Last year, PwC released a report predicting that artificial intelligence (AI) could add $15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030. As AI expert Mark Minevich said in a 2017 speech, “Whoever doesn’t get involved in AI will die and get phased out.” That seems to be true across industries and geographies.

As companies invest more heavily in AI, they will need to invest also in leaders who understand it. As Emma Martinho-Truswell, co-founder and chief operating officer of Oxford Insights, writes, “For organizations to get the most that they can from AI, they should also be investing in helping all of their team members to understand the technology better.” That includes leaders, and that’s why, earlier this summer, Heidrick & Struggles announced a new AI specialty practice to help businesses hire and develop senior talent who can help them navigate this brave new world.

“At present,” says Heidrick & Struggles partner Ryan Bulkoski, who is heading up the practice, “there is a critical shortage of leaders with the ability to apply a deep understanding of AI to practical outcomes, transforming businesses.” Identifying the gaps in their talent – and then filling them strategically – will keep companies competitive.

Bulkoski says there are three steps to this process: First, the executive team – including the L&D leader – should discuss business goals, how AI can – and should – help accomplish those goals, and what talent is needed to do so. Next, the organization should assess its maturity; if you don’t currently have the infrastructure in place to maintain secure and high-quality data, for example, you’re not ready for “talent with deep expertise in artificial intelligence,” he says. Finally, “build the appropriate talent profile to ensure successful integration and retention.” In other words, don’t hire or train leaders in AI because it’s trendy. Do it because they will help you accomplish key business goals and because you’re ready to support them in doing so.

New Leadership Skills Needed

Business leaders don’t need the technical details of how to create algorithms or machine learning programs. “Corporate leaders aiming to embrace the business applications of artificial intelligence do not need to match the digital skill set of a data scientist,” points out Bernardo Nunes, chief data scientist at Growth Tribe Academy. Rather, “leaders need to be like data and analytics translators.” This means identifying customer problems and matching them with AI solutions and being able to do a cost/benefit analysis between AI and people.

Similarly, Ahmed Haque, chief academic officer of Trilogy Education, says the most important skill for leaders is how to use “intelligent algorithms” to solve problems that were previously unsolvable. If they understand that, he says, they “can do incredible things.”

Leadership skills that have always been important are increasingly so with the popularity of AI. “As with any disruptive technology,” says Sarah Boisvert, founder of Fab Lab Hub and author of “The New Collar Workforce,” “AI products require a high level of problem solving skills in order to seamlessly integrate them into the organization. Organizations must provide opportunities for managers to hone critical thinking and design innovation skills that are essential for problem solving.”

There are several ways to provide the training needed for leaders to understand AI. Nunes says that “fast-paced, continuous corporate training is the best way for leaders and C-level professionals to acquire these skills.” He adds that developing a learning community through meetups, workshops and short courses will help leaders build skills and develop a lifelong learning approach.

Bulkoski says that Heidrick & Struggles clients in the financial services industry have created internal “AI universities” to provide training. If you’re going with an external training provider, Haque recommends a bootcamp-style program for leaders who want to be able to use AI to “drive impact themselves.” For example, a Trilogy Education student from the publishing industry took what he learned in the program and used it to make a decision about whether or not his company should accept a merger. Shorter online courses, on the other hand, are a good option for those who just want a “high-level exposure to be informed about trends.”

Tuoro University Worldwide recently launched the addition of a concentration in artificial intelligence management to its MBA program, another sign that leaders need an understanding of “the necessary skills, competencies and specific organizational and managerial implications of AI on the business strategy and management, the challenges of delivering AI technologies, and the steps executives need to take to develop a strategy for their company,” as the press release noted. Bulkoski says these skills are especially important for leaders in technology, financial services, consumer retail, health care and pharma, industrial, and entertainment and media industries – though he notes that “every industry is being impacted.”

“The … imperative to create AI-friendly business practices will transform human roles and corporate cultures in myriad ways,” writes Forbes Technology Council member Matt Jones. “Consequently, many traditional job profiles will now require an understanding of how to effectively interact with AI, and of its capabilities and limitations.” Leaders, of course, are one of those job profiles – because they must lead AI strategy and manage the other jobs.

The Changing Definition of Leadership

In addition to being able to lead AI strategy, leaders must also adapt to changes in what it means to be a leader. ManpowerGroup’s Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and IMD’s Michael Wade, Ph.D., and Jennifer Jordan, Ph.D., predict that AI will “lead to a greater emphasis on the ‘soft’ elements of leadership – the personality traits, attitudes, and behaviors that allow individuals to help others achieve a common goal or shared purpose.” They believe that several key competencies will be increasingly important for leaders in the fourth Industrial Revolution: humility, adaptability, vision and engagement (with their environment and their teams). These researchers also note that the focus on these competencies does not, in fact, mean that leadership “is radically different in the AI age,” but it does mean that hard skills may play less of a role than they have previously.

How can we ensure leaders have these competencies? Perhaps it means developing new competency models for leadership development or renewing our focus on emotional intelligence. Maybe we need to improve the coaching we provide our leaders to enhance their interpersonal skills, or maybe finding innovative approaches to soft skills training will be the key. Most likely, the best approach is a combination of these approaches, tailored to an organization’s learners and business goals. The bottom line is that AI is here; it’s not going away, and leaders need to be ready.

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