What is expected of leaders in the age of automation?
By Chris Underwood, MD at Adastrum Consulting, executive search and leadership development specialists
Automation, machine learning (ML) and AI have been heralded as the big profit deliverers for businesses across the next decade. While the technology is still in its infancy, progress is rapid, making digital transformation an ongoing journey. As a result, businesses require informed and fast decision makers in the boardroom in order to adapt and remain competitive. Modern leaders must have the skills, experience and behaviours to not only make decisions quickly but also drive change across the organisation.
Automation and leadership development
Recruitment, people management and training processes are undergoing their own digital transformation. CV screening, virtual training programmes and automated interviews are increasingly used by companies to shortlist candidates. While this can save time for HR teams, when it comes to managing leadership hires and development, they can prove ineffective. Traditional soft skills such as vision, communication and the ability to inspire and influence others, remain core leadership competencies. These sit alongside newly appreciated leadership traits – emotional and digital intelligence (EQ & DQ). Current automation capabilities cannot assess and develop these behaviours so could miss talent when identifying worthy hires or existing employees ripe for leadership development.
A new set of leadership traits
DQ should now be a non-negotiable skill for leadership and management hires. In our increasingly data-driven world, businesses face both transformative opportunities and cyber threats. Leaders must be able to understand the business value and risk; DQ will unlock crucial data insights and exploit the potential of new technologies to ultimately accelerate organisations. Yet, DQ alone is not sufficient to foster digital transformation.
Change is implemented by people and as technology advances, workforces will need to adapt more frequently than ever before. Naturally, change and uncertainty can ignite concern and resistance among workers. EQ enables leaders to gather widespread support for pivotal business decisions, unite teams to work towards a shared goal, and develop a culture that readily accepts new ways of working.
Managing a digital workforce
The pandemic sped up the adoption of remote working. While this newfound flexibility has become a top request for most candidates, 39% of workers feel exhausted and overworked (Microsoft, 2021). The cause? Digital overload. Virtual meetings, emails and more electronic modes of internal communications have replaced face-to-face interactions and it’s not difficult to understand why so many are suffering from burnout as we become more tied to our phones and mailboxes. It has also created a new leadership challenge – effectively managing remote teams and cultivating effective working relationships, while minimising digital overload.
Leading in a digital environment does not necessarily require new skills but rather using traditional leadership behaviours in a new setting. Communication is still key, as is using emotional intelligence to empathise and forge connections with employees. Technology has streamlined communications with recruitment and internal processes when it comes to transparency, updating candidates and employees in real-time on application and business updates and creating a sense of ‘togetherness’. Modern leaders will need to optimise use of technology and assess where digital channels are most effective and when face-to-face is best.
Investing in technology vs. investing in people
Investment in new technology and innovation is futile without also investing in the right people to land it. However, in the quest of developing a digitally competent workforce, leaders can feel like they are faced with an impossible task. With a large digital skills gap and a talent dearth, leaders may never feel prepared to implement transformation. Couple this with ever-advancing technology – which constantly moves the technical skills goal posts – it may seem unachievable.
Establishing learning and development processes for technical upskilling will serve the short-term; a surprise to many but it is more valuable to develop a team that is ready to adapt and learn. This means investing in developing soft skills, which still remain unmatched when supporting digital transformation. By cultivating curiosity, DQ and resilient agility – the dual ability to adapt to unforeseen challenges and have the grit to see tasks through – leaders can develop teams primed for transformation and ready to face any bumps encountered on the way.
AI and automation are already part of everyday life, from predictive text to self-service check-outs. The technology is fast becoming adopted by businesses across all sectors as it promises to improve operations and enable scale up. As more automation technology emerges, even reluctant businesses will have to embrace it. However, it is important that they aren’t distracted by the “shiny and new”. Without clear goals for how the new capability can improve or advance the business and failure to look at whether they have the right people in place to activate it will result in misplaced investment and failed transformation.
Leaders will be charged with successfully choosing and implementing new technology to help their organisation achieve its business objectives. The companies that have invested in developing the right skills and behaviours to manage change, will reap the benefits and leave competitors behind.
To read more about effective leadership for progress and change, download our latest white paper, The D Suite: Digital, Data, Disruption and Decision Making
With over 20 years experience’ in executive search and leadership talent advisory, Chris Underwood has worked for some of the biggest names in the executive search and selection industry, before setting up Adastrum Consulting in 2009.
Chris has led a wide range of international transformational leadership assignments from CxO to Functional Heads of for FTSE 100 companies through to venture capital backed startups in the UK, Europe and USA.
His passionate, pragmatic and practical approach has led to a new breed of executive search business that is revolutionising the industry and setting new standards. Chris uses an integrated talent management approach to support business transformation.
Rare to the industry, Chris is British Psychological Society (BPS) Level A&B qualified and is trained in a number of psychometric assessment tools. He studied Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Manchester.