Leadership and robots in a post-Brexit world

Written by
Linda Sharkey

13 Apr 2017

13 Apr 2017 • by Linda Sharkey

Watched the news lately? People are confronted with such a tsunami of change, they can’t process it all. Who of us can?

People all over the world are seeing their jobs eliminated through automation. These jobs aren’t the victim of globalisation alone. Hamburgers are going to be flipped by robots, trucks will be driven by software, and for just about every job humans do manually, there’s a programmer computer-modeling a solution.

Let’s be honest. Unless you own a factory that builds robots, and is staffed by robots, the future can sound a bit scary.

But what if there were possibilities inside these changes? And what if the world, and your business, was rife with opportunities? Deep down we know it’s true.

Enterprise will always need what only humans can offer. (My apologies to any artificial intelligence reading this, and please forgive me for calling you artificial.) But to tap into your potential you must face reality and search for a better way to live and work. In other words, our view of the future can be apocalyptic or optimistic.

We can’t go back to the way things used to be. And if we want to, we’re missing opportunities—personally and in business.

The evolving role of the CEO

Innovation has become such a buzzword these days that it might seem that it’s always been with us. Not so. In the 20th century, the CEO’s role was simply to maintain the company’s growth trajectory and preserve the culture passed on by previous leaders.

Remember the corporate boardrooms with the portraits of leaders of the past, and the huge framed portrait of the founder? It’s not that way anymore. The expectation today is that a good leader is not so much a steward as a disruptor — even within his or her own company.

In today’s corporate culture, everyone from the CEO down needs to iterate, measure, adapt, observe, and move on to the next challenge. Organisation used to mean “hierarchy” with a clear chain of command. Now the struggle leaders have is to create a culture that’s constantly willing to reinvent itself.

In other words, today’s CEO must move away from the command-and-control style of leadership and toward one that is more flexible and more empathetic, more creative, more willing to accept criticism, more feminine than masculine.

Less robotic.

Companies that treat their employees less in a hierarchical way and more as a source of ideas and creativity will have the competitive advantage. That’s always been true, but the approach got lost somewhere in the 20th century. 

Buckle up

The biggest business trend on the horizon? The accelerating pace of technological development.

Take the media business for example. It used to be kind of gut-driven: is your advertising message being carried on the platform that enhances the image of your product? There was a lot of room for subjective judgment there.

Those decisions are now more driven by data, and increasingly they’re made by machines in nanoseconds. The ability to decide the right platform to carry the right ad is increasingly done by algorithm.

Artificial intelligence is also poised to revolutionize how management is conducted. Think about what artificial intelligence does. It’s masterful at marshaling more data than the human mind can grasp, and recognizing patterns that would be lost on you and me.

A.I. can also help produce more objective performance reviews. At the moment, most companies don’t think performance reviews are worth the trouble because they’re so subjective. But if they’re driven by data, specifically data that’s right in front of us, but not obvious to us, the value of reviews goes off the charts.

Yet another advantage to A.I. is that new employees will be able to track the network of knowledge within their organisation, enabling them to get up to speed more quickly.

Again, these changes produce opportunities for those willing to embrace the future.

The last new frontier: the brain

In the 20th Century, the new science of behavioural economics, based on the research of then-unknown psychologist Daniel Kahneman, was often dismissed by company leaders.

Now the work of Kahneman is not only a best-selling business book,Thinking, Fast and Slow, but the concepts have filtered into the normal conversation of business leaders.

You know, you’re just giving us the first order of thinking right now. You should actually reflect on this and think about it harder.

We now have that kind of self-awareness about our own human propensity to take mental shortcuts and make judgements based on insufficient evidence. It’s helped people avoid the kinds of pitfalls that have tripped them up in the past.

And the good news is that you possess this uniquely human quality.

The bumpy path to globalisation

One explanation of the popular reactions to globalisation—the Brexit vote and the 2016 U.S. election results—is a backlash against the breakneck pace of change.

Lots of people, including CEO’s, would really love to get off the rollercoaster, but they can’t. Globalisation works in part because it’s simply more efficient than what went before. It’s a force of nature, because it makes people better off.

But only those who stay on the rollercoaster will reap the benefits.

But that doesn’t mean progress will happen in a straight line. If you’re in West Virginia or the deep South, or the industrial Midwest, you know that the benefits were not distributed equally.

To succeed, companies will have to help retrain workers to perform the skills needed in the 21st-century workplace and for jobs not even thought of yet.

A recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute found dissatisfaction among employers at the lack of training in people entering the workforce. But during the time this lament became common wisdom, companies were cutting way back on their training programs. Or using outdated expensive and time consuming methods of developing workplace skills.

What they used to see as their responsibility—to take on people as apprentices and train them in the skills required for their industry—they saw as now being schools’ responsibility. And since people left schools without knowing how to be a coder at Google or a machinist at Chrysler, many were left off the ride.

Is this the fault of workers or leaders? I’ll let you think slowly about this question.