6 Skills CEOs Will Need in the Age of Automation

Understanding data and technology are vastly important skills for CEOs to have in today’s knowledge economy.

Fear of robots taking over the workforce continues to percolate through society, whether it’s valid or not. Either way, workers will need to up their games. McKinsey and Co.’s “Four Fundamentals of Workplace Automation” estimates that 45 percent of activities performed by humans at work today can be accomplished by technology. What does this mean for those at the top of organizations, specifically the CEO?

“The role of CEO still remains to lead the organization, to lead and understand the shareholders, the owners and the board,” said Robert Jordan, CEO of Interim Execs, a talent scouting firm based in Northbrook, Illinois. “That obligation, responsibility, commitment does not change in any way.” However, automation and vast amounts of data change other skills CEOs need today and into the future.

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Experts and CEOs weigh in on six changes likely to come to the roles and skills of top leaders as automation of work continues:

1. Stay informed and abreast of important skills, especially in regards to the tech landscape. Work is changing so quickly that skills acquired in school are no longer enough for a CEO to stay successful. “Automation is clearly hitting on the need for a CEO to be better and better informed, and informed no longer means a passive activity of someone else feeding information to a CEO,” Jordan said.

2. Know how to choose the right software. Technology is so ingrained in employees’ workdays that software experiences — positive or negative — can greatly impact a company’s culture, said Kevin O’Reilly, CEO and founder of Orbital Shift, an online workforce management company based in Missoula, Montana. CEOs should understand that influence. “Oftentimes you hear how important it is to hire and find the right talent. That same aspect relates to technology,” O’Reilly said.

3. Be flexible in choices — even if they’re expensive. If a CEO chooses the wrong software for employees, they should be willing to pivot and analyze the sunk cost versus the cost of what another product can offer, O’Reilly said. In the end, forcing adoption of a bad product leads to inefficiencies and negative culture impact.

4. The ability to listen to employees remains important. For example, if two employees tell O’Reilly that they’re having issues with software they’re using, there are likely many others who experience the same problem, he said. O’Reilly can then choose to ask more probing questions of other employees to learn more about the issue. “That capability to be inquisitive within your own culture and organization really can help you identify the issues that you should be addressing,” O’Reilly said.

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5. Hone analytical skills. With the vast amounts of data available to businesses, CEOs should understand data and, more important, the insights the numbers provide, said Tara Wolckenhauer, vice president of global human resources strategy and planning at ADP, an HR consulting company based in Roseland, New Jersey. They then must be able to make recommendations for their business based off that data.

6. Understand talent needs that come with technological changes. “If I’m a CEO, and I’m looking at the impact of automation, I’m really looking to understand how that changes the talent plan for my organization,” Wolckenhauer said. Other areas to explore are how future technology impacts company culture, strategy, operating plans and dynamics for accomplishing work. “If we know that bots are coming, and we don’t have the staff that can interface with that type of technology, understand its practical applications and draw conclusions and put in strategies against it, we need to work now. The time is now to put those people in place,” Wolckenhauer said.

Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy.

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