Integrating the Leadership Equation into AI

While AI has been with us for 15 years or more, what is capturing attention is generative AI, the ability to compile information, sort it, and turn it into something creative. Think of it as 1+1 = 3. Or in a short time 1+1 = 5, 7, 9 and up.

To get a handle on where AI is headed in the workplace, I called on Mahesh M. Thakur, a long-time tech leader and now working as an executive coach to senior leaders. Mahesh began his career as a coder working in the banking industry. Back then skeptics thought internet banking would replace brick and mortar banks. That did not happen. As Mahesh explained to me, it enabled tellers to move the window to a cubicle where with more training they could become financial advisors.

AI enablement

Mahesh sees something similar happening with AI. While AI has the power to displace workers, it also has the capacity to provide employees with tools they can use to become more skilled and thus more valuable to their employers. For example, using AI managers can apply their cognitive abilities more effectively when it comes to decision-making.

Mahesh advises clients on how to integrate AI into their work flow. In particular he shows them how AI can enhance search results for Bing, which serves 1.3 Billion visitors per month. 

Culture is essential to successful use of AI. Empathy, as Mahesh explains, is necessary to make employees feel understood as well as knowledgeable about AI. When fear of the new is eroded, the enterprise can create conditions where employees use AI to enhance their skills.

“You’ve got to step back and first be very clear, very articulate about what is your business goal and then help then partner with your CTO, with your technology advisors on how exactly will you use AI to reach that goal,” says Mahesh. 

Learn by doing

Experimentation becomes the norm. “Everything becomes a test run, a series of tests to figure out what is working and what more importantly what is not working. When I work with CEOs, I help them understand how to be clear about those business goals and how to be clear about their AI enabled strategy.” From there the company can proceed with experimentation within the goals they set.

One example of experimentation comes from the Mars Company. When it introduced its product line into China and via Alibaba, the search engine cum-marketplace, it discovered via data from multiple sources that customers who bought Snickers also brought savory or salty snacks. Acting quickly, Mars created Spicy Snickers and soon the new product accounted for a significant portion of the company’s revenues in China. 

AI means re-skilling

According to the lead article in the September-October 2023 issue of the Harvard Business Review, “To design and implement ambitious reskilling programs, companies must do a lot more than just train employees: They must create an organizational context conducive to success. To do that they need to ensure the right mindset and behaviors among employees and managers alike. From this perspective, reskilling is akin to a change-management initiative, because it requires a focus on many different tasks simultaneously.”

IBM economist Martin Fleming, also contributing to HBR, writes, “As tasks requiring intellectual skill, insight and other uniquely human attributes rise in value, executives and managers will also need to focus on preparing workers for the future by fostering and growing ‘people skills,’ such as judgement, creativity and the ability to communicate effectively. Through such efforts, leaders can help their employees make the shift to partnering with intelligent machines as tasks transform and change in value.”

Know the risks

AI is not without risks. It can give false information, or as Mahesh says, “hallucinate.” As with all technology there are growing pains. Therefore, it is imperative that those working in the field continue to perfect it through relentless experimentation based upon feedback from end-users.

AI can be used to improve efficiency, but it can also be applied to give employees more skills, choices and ultimately more autonomy. As Mahesh told me, “What all of us need to do, in whatever field we work — whether we like it, fear it, love it, embrace it or shy away from it — it’s here.” Our challenge is to use AI wisely and humanely.

Note: The authors of the HBR article cited above are Jorge Tamayo, Leila Doumi, Sagar Goel, Orsolya Kovacs-Ondrejkovic and Raffaella Sadun.

Click here to watch to the full LinkedIn Live interview with Mahesh M. Thakur.

First posted on 10.00.2023