September 30, 2018

The 3 Skills Leaders Need to Succeed in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

A.I. is here -- and it's introducing an age of empowerment for executives. In the past decade, advances in machine learning and the growing availability of data have given leaders access to new and more detailed information, alongside a tool to aid interpretation of that data -- artificial intelligence. Access to this level of insight requires leaders to adapt their approach to strategy development, as the hard skills of leadership like domain knowledge and information processing take a back seat to soft skills like adaptability, vision, and engagement.

As collaboration between humans and machines increases, leaders will have to make a shift in leadership style to better manage teams who are augmented by A.I. capabilities. To ensure you are helping your teams realize success in the age of artificial intelligence and that your organization is poised to capitalize on the A.I. opportunity, you will need to focus on developing these three skills:

1. Adaptability

By automating repetitive manual tasks, A.I. reduces the barrier to entry for new competitors and allows even lean teams to operate with greater efficiency. This means that new ideas get off the ground much more rapidly, resulting in continually shifting landscapes. A recent survey conducted by Boston Consulting Group and MIT Sloan Management Review found that 85 percent of executives interviewed believed that A.I. would allow their companies to "obtain or sustain a competitive advantage."

With an accelerating pace of change, a preparedness to respond quickly to new opportunities or threats gives a competitive advantage. And an agile organizationrequires adaptable leaders. Here are two ways you can prepare now:

  • Look to the data to stay informed about changes to your competitive landscape, threats to your value chain, and trends in your customer base
  • Train your teams on agile business methodology, and embed these practices in your organizational model

2. Vision

That same exposure to vast amounts of new information can create a risk of being too flexible and responsive to trends. Establishing a clear vision and purpose is critical to ensuring an organization can focus its efforts amid change and create long-term value for its customers and bottom line. Building a culture that instills your vision is also key to ensuring that the activities of your team support the strategy you set at the leadership level.

Zappos's CEO, Tony Hsieh, established a clear vision for the company -- that of providing the best possible customer service. In his own words, "Zappos is a customer service company that just happens to sell shoes." To engage his team in this purpose, Zappos launched a number of rewards programs and peer-to-peer recognition platforms to align team motivation to the company's larger mission.

To ensure your team is guided by a consistent vision, even amid disruption, start with these three steps:

  • Define a set of core ideals and purpose for your company to serve as your north star
  • Practice integrated leadership, serving as a resource for your teams to help them align their activities to your vision, even as roles and business models adapt
  • Align company incentives and objectives to your vision and purpose, and track and share successes

3. Engagement

A.I. will reduce the amount of time teams spend on manual or rote tasks, freeing them up for strategic and creative thinking and making it easier and more efficient to bring their ideas to life. Empowering team members and giving them the freedom to creatively problem solve will help them deliver the most value.

Jason Smikle, founder of fNograph, shared that using A.I. has helped his team reduce the amount of time they spend on tedious, rote tasks and focus more of their attention on strategic and creative thinking. Again, Zappos serves as a great example of employee engagement. Its call center leadership abolished scripts a year ago, giving customer service staff the freedom to decide the best way to resolve customer complaints. The result? Zappos is now beating most of the competition on customer satisfaction ratings.

Sometimes, engaging and empowering employees will require a significant shift to your operating model. While hierarchical ladder structures were a good fit for industrial age corporations that gained a competitive edge through economies of scale and standardization, success in the digital age requires collaboration, flexibility, and agility. A study by the Future Laboratory found that collaborative environments were a necessity for companies that want to attract and retain high-performing employees.

A few immediate strategies you can implement for engaging your workforce:

  • Reduce bureaucracy and hierarchical structures, instead engaging in collective decision-making and ownership
  • Explore approaches such as brainstorming workshops, pilot innovation groups, team rotations, and virtual feedback platforms
  • Balance operational independence with clear goals -- set clear objectives for your teams and give them the freedom to meet and exceed them

There's no doubt that artificial intelligence is already causing a major disruption to the competitive landscape. But it's also providing leaders with the tools to obtain a competitive advantage. With a clear vision, the flexibility to adapt to a changing environment, and an engaged team, leaders can capture the promise of A.I. while avoiding the pitfalls.

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