to have to spend millions fixing. There’s always something we didn’t see coming! But what have been the nicest surprises about joining Renew and the sustainability sector?

Well, not finding water damage in the basement is really good, I’m very happy at that!

The nicest surprise of becoming a CEO has been the collegiality of other chief executives in sharing, empathizing, and understanding how difficult taking this job in a pandemic and economic crisis has been. Leadership is really weird; it can be lonely in really specific ways. The relationships are more complex and you are under a magnifying glass which is larger than I’d expected; every utterance can be treated like a pronouncement on a stone tablet.

The other thing that I did not expect was the openness of a significant portion of our cohort to massive change – the readiness and even desperation of part of our cohort for change. Within the membership, within the staff, the board, there is a sense that, at last, we can begin doing things differently because we’ve been in a bit of a holding pattern for a while.

It’s the tragedy of a successful organization, right? You achieve your goal of solar panels becoming mainstream, and then you don’t know who you are anymore…Finding those groups who don’t want change has been a less nice surprise and the tension between them is interesting. Because there’s also such creativity in our cohort, people who are trying new things, who are willing to make the pivot to online, willing to take risks and work down to the wire – there’s a great pleasure in that.

The very nicest surprise has probably been a personal thing. My parents ran a small business. I hadn’t realised how much I had taken in from that time, how much I had just absorbed in terms of commercial and budgetary savvy. But that’s a private pleasure. I’m also getting external input – from individual members who get in touch to thank us for our work. 

It’s gratifying to see other people getting their rewards too – we had a prize draw recently, in which one of our valued sponsors offers a prize. It’s about $10,000 worth of gear for your sustainable house. And it was won by a woman who was in the midst of a project and about to sign a building contract on her sustainable house. She was doing this for the sake of her children, for all the right reasons, and then this prize dropped in her lap at a great time. It was just lovely that by chance this gift went to someone who was in our community working so hard, trying to live those sustainable values, and who could really benefit from that extra boost. 

In the long run, I’ll get a better perspective on these first months in my role when the Southern summer arrives and I take a few weeks properly off; I’ve only had two days off since March. I recognise that I’m still too close to be able to fully reflect on all we’ve been through in 2020. I think if I had one piece of advice for all new CEOs it’s that, while you might not feel like you need to the time to step away and reflect, because you’re in the middle of things and you’re alert and you’re getting things done, after a while you realize – “I just don’t have the distance from this.” And you have to get in the habit of giving yourself that distance early. 

That’s something I will be doing at the end of this year – giving myself that self-reflective moment, getting a richer perspective on everything we’ve been through, and everything that we’re going to take on in 2021.

You can catch up on this interview with Paul Bowers from the very beginning here, and find out more about Renew at their website.

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