How Will AI Change the C-Suite?

A new survey suggests that leadership roles will at least be shared with artificial intelligence in the coming years. Now’s the time to think about the executive roles that can’t be automated.

This may not be the best time to be thinking 15 years into the future, I know. For many associations, the rest of 2020 is stressful enough, and 2021 seems plenty forbidding too.

But any association wise enough to have a strategic planning process knows that it has to look for potential headwinds. And a study released last week by the software company Citrix suggests that automation will have a substantial impact on leadership—calling to question what a leader might be good for, if AI can make decisions nearly as well as a human can.

Without an AI strategy, leaders will end up finding ways to replace their own jobs.

Citrix’s report, Work 2035 [PDF], is based on the responses of 500 executives and 1,000 employees at large and mid-size companies in the United States and Europe, with a focus on artificial intelligence and productivity. In general, an always-on work mentality, combined with better analytics, have led people to wonder what role the C-suite ought to play. A third of employees say leadership will be “partially or completely replaced by technology” by 2035, and though only a small proportion of leaders agree with that, there’s a common feeling that automation will have an impact. Three-fourths of those surveyed say that most organizations will have a central AI department, and 69 percent say the CEO will be working with a “chief of artificial intelligence.”

In one imagined scenario in the report, the authors note that in the haste to streamline their organizations, “leaders will end up finding ways to replace their own jobs: Leadership teams are already being reshaped and slimmed down, as technology replaces even the most complex roles.”

As Alibaba founder Jack Ma put it more bluntly a few years back: Thirty years from now “the Time Magazine cover for the best CEO of the year very likely will be a robot. It remembers better than you, it counts faster than you, and it won’t be angry with competitors.”

That’s a challenge for association leaders twice over—not just in terms of their own jobs, but for the jobs of their association’s members as well. ASAE’s ForesightWorks research initiative has cited automation as a key change driver, with a cascade of impacts. It affects advocacy, because technology often outpaces regulation; volunteering, because a lot of grunt-work tasks often shunted to committees can be handled by AI; and membership, because your members risk being displaced by automation.

This isn’t all bad news. Automation can clear some brush from your processes and get you focusing on more essential strategic activities. As the ForesightWorks research brief points out: “Could members be supported with new content, new services, or new products that help them explore the pros and cons of automation?… Could the association itself benefit from automating some tasks that now consume the attention of staff or volunteers?”

Regardless, it’s a trend that’s hard to ignore, and leaders have to decide how they’ll help their people pivot. Leading employees in the future, the Citrix report says, will require more of an investment in upskilling to better handle tasks that are less likely to be automated.

“They must redesign workplaces and IT systems around intelligent, inspiring experiences that empower employees to use technology effectively, solve problems in creative ways, and make decisions more quickly,” says the report. Related to that, one of the new jobs survey respondents say is likely to emerge by 2035 is “design thinker”—a leader needs help thinking holistically about what their organization will look like.

The same thing goes for your membership. As the ForesightWorks brief put it, associations need to invest in training members to “stay smarter than the machines…. Uniquely human skills of leadership, team building, and emotional intelligence will be critical to continued employment.”

Not an easy task. But the pandemic has given association executives a crash course in some of the essential characteristics of leadership in that emerging environment: more tech savvy, more focused on speed, more adaptive, more concerned with innovation and the collaborative processes that stoke it. And also with compassion, supporting employees and members who’ve experienced displacement.

Automation isn’t a dangerous virus. But it’s a challenge that in 2035 will require the same kind of intelligence that gets us through 2020.

(metamorworks/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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