AI is great, but a successful business is still about people


by gigCMO MD Mark F. Magnacca

‘Some good news (at last) for humankind,’ heralds the Wall Street Journal, as a panel of experts say that while AI is great for collecting and processing data, the innate human qualities of understanding context, managing interpersonal relationships and intuition, remain invaluable for the workplace of the future.

The comments came at an workshop hosted by Fractal Analytics this summer, and went into a detailed discussion about the best way to use artificial intelligence within a business. Will AI destroy the need for a human workforce? No, at least, not in our lifetime – and frankly the thought is a little reductive.

What this allows for however, is not simply a discussion about the technology that you can incorporate into your business, but one that acknowledges all the things technology can/will be able to do and asked which skills are going to be most helpful and productive in your team moving forward?

Business leaders have an opportunity to think clearly about the skills that really make a difference in their team in order to make their businesses to thrive. Do you need people who put customers at ease? Do you need people who think quickly, have no problem starting a conversation with total strangers, or people who have a real knack for getting the best from their colleagues?

The amount of technology available to us has blown up and even the people at the top of the proverbial food chain can get overwhelmed. But take a step back and think about where it opens up opportunities to find the right people for your team. It’s not the replacement of people with technology, but rethinking where and how the people within our organisations are best placed, that will provide the most value.

Technology has its place

There’s no point putting our heads in the sand; technology can be a wonderful thing. It helps us to gather data, monitor and implement ideas against a plethora of factors that would have been entirely unknown 20 years ago. It’s also allowing us to react to cultural and economic climate shifts faster and faster. In short, we are better informed, but it’s no substitute for human interpretation and decision-making, and implementation of technology still has a long way to go.

Which skills are in demand for your team?

In terms of members of the team, this can be broken down into full time members of staff and part time resources and gig workers (also a product of a new, more connected world facilitated by technology).

The current thinking is that in-demand skills do and will include interpersonal skills and ‘higher-order cognitive skill’, which to the rest of us means things like entrepreneurialism, interpersonal skills, an ability to learn and problem solving.

It is something the big corporates of the world have already realised, altering their recruitment processes to prioritise soft skills including the ability to learn a set of technical skills today that they may need to drop in order to quickly pick up a new set of skills tomorrow. Essentially, learn, unlearn, relearn and presumably pat their tummies and rub their heads at the same time.

In the context of some services, which vary from company to company, technology will also mean considering a functional shift – finding alternative ways of sourcing certain skills. For example, marketing and advertising agencies around the world are seeing a change in client demand. From here to Africa companies are no longer looking to outsource entire projects, but to enlist gig-style support at all levels.

For example, Business Insider reported last year that the future of advertising agencies had never been in more doubt when announced that they were ‘cutting out the middle man’ – i.e. the media buying agency – and bringing media buying services in-house for the purposes of greater control. At the same time, Jordan Bitterman, chief marketing officer at the Weather Company said that the scope of the ad agency was in decline because “more marketers using smaller agencies and vendors on a short-term basis as needed” – essentially, gig-working.

Which skills are in demand for your leadership?

Leadership within any organisation can be a nebulous subject. You can have someone who has been fabulous at a functional role within a company, risen through the ranks and shown never-ending promise.

Alternatively, you may be part of a Silicon Valley style start-up that has rocketed into the stratosphere of success and finds itself with a leader of profound intelligence and innovation but a limited amount of experience. Either way, leadership is something that doesn’t really have a manual, or indeed, a coding option. The skills are not linear, they are not tangible, and they can take a whole career to harness.

If we weren’t already aware that leadership can be a nuanced challenge, McKinsey recently reported on a survey saying: “Making a successful transition to the C-suite is difficult: nearly half of respondents say they weren’t successful at aligning others around their initial objectives, and more than one-third admit that they have not successfully met their overall objectives for the role.”

If it’s challenging today, then the in-demand skills for the future won’t do anything to make you think that you will find the answers to good leadership any more easily. Forbes Coaches Council, who are finely attuned to workplace trends, and based on today’s changing environment, know what skills tomorrow’s leaders will need to succeed, say key skills for leaders of the future include agile thinking, inspiring and deciding in a world of increasing pace facilitated by technology; empathy, selflessness, flexibility, the ability to listen, humility, good communication skills, cultural intelligence, intuition, authenticity and trustworthiness, versatility, emotional intelligence, and the ability to uphold a clear vision of the future… whilst maintaining the aforementioned flexibility etc.

However, McKinsey also highlighted one key point about successful leadership and transitions into leadership: that “successful transitions didn’t require new executives to have all the answers, and certainly not within their first 100 days in the job.” So if you don’t have all the answers, and let’s face it, no individual does, what do you do?

Herein lies the holy grail of good leadership – having a good support system where you can get good advice or find a trustworthy sounding board for your thoughts and ideas. Basically – asking for help, but in the right places.

In their article, 4 Reasons Why Asking For Help Makes You A Stronger, Not Weaker, Leader David Sturt and Todd Nordstrom from the O.C. Tanner Institute reported on the research body’s Great Work Study, which showed that “72% of people who receive awards for their work ask for advice, help, insights, and opinions from people outside of their inner circle.” The consultants concluded that by doing this, those people were able to “generate fresh ideas and perspectives on how to solve problems that they otherwise wouldn’t have imagined. In essence, asking for help and advice creates better, stronger, more successful results than not asking for help.” Equally, the Financial Post discussed why good leaders ask for help, saying: “they see the path to success as a group effort rather than a personal one.”

It’s not unusual for leaders to ask for advice of course, this is the role of a good non executive director – preferably in the form of someone who understands, someone who has been there before. What is now possible however, in the new world of work facilitated by technology and the mindset shift it has created, is to access that support in a different way; the C-suite no longer has to be restricted to an old school model.

This is particularly good news for SMEs that are growing and looking for guidance in their next phase of growth and development, but may not have the financial resources to bring on experienced board members in a full time capacity. Or for the larger organisation that has all its key players in place but needs a different perspective on a new phase of growth and development.

It’s a position that every single one of the fractional CMOs at gigCMO have empathy with, which is why they offer every one of their clients the benefit of the consideration of a group of CMOs on key decisions and challenges, without professional competition or agenda. They know that one of the key qualities of a good leader is being aware of what they don’t know and having a good barometer to check their own decision making, so that’s exactly what they’re there for.