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Four questions for leaders navigating the AI revolution

AI isn’t just an opportunity in and of itself: it’s a chance to coach people to be more resilient and to grow and develop in ways they might not have expected. 

It’s easy to find articles which talk about how AI will disrupt the world of work – sometimes for the better, sometimes not. In March 2023, Goldman Sachs research suggested that AI could replace up to 300 million jobs in the coming years. In June, the ONS reported that exactly half of the adults they surveyed had used AI to some extent in the previous month. Rapid change, yes, and some unique benefits and potential: not all, perhaps, in the areas you might expect.

Leading through change is exciting, but you’re still leading people with fears and differing personalities. Good leadership relishes the chance to help people navigate uncertainty and come out the other side as a better and more effective team. AI isn’t just an opportunity in and of itself: it’s a chance to coach people to be more resilient and to grow and develop in ways they might not have expected.

  1. How can I understand my people better?

Let’s start with a basic fact: AI saves time. It gathers info rapidly, sorts it sensibly and produces something useful in a fraction of the time a person can. As a leader, that suggests that you now have more time to lead. So if a project has taken substantially less time because we used AI, let’s use some of that time to talk in more depth. Why did we do things this way? How did the employee feel about it, and what might they do differently next time? We can work with real intention on the choices we make to use that saved time. Time spent getting to know your people – what makes them tick, where their skills and passion points are – is always time well spent.

When we discuss a project with a team member or give them feedback, they’re responding not only as an employee but as a human, with all their experiences and idiosyncrasies. The same, of course, applies to the leader: they have their own unconscious biases. The more you understand your team, the better a leader you’ll be. Humans are not machines, but complex systems. This is especially true in hybrid environments, where we forgo the nuances in conversation that we take for granted in a face-to-face setting. So there’s instantly a massive human gap that only another human can fill. And just as AI gives us that opportunity to talk, it can also be the subject of the conversation. Was the experience of using AI a positive one? Did it make you feel empowered? Threatened? Obsolete? This may start to sound like an information-capturing exercise (ironically, something AI might do a decent job of). But parsing that information and using it to build a more rounded picture of your people: that’s something only a good leader can do.

  1. How can I support my team through rapid change? 

Rapid workplace change wasn’t invented with the birth of ChatGPT. But the headline statistic – 60% of contemporary jobs didn’t exist in 1940 – may not be much consolation to the employee who sees their livelihood under threat.

We’re in a process of rapid change and our people need help to make sense of it. That might mean training, support or coaching on how to adapt or evolve. And people need to make sense of their experience along the way. There’s a big psychological piece here: as uncertainty goes up and confidence goes down, how does a good leader take everyone with them? If you’re leading a business through a change initiative (of any kind) you need to be aware of how people are coping with it.

Upskilling people demonstrates trust and commitment. The business makes an investment in you, the individual. It allows a leader to shape their business for the longer term: which skills do we need in order to compete? But we need to be aware of people’s energy and wellbeing. We use the term “driving people through change”, but employees need time to reset and re-energise. The pace of change may be relentless, but humans can’t cope with relentless. Make too many demands of people and you breed resentment. As you develop new skills and forge a team with the competitive edge you’re looking for, keep listening. Try to understand the pressures of what your people are going through and how to help them through it.

  1. How can I encourage collaboration at every turn? 

Knowledge may be one of the biggest casualties of the AI revolution. Information is easier to find and quicker to summarise, which will impact subject matter experts. And people who define themselves and their value to the business by what they know may struggle to adapt. You’ll find people who resist or think “I can’t keep up, so why should I care?”. In these instances, it’s about working with people to help them reimagine their skillsets and embrace learning again. And this doesn’t necessarily mean more training, but bringing diverse business units or individuals together to collaborate and learn from one another.

The more your people collaborate, the more they create a diverse base for knowledge and a structure which encourages creativity. We’re back to the conversation as a tool for learning, because it applies just as much to your teams as it does to your style of leadership. If you work regularly with someone, you can’t help but get to know them. And that does all the things you’d expect it to do: breed camaraderie, break down silos and offer greater agility.

  1. Am I considering the human factor?

Like any transformation, AI creates opportunities. They come with a side serving of fear and uncertainty, with excitement for dessert. But the leader’s role remains the same. If good management is about perfecting the bar, great leadership is about raising it for everyone. It takes knowledge to improve a team, but it goes beyond facts and data. We’re humans. We aren’t just doing – we’re also being.

Whatever form of change you want to create, have sensitivity to its impacts and costs as well as its potential. When we use technology to create a better business, that can’t come at the expense of the human side.

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