If your company isn’t already implementing artificial intelligence (AI) technology, it will be in the next few years.
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From machine learning and analytics to bots and generative tools, AI is being embedded in technology and business around the world.
Someone senior in the organization should oversee this implementation.
So, what are the five essential traits that make a successful AI leader?
Five executives suggest the abilities that will define the role.
The great AI leaders of the future won’t be your typical IT heads, says Mukul Aggarwal, director of technology at VistaPrint.
“These are going to be very different roles,” he says. “You have to think about things from a very deep perspective. Any director of AI has to be more technical than a director of engineering.”
Agrawal said in a video interview with ZDNET that AI leaders of the future must also have a clear vision of future directions.
“And not just one year, five years or 10 years,” he says. “And they need to have expertise in these emerging areas as well.”
Aggarwal says it’s important to remember that AI technology doesn’t happen overnight. While the rise of ChatGPT and other generative AIs over the past year has been remarkable, their emergence was preceded by many years of development and refinement.
“The journey takes time,” he said. “People in these roles have to have patience and a better long-term vision, and they have to be more technical in nature than anything else.”
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However, Aggarwal says the opportunities are significant for senior professionals who have patience, an awareness of total cost of ownership and an eye for value-generating opportunities.
“People in this role can be very successful,” he says. “To be a manager of AI you need to be ahead of the curve in technology.”
Lily Hack, head of technology and digital executive research at recruiter Harvey Nash, also believes a technical foundation is critical for successful AI leaders.
“A successful AI leader needs to have a technical foundation that most of us don’t have,” he says. “They need to understand AI technologies, machine learning, computer vision, AI frameworks and algorithms.”
However, Haake says technical competence must be coupled with soft skills: “amazing commercial acumen, strategic ability, spotting opportunities, horizon scanning and then leadership.”
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In fact, he believes one leadership skill is going to be critical: influence.
In a video conversation with ZDNET, he said, “This person has to impress their peer group, in every department.
“Those soft skills and the ability to drive change — without direct line-management responsibility — are going to be critical. This is someone we’re describing because they’re a technologist, but with tremendous leadership skills.”
Nigel Richardson, SVP and CIO Europe PepsiCo, said successful digital leaders today understand business operations and have the leadership skills to motivate others across the organization.
Future AI leaders need to understand what really drives competitive advantage — and that’s going to involve a mix of traditional and emerging technologies.
“It’s important to spend time getting to know all areas of their business from end to end,” he said in an email to ZDNET.
“You have to think strategically about where the business is going and look to the future — that’s all there is to see.”
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Richardson says that successful leaders will be those who continually cultivate talent and find a balance between ground-breaking technologies that have business impact, and maintaining the core skills needed to run flawless day-to-day operations.
“To do this, we need to fully embrace modern technologies and processes to speed up deployment of new capabilities. We are already making huge strides in this area,” he said.
“From the widespread adoption of cloud and software as a service to embedding AI/ML in rapid solutions, we are developing advanced capabilities at an incredible rate. By understanding how to build robust, secure and scalable platforms, all teams can build digital products. Also a core will have power.”
Great ideas for digital innovation don’t just come from the IT department. Lisa Diehl, director of consumer care at Freshpet, considers how a generative AI tool like ChatGPT can be used to strengthen customer service.
“I want to be able to combine some of what we’re doing today to make things a little bit easier,” he told ZDNET in a one-on-one video interview.
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“I know there’s a lot of concern around IT and security. Everyone is understandably moving at a snail’s pace in AI right now to make sure they think very carefully about how we can use it.”
Diehl is no stranger to AI-enabled applications. He’s already using Amplify’s AI-powered chatbot technology to automatically answer customer questions and allow employees to focus on high-priority consumer issues that require a human touch.
He says the success of AI leadership will depend on one being able to connect the dots in terms of challenges and opportunities.
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“We collect a lot of data around consumer care and consumer voice,” she says
“That information goes down our innovation pipeline and to our marketing teams. It’s important that the data we’re collecting is being generated through our organization.”
Sasha Jory, CIO of insurance firm Hastings Direct, says the AI leader of the future will need a kitbag of skills.
“They have to be adaptable,” she says. “The business will need someone who has experience with customers, who understands the market and who knows their work colleagues.”
Jory, who spoke to ZDNET at a recent event The London leg of Snowflake’s Data Cloud World TourIt also points to the importance of understanding new risks and challenges in a fast-moving marketplace and the ability to consider how these threats and opportunities relate to work activities.
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“They need to understand good behavior and bad behavior,” she says. “They need to understand that being able to succeed in AI is an important thing. But they also need to recognize how bad AI can be bad for everyone; bad for business, bad for customers, bad for colleagues.”
Jory says the successful AI leader will need more than just expertise in emerging technologies: “I think it will be someone who is more of an all-rounder than a technologist.”