How Smart CEOs Can Respond to Automation

Thanks to AI, automation isn't just for factory floors and drudge work. Executives can use that as a nudge to improve their soft skills.

This week marks the start of Major League Baseball’s playoff season. My favorite team didn’t make the cut, but I’ll still watch the games, and during the slow parts, I’ll wonder about a question the game is increasingly inspiring: Can we automate the CEO’s job out of existence?

I’ve been thinking about CEOs in a baseball context because of so-called “robot umpires”—rapidly evolving technology that uses sensors and algorithms to call balls and strikes, presumably with more accuracy than human umpires. A recent article in The New Yorker explored how minor-league clubs are testing the idea in preparation for its use in the majors. Unsurprisingly, the effort is discombobulating many of the sport’s fans. “Hardly a day goes by that I don’t wake up and run through the reasons that this is such a terrible idea,” a Berkeley philosopher told the magazine. “This is part of a movement to use algorithms to take the hard choices of living out of life.”

There are good reasons to hand over a CEO’s work to software.

If you’re a leader, where much of what you do is make hard choices, the notion of automating your work can be chilling. But it’s a subject open to discussion: A New Statesman essay earlier this year suggested that automation is destined for the C-suite, thanks both to the iffy track record of rational decision-making among CEOs, and CEOs’ often-outsize salaries. As the article put it: “The difficulty of making genuinely rational strategic decisions, and the cost of the people who do so, are also good reasons to hand this work over to software.”

The article is at least a little bit facetious—a prompt to force people to think more about the correlation between success and executive compensation—but there’s no question that automation is a growing force in white-collar work. In 2018, I wrote about automation’s impact on handful of associations as a companion to the ASAE Research Foundation’s ForesightWorks research initiative; one key data point at the time was the 60 percent of occupations could see a third of their activities automated. Today, up to 60 percent of workers fear automation is putting their jobs at risk, according to a PwC survey.

Does that mean that CEOs will soon be out of a job? Not necessarily. But the change does suggest that the CEO’s role has to evolve out of its more button-pushing elements; the array of approvals, rote (read: inauthentic) communications, and data-driven decisions that might be handled more efficiently by other means. In its place, according to an article last week in the business magazine Raconteur, team-building and culture-building skills will increasingly come to the fore.

“Diversifying skill sets and focusing on so-called soft skills that are harder to automate, like communication and teamwork, are likely to be good bets,” IT firm CEO Alexa Greaves told the publication.

Similarly, UiPath CEO Daniel Dines recently told Fortune that top-tier workers will need to enhance their skills to emphasize more human elements of the job. “If you look at most of the knowledge-worker jobs, they consist of a series of tasks, some of them are highly repetitive in nature,” he said. “And these are the ones that we can automate. But many others are much more strategic, are about communication or about social skills, empathy, creativity, and strategic thinking.”

Think of it this way: Robot umpires are here, but human umpires aren’t going away. According to The New Yorker story, they still back up the machine’s calls, settle nerves, call other plays. They preserve the culture of the game, assert their authority. They’re there for the nuances. People don’t need CEOs to make choices that can be done by machine, but they do need leaders. As one player in a robot-ump game put it: “With technology, people just want everything to be perfect. That’s not reality. I think perfect would be weird.”

(NicoElNino/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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