Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes a weekly column about management and leadership as well as diversity and other important issues for WRAL TechWire. His columns are published on Wednesdays. Thompson of The Diversity Movement was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2023 Southeast Award winner.
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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – No matter the industry, organization size or physical location across the globe, today’s CEOs face unprecedented challenges, especially the demand for faster, more complex decision-making. Unlike their predecessors, these leaders are frequently called on to address topics that cross “traditional” business outcomes (i.e., market share, stock price and sales projections) into ethical, moral and societal issues.
No wonder then that CEOs and executive teams are using artificial intelligence (AI) to gain a competitive edge. The potential benefits have a significant upside as senior leaders recalibrate their leadership styles for new economic realities. At the same time, however, let’s also remember Spider-Man’s immortal line, “With great power there must also come great responsibility.”
Right now, CEOs are taking a deliberate approach to AI implementation, but recent studies reveal that many are uncertain of where the technology is headed or whether it can truly be trusted. Given these challenges, it is essential that senior leaders ensure that AI serves as a force for positive change and use their power wisely as the technology continues to develop and expand.
CEO DECISION-MAKING – “EPIC CHALLENGE”
Senior leaders are often cited for taking bold stands or championing ideas that lead to great accomplishment. Given the scope of today’s complex business environment, however, the decisions have transformed, becoming more human-centered rather than based primarily on financial topics.
A study by the IBM Institute for Business Value, reveals that CEOs see themselves facing “an epic challenge,” which they say is “almost crushing.” The difficulty, according to the IBM team, is a lengthy list of external forces that have a significant human component, such as workforce and skills to socio-economic factors, including diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
Executives need help making smarter decisions quicker. As a result, half the CEOs surveyed claim they are integrating generative AI into products and services and 43% are using AI to inform strategy decisions. As a whole, 75% of CEOs “believe the organization with the most advanced generative AI will have competitive advantage.”
Clearly, the CEOs surveyed by IBM view AI as a necessity for themselves and their organizations. However, they are also way out in front of their teams in their thinking. Just 29% of leadership team members see their organizations having the “in-house expertise to adopt AI,” while only 3 in 10 believe their companies are ready to adopt AI “responsibly.”
Another recent study by research firm Workplace Intelligence and education platform edX compounds the need for CEO leadership in AI decision-making. A whopping 49% of leaders claimed that “most” or “all” of their C-suite “job” should be either completely automated or “replaced” by AI. What I find remarkable here is the wholesale understanding by CEOs about AI’s opportunity. Yet, when employees were asked the same question, a mere 20% held the same view.
AI CHALLENGES AND EVOLUTION
I have written about AI’s underlying challenge, centered mainly on how it is created from data sets that demonstrate the same biases as the people who created them. In other words, the rush to build the system actually amplified existing biases and inequalities. The information used to train AI was filled with foundational “ideas” that are biased. Therefore, the challenge is that AI becomes a replicator of inequality based on the data used to create it.
Zach Nunn, Founder and CEO of Living Corporate, uses AI in the company’s employee experience solutions. But, he sees human intervention at the leadership level as essential, explaining, “While it has the potential for streamlining repetitive tasks and generating content at incredible scale, Generative AI is pulling the work it produces from the internet – a place rife with all manner of gendered, racial, religious, ableist, and sexual orientation-based bias. As organizations continue to invest in this technology, investing in organizational infrastructures with diverse leadership teams to provide both oversight and accountability will be just as, if not more important.”
The idea of naturally “trusting” AI-created output is difficult. How do we really know if the data were compromised by the people who created it? Did these people consider DEI when programming or creating the systems? Like most senior leaders, I want AI to be a benefit for diversity-led initiatives, not another obstacle in the path toward equity.
New technology comes hand-in-hand with unintended consequences. AI is no exception. The rush to harness the power of AI for innovation has begun, but we must be vigilant in understanding the consequences, particularly against bias and discrimination. We have a collective responsibility to ensure that the AI systems we deploy are fair, transparent and ethical.
LEADING IN THE AI AGE
Taken together, these results demonstrate that CEOs – while they may be AI implementers and view it favorably as a way to stake out competitive advantage – have not adequately led their organizations on expectations or adaptation. In the battle of innovation versus apprehension, it is clear that within most organizations the latter is winning.
In the pursuit of AI-driven innovation, CEOs have a unique opportunity and responsibility to shape the future of work. However, the foundation must be created before it is too late. First, CEOs need to educate their leadership teams on the value of AI as a tool for innovation, so that the culture isn’t upended by fear. Then, executives need to support and campaign for AI initiatives that are inclusive. In these early days, they have the power to influence how AI systems are created.
The path to workplace excellence lies in the hands of responsible leadership that recognizes the potential of AI while remaining steadfast in their commitment to a more inclusive and equitable future. Together, we must work to ensure that bias and discrimination have no place in the AI brain.
For more on AI and responsible implementation, join me at MetLife’s 5th annual Triangle Tech X (TTX) conference, a hybrid, free conference held in-person in New York; Cary, North Carolina; and Mexico City, as well as virtually on October 11-12, 2023. The theme is “The Humanity Imperative: Achieving STEM Equity in the AI Age.” I join local executives to discuss “AI & the Promise of a More Equitable Talent Pipeline” on 10/11 at 1 p.m. ET. Register here: link.
About the Author
Donald Thompson, EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2023 Southeast Award winner, founded The Diversity Movement to change the world. As TDM CEO, he has guided work with hundreds of clients and through millions of data touch points. TDM’s global recognition centers on tying DEI initiatives to business objectives. Recognized by Inc., Fast Company and Forbes, Thompson is author of Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, hosts the podcast “High Octane Leadership in an Empathetic World” and has published widely on leadership and the executive mindset. As a leadership and executive coach, Thompson has created a culture-centric ethos for winning in the marketplace by balancing empathy and economics.
Follow him on LinkedIn for updates on news, events and his podcast, or contact him at email@example.com for executive coaching, speaking engagements or DEI-related content. To further explore DEI content and issues impacting your work and life, visit TDM Library, a multimedia resource hub that gives leaders a trusted source of DEI content.