Becoming an AI-savvy leader: reclaim control to drive future of work success

6 minute read

Too many leaders are letting artificial intelligence lead business practice, says David De Cremer, Dunton family dean of D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University and author of The AI Savvy leader 9 ways to take back control and make AI work. Instead organisations need to take a human-centric approach or else there will be disastrous results

Sian Harrington

Female leader striding forward followed by humans who are working alongside robots and artificial intelligence

"AI is the next great leadership challenge." So says David De Cremer, Dunton family dean of D’Amore-McKim School of Business and professor of management and technology at Northeastern University. “This affects you. No matter how much you're interested in it or not interested in it, it is your job to work with it,” he adds.

For HR directors and people leaders already familiar with AI's transformative potential, the pressing question is therefore not about why to adopt AI, he says, but how to lead effectively in an AI-driven world. Integrating AI goes beyond technological implementation; it requires a strategic, human-centred approach to truly harness its potential.

But too often leaders are letting AI lead business practices, prizing a technical mindset above all else in the misguided belief in the tech-driving-tech myth. They are forgetting that AI is a tool, not a saviour, he says. 

One reason for this is that leaders are under immense pressure to integrate AI while still trying to understand its complexities.  “If you look at the company today, most business leaders feel the stress that we need to use AI. The pressure is on. There's a sense of urgency because everyone's going to use it and everything's going to change. The biggest risk, people say, is not using AI today. So that puts a lot of pressure on you. There's a fear of missing out, “ De Cremer says. 

This pressure is reflected in the high failure rate of digital transformation projects – up to 87% fail to achieve their goals, he notes. The root cause is often that leaders delegate AI implementation to tech experts without aligning it with business objectives. As De Cremer's research in Asia shows, although 90% of companies use AI, only 12% manage to upscale their efforts beyond pilot projects, mainly in customer-facing or lower-level tasks.

The core problem lies in leaders sidelining AI as a business transformation tool. They often spend substantial portions of their budgets – up to 70-80% – on AI, only to hand it off to tech experts. However, tech experts may not be equipped to identify the right business questions that AI should address. This disconnect leads to AI projects that fail to create real value.

Leaders must be the ones who align AI with the company’s objectives, says De Cremer. This involves not only understanding the technology but also adapting and using it effectively. It's a myth that technology alone drives transformation; business diagnosis and analysis are crucial. 

So how can business executives become  AI-savvy leaders? Here are some insights from De Cremer:

Understand the role of AI in business

AI is heralded as a game-changer, promising unprecedented gains in efficiency and productivity. Yet many leaders remain uncertain about its practical implications. De Cremer observes: “Most company leaders are a little bit stuck at the question still: What is this AI going to do for me, for my company and ultimately for my stakeholders?” 

The first step in becoming an AI-savvy leader is to understand AI’s role in your specific industry and business. This involves identifying how AI can enhance productivity, streamline operations and create value. AI should not be seen merely as a tool for automation but as a partner that can augment human intelligence. This requires a shift from viewing AI as a replacement for human jobs to seeing it as an enhancement of human capabilities. The emphasis should be on using AI to complement and elevate the work that humans do, thereby creating a symbiotic relationship between technology and human intelligence.

Embrace a human-centred approach

One of the biggest challenges in AI adoption is the fear and resistance it generates among employees. Leaders must address these concerns by adopting a human-centred approach. This means prioritising the human elements of AI integration, focusing on how it can benefit employees and stakeholders.

AI developed in the lab often shows remarkable results, but bringing it into a business context presents unique challenges. In a company you must manage diverse stakeholder interests and significantly heightened risk. Unlike in the lab, where AI operates in a controlled environment, business applications require careful oversight and integration with existing processes.

In the business setting, AI must be supervised because self-learning AI poses too many risks. Employees need to feel in control and stakeholders need transparency and risk management. Therefore, AI in business often involves direct applications with humans in the loop, ensuring a collaborative effort rather than complete automation.

AI adoption involves a J-curve where initial implementation may not yield immediate results. Successful AI adoption requires effective change management. Leaders need to drive cultural change within their organisations, helping teams to embrace AI and understand its benefits. “A successful AI adoption requires that you have leaders involved because they need to drive cultural change to get their teams on board,” De Cremer asserts. This involves clear communication about the purpose of AI and demonstrating AI’s value as a tool to augment human capabilities, not replace them.

Collaborative value creation

The true value of AI lies in its ability to augment human capabilities, rather than merely automating tasks. Cremer emphasises this point, stating: “Your strategy is one of augmentation and not necessarily of automation only.” By focusing on augmentation leaders can leverage AI to enhance human skills, leading to greater innovation and productivity.

As De Cremer notes, today many employees don't see the benefits of AI as a value creator and how to use it as such. And the reason for this is because business leaders don't know how to create value from AI. “Leaders need to act both as a mediator and a facilitator when bringing AI in because the future is going to be human AI interaction,” he says. 

To achieve this leaders must avoid the common pitfall of delegating AI projects solely to tech experts. While technical expertise is crucial, it is equally important for business leaders to remain involved in the process. This ensures that the right business questions are being addressed and that AI is being used effectively to meet organisational goals. 

Uphold ethics and build trust

Ethics and trust are foundational to successful AI integration. Leaders must champion ethical use of AI, ensuring transparency and trustworthiness in all AI applications. This involves staying updated with governance frameworks and regulatory standards. “Building cultures takes time but it’s really about championing ethics and the right values,” De Cremer advises.

Several companies he works with have appointed dedicated ethics champions to navigate the evolving landscape of AI governance. These champions stay updated on the latest corporate governance frameworks, such as those issued by the White House, the European Union and Singapore. It’s crucial for your company to have someone who is knowledgeable and accessible for all matters related to AI ethics.

Championing ethical values is not just about compliance; it’s about how you use AI. Your company’s vision and mission should reflect a commitment to human-centered AI – prioritising humans first and AI second. This means ensuring AI serves all stakeholders, including employees, customers and society at large. Senior leadership must embody and communicate this narrative clearly to the outside world.

De Cremer notes that, in his experience as a dean, he appoints faculty members who champion specific values, such as integrating AI into education. This approach, called ‘humanics’, combines data, technology and human behaviour. By having leaders who actively communicate and demonstrate these values the business school makes its commitment visible and tangible.

AstraZeneca, for instance, effectively brings together AI and governance by creating centres that focus on appropriate AI use. These centres provide a structured framework and are accessible resources for discussing and implementing AI ethics. This proactive stance ensures that AI is used responsibly and aligns with the company's ethical standards.

Develop essential skills and competencies

To thrive in the AI era leaders must develop a blend of technical understanding and soft skills. De Cremer highlights the importance of data savviness, stating: “You need to have some understanding of statistics because everything is still probabilities.” However, beyond technical knowledge, leaders need critical thinking, agility, curiosity and the ability to collaborate effectively.

Soft skills are increasingly crucial as AI takes over more routine tasks. “The biggest part of your salary will actually be determined by your soft skills, not the hard skills,” De Cremer explains. Leaders must cultivate these skills to navigate the complexities of AI integration, ensuring they can motivate and guide their teams through the transition.

Practical implementation strategies

Effective AI integration requires visionary leadership. Leaders must integrate AI into their company’s vision and mission, demonstrating its value to employees and stakeholders. This involves being a narrator who bridges the gap between business needs and technological solutions. Cremer advises that the AI savvy leader needs to bring both together, knowing the business goals and having an AI savviness that allows you to communicate it to tech experts.

Clear and transparent communication is key to easing the workforce into AI adoption. Leaders must articulate the purpose and benefits of AI, helping employees to see it as a tool that enhances their roles. This participative approach fosters a sense of control and autonomy among employees, reducing resistance and building trust.

Long-term perspective and continuous learning

AI integration is not a one-time project but an ongoing journey. Leaders must adopt a long-term perspective, planning for the future impacts and opportunities that AI brings. This involves continuous learning and development, both for leaders and their teams. “Lifelong learning is the key for you,” De Cremer emphasises. By staying updated on AI advancements and industry trends, leaders can ensure their organisations remain competitive and innovative.

De Cremer also notes the importance of understanding the differences between AI and human intelligence. He explains, "AI is not an active participant in our society... it cannot read between the lines. AI cannot see the cultural appropriateness." This highlights the need for leaders to contextualise and humanise AI outputs to ensure they are appropriate and effective.

By embracing these principles leaders can effectively navigate the complexities of AI integration, ensuring it serves as a valuable tool for enhancing human capabilities and driving business success. As De Cremer optimistically concludes: “AI is less of a threat and more of an opportunity. We need that mindset more.”

10 tips for becoming an AI-savvy leader

1. Understand AI’s role: Identify how AI can enhance productivity and create value in your industry.

2. Adopt a human-centred approach: Prioritise the human elements of AI integration, focusing on benefits for employees and stakeholders.

3. Focus on augmentation: Use AI to augment human capabilities, rather than merely automating tasks.

4. Stay involved: Avoid delegating AI projects solely to tech experts; remain engaged to ensure alignment with business goals.

5. Champion ethics: Uphold ethical standards in AI use, fostering a culture of trust and transparency.

6. Develop soft skills: Cultivate critical thinking, agility, curiosity and collaboration to navigate AI complexities.

7. Communicate clearly: Articulate the purpose and benefits of AI to ease workforce adoption and reduce resistance.

8. Plan for the long term: Adopt a long-term perspective, continuously learning and adapting to AI advancements.

9. Lead by example: Demonstrate your AI use to build trust and motivate your teams.

10. Create a safe environment for experimentation: Foster a culture of psychological safety where teams can experiment with AI and learn from failures.

David De Cremer is Dunton family dean of D’Amore-McKim School of Business and professor of management and technology at Northeastern University. His is author of The AI Savvy leader 9 ways to take back control and make AI work

Published 10 July 2024. David De Cremer was speaking on a webinar organised by Harvard Business Press
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