Leading like a (non-)robot

July 07, 2020

How AI will change executives' lives

Artificial intelligence is changing the business world. But what does this mean for executives? At any rate, it is becoming more important for them to have empathy and understand the concerns of their “flesh-and-blood” employees.

Manager with a robot-hand
The rapid development of AI seen in recent years has led to a host of new applications.

The prospect is as intriguing as it is daunting: Some experts say that in 2035 one fourth of Austria's gross domestic product will be produced by machines - or artificial intelligence (AI), to be more precise. AI is about teaching computers human intelligence and thus behavior. We encounter AI, for instance, when we play video games, consult search engines or use speech-recognition systems. The rapid development of AI seen in recent years has led to a host of new applications, some of which are potential game changers. Google, which is considered an AI pioneer, has researchers in Zurich working on advancing practical applications of the technology. The progress that is being made is evidenced, among other things, by the fact that Google translations are becoming better and better.

Portrait Barbara Stöttinger

Prof. Barbara Stöttinger

  • Dean of the WU Executive Academy

Actually, artificial intelligence is nothing new. As early as the 1950s, there was a first AI hype, but the predictions made at the time were wildly exaggerated. Now, however, AI's time has come: As a result of the enormous amounts of data available today and the increase in computing power, AI is making its way into all spheres of life and is changing the business world as we know it. Zurich Insurance Group, for instance, is contemplating letting machines take over when it comes to claims adjustment—they are said to be able to process a case in a matter of seconds while the same job takes their human counterparts almost an hour to complete. Finance is also seeing changes as a result of AI: Erste Group is currently looking for 5000 programmers.

Robots as CEOs - soon a reality or a sci-fi movie plot?

What does this mean for executives, and what will the future of leadership look like given the significance of AI? The boss of Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce company, reckons that there will be robo-executives and even robo-CEOs—according to him, robots are more objective and less sensitive than humans. What is clear is that the job market is changing as a result of artificial intelligence, increasing automation, the Internet of things and the combination of these technologies. Amid scaremongering about possible mass layoffs and overly optimistic predictions, there is often little room for a sober assessment of AI.

A robot in a bureau
More objective and less sensitive - can a robot replace a human in management?

What the robo-boss will never be capable of

In view of this situation and in order to counteract the daunting prospect of robo-bosses, executives need to focus even more on showing empathy and supporting their teams. “The thought that machines might take over their jobs causes a feeling of unease among employees. Executives should address this issue in a proactive and understanding manner,” says Prof. Stöttinger. On the one hand, AI technologies—such as autonomous cars—have yet to gain people's trust; on the other, it is important to understand the concerns of employees regarding the question of what role they will play as humans in businesses.

While monotonous tasks will increasingly be performed by machines, there is hardly a substitute for creativity and social behavior. New job profiles whose names are not even known today will emerge. As machines take the places of human employees when it comes to carrying out routine tasks, the structures of businesses will change—in future, the demand for qualified professionals will increase, and so will their expectations in terms of pay. Hence, the following is clear: “The better their qualifications, the more likely human employees are to keep their jobs. And when new jobs are created, these will, first and foremost, be executive jobs—according to a survey carried out by Capgemini, a consultancy, two in three new positions will involve executive responsibilities,” says Prof. Stöttinger.

Building trust and giving people room for maneuver—a delicate balancing act

What is also clear is that executives are increasingly expected to be knowledgeable about, and have a feel for, new technologies. Given the omnipresence of digitalization, it is not enough today to simply let the IT department deal with information technology. As far as artificial intelligence is concerned, businesses should neither be overly euphoric about it, nor should they reject the technology outright. Rather, they need to strike an appropriate balance when it comes to using AI: What makes really sense for the business in question? What new business models are made possible by AI? Executives are expected, more than has hitherto been the case, to send out clear messages—this, too, requires them to constantly keep learning, just as their organizations as a whole have to learn at all times. On the one hand, executives need to build trust and support employees in navigating transition processes; on the other, they must give highly qualified professionals the room for maneuver they need in order to be able to both come up with ideas and take things forward. This is a delicate balancing act that executives will have to accomplish as a matter of course.


“Artificial intelligence makes it possible for businesses to become more efficient and move into new fields. However, there needs to be a comprehensive strategy when it comes to integrating AI into the day-to-day work of employees and gaining a clear understanding of the benefits this will bring,” concludes Barbara Stöttinger. Ethical concerns regarding intelligent machines and robo-workers have to be addressed not only by businesses but also—and indeed in particular—by governments and societies. The range of relevant topics includes fundamental issues, such as the future of the world of work in general, as well as questions concerning the scope of AI applications and the chances and opportunities that AI will open up for humans.

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