Effective leadership in the age of automation? The best response is to ramp up the human element

Liz Crawford, National Practice Leader Executive Search & Selection
What are the implications of a new automation age for leaders? I am being asked this question many times a day.

One answer is that we need leaders who have the capability to be really agile in their leadership, to take that to an agile workforce and deliver motivation and effectiveness.

Another common question is: “How do you engage and motivate a workforce that isn’t fixed?”

Now we are moving towards working easily from anywhere and, in some cases, working in part with automation, it means there will be a very different engagement style and motivation model leaders will need to deal with.

How we deal with rapid change, and ensure leadership remains visible and strong is something organisations are working on right now. What we don’t know yet is what the scope of automation and disruption will be.

We do know the capability assessments we’re using these days are focusing on soft skills. That might surprise people as we move further into the so-called ‘machine age’.

Today. A CEO  needs industry experience, but other qualities are seen as far more important. How to engage with and motivate a workforce, how to look ahead and try to foresee where automation will displace people and whether they can retrain those people, or whether they need to start planning to make redundancies. They are quite different leadership skill sets to ten or fifteen years ago.

Fifteen years ago it was about leading from amongst the people. Working in close proximity to them to get the efficiencies you want. Now CEO’s work with people they see twice a year.

Another interesting requirement is leaders need to be very adept at one-on-one engagement to make the most of face-to-face moments and foster personal connections.

It’s a very challenging model and leaders need to be quick on their feet, emotionally intuitive and very self-aware about their impact on others. These are the qualities that have become much more important in the search for executives.

In fact, the best response to automation is to ramp up the human element. We must try to work via or around technology while still having really strong human touch points. It’s much more an art than science and we really need to help people develop their ability. We’ve got evidence to tell us that, but the artistry is in how we go about it.

It will be interesting to see how leadership plays out in an economy like Australia’s, where we feel the pressure of not just Asian markets growing, but the American market showing signs of recovery and Europe changing too. 

What will this mean for Australia and how we do business?

I am also asked whether data can capture an individual. I tell clients those kinds of assessments will probably give you up to 25% of the information you need, and the rest will need to come from an interview, human interaction and seeing how a person reacts to different scenarios. Can you generate a sense of who a person really is? How do they make their judgment calls? How do they measure their impact on others? These are subjective considerations that make it difficult to measure suitability purely through data.

As hard as it is, the human element still remains very important.

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