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The AI CEO

If there’s one job that’s ripe for automation, it is the Chief Executive Officer

Nick Lynn PhD
9 min readSep 7, 2019

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Many companies are looking at how they can transform traditional jobs through a combination of technology and new work arrangements. This is often referred to as the Future of Work.

Beyond things like robotic process automation and the increasing use of gig workers, companies are particularly interested in using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to accelerate cognitive automation. There’s a great potential for cost savings, improved efficiency and (hopefully) augmented performance.

This shift is already having an impact. Some observers, such as Richard Baldwin, for example, claim you can see a “hollowing out” of organisations as a result of this new wave of white-collar automation. New technology has always transformed work, of course. What’s different this time is that job displacement is moving far ahead of job replacement. Indeed, it’s the speed of this current digital transformation that’s the most striking aspect.

I have argued elsewhere that employees’ concerns over automation are adding to an already problematic “trust gap” that exists in many organisations. Low trust is a serious drag on performance. The best companies realise this is a critical issue and are addressing it quickly through new tools and approaches.

Unfortunately, some Future of Work thinking seems to start and finish with an old-fashioned top-down view of the workplace. It can feel like a C-Suite analysis of opportunities for saving money and improving productivity deep down in the guts of the organisation.

Looking ahead, perhaps those at the very top of the house need to reflect a bit more on their role in the future. Because if there’s one job that’s surely ripe for automation, it is the Chief Executive Officer.

Let’s imagine that a bit more… what will it mean to have an AI CEO?

Clearly, there will be some immediate and tangible benefits. For example, getting rid of your current CEO is going to shave a lot of dollars from your payroll. Human CEOs earn a lot.

How much do they get paid? According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in the USA, the average pay of CEOs in large companies is $17.2 million. In the UK, the CIPD puts the mean salary for FTSE 100 CEOs at £5.7 million.

CEO compensation is also very high relative to the rest of the workforce. The EPI puts CEO pay vs. a “typical worker” at a ratio of 278-to-1. In the UK, the amount of time it takes a chief executive to earn the annual wage of an “average worker” is just 2½ days.

Replacing your CEO with technology will also help with things like gender and BAME pay gaps. This is because these very well-paid execs are overwhelmingly male and white.

Only six of the FTSE 100 CEOs (at the present time) are women. And as one of my favourite headlines of 2019 put it: “FTSE 100 has more CEOs called Steve than from ethnic minorities, research finds.”

On top of these salary considerations, there are other important factors.

Due to processing power, an AI CEO has some big advantages. No human CEO can compete with AI when it comes to strategy formulation, for instance. An AI could play out, test and learn from hundreds of competitive scenarios and simulations in the time it takes your human chief executive to adjust the recline setting on their comfortable desk chair.

In a similar vein, when it comes to responding to issues, an AI CEO is always on, always focused, 24 by 7, 365 days of the year. The AI is able to make adjustments in a blink of an eye. They can keep the business ticking over and operating efficiently anywhere in the world at any time.

Moreover, with deep learning and advanced neural processing, the AI CEO will be able to avoid predictable problems in the first place. They can also ensure that resources are available for effective risk management.

And there’s no need to provide perks as recompense for all this attentiveness and hard work. No need for golf-club membership or gym fees. No need for expensive retreats. You can sell the company jet to a pop star and forget about buying lift passes at Davos.

OK, you might think, but what about the organisational and people side of things?

Even though your CEO’s people skills may be lacking, they’re still likely to be better than a machine, right?

So how could an AI compensate?

Well, there are some things that an AI might actually do better. Think about cascading goals, creating alignment and objective setting, and then managing performance through observable, quantitative data. This is something that technology is already helping with. It could be done even more effectively by a machine leader. For instance, the AI CEO isn’t going to be bothered that the Head of Sales is a “great person” and a super “culture fit” if the sales campaign isn’t quanitifably successful and delivering positive results.

And when it comes to the ongoing monitoring of the health or fitness of the organisation, a mathematical approach can have some benefits. Imagine that you have some hierarchical redundancy in the finance function — now that the AI has brought its robot CFO cousin online. The machine CEO is going to be pretty effective at trimming non-essential people in order to keep costs down.

At the present time, there’s often little empathy from leaders when organisations undergo restructuring. At least with an AI CEO, I expect these human resources will be fired by an app in order to provide a consumer-grade experience as they exit the organisation.

The AI CEO probably doesn’t have to worry too much about culture and engagement either. Both of these things are major challenges for human executives. It’s difficult, with traditional leadership approaches, to get people to work simply, effectively and collaboratively. And it’s hard to provide the conditions whereby people are motivated to go the extra mile and inspired to bring their best ideas and efforts to all aspects of their work.

Research shows that human CEOs spend most of their time (up to 72%) bogged down in meetings, mainly in their corporate headquarters, as they try to stay in the loop and get people to do what they need them to do.

Instead of all this, the AI CEO will probably adopt a surveillance approach instead. They can monitor all digital communications and workflows as they happen. They can keep a real-time watch on productivity and collaboration by examining the “digital exhaust” trails of email, messaging and calendar data (alongside business and operational data). They can analyse the flow of information across their human networks and simply remove people who are working in silos (“low-influence nodes”). They can automatically deploy a “nudge” to their human colleagues who are failing to do exactly what’s required.

In order to fully optimise human performance, the AI might also want to assess the mood of its human colleagues. Rather than walking around, the AI can simply listen to the water-cooler gossip via the smart badges people wear. They can review the tone of meeting discussions through mics in conference rooms. They can obviously use facial recognition algorithms to analyse interactions caught on video. Of course, they can track what people are posting on social media as well. The AI leader can then add all this mood data to its retention algorithm, so that it can predict individual turnover and take action accordingly.

There are obviously some privacy concerns about this sort of surveillance (although most of this tech already exists). So there’s probably a need to ensure that the AI CEO’s algorithms follow some kind of ethical code, especially when it comes to managing people.

High ethical standards have been hard to achieve with human CEOs, of course. It might actually be easier in this new AI-led workscape.

It’s possible to imagine, for example, “hard wiring” an AI version of a doctor’s Hippocratic Oath or Isaac Asimov’s first Law of Robotics into machine leadership. This could provide consistency, reliability and even help to build trust.

Think of all the financial and non-financial scandals that can be avoided by having a piece of machinery as the boss. Plus the lawyers’ fees you’re going to save as a result.

Don’t forget all the business school tuition fees you no longer have to pay for leadership development. The AI CEO could be the final nail in the coffin of MBAs.

There are numerous other benefits, such as not stressing about succession planning and no longer paying for head-hunters. In fact, do you even need a HR department in this new world of data and analytics?

For any human CEOs actually reading this post, I apologise if it is causing your blood pressure to rise.

Let me provide some reassurance.

As your job is transformed, we will make sure that you are up-skilled to play a new role in the new organisation.

I can see, for example, you operating as a kind of Human Corporate Mascot. This could be a new future of work job title that didn’t even exist a few years ago. It involves talking to customers and investors about our vision and our values. An endless roadshow of presentations and dinners — not so unlike now really.

We will give you access to online micro-training, so you can learn to tell funnier anecdotes and we will make sure that the uniform fits.

We will need to be fair in this transition process, however. This means sending you to an assessment centre, so we can measure your current skill level and also your future potential in telling entertaining stories. And it is possible that Brenda in Accounts, whose job is also terminating, has more passion for our customers and is better suited to the ambassador role than you are.

If anyone else doesn’t like the picture presented here, then you might need to act quickly. All these trends are already apparent. Publications such as The Economist worry that capitalism is embarking on a new era of “Digital Taylorism”. Worrying about some of these trends, groups like the Business Roundtable of CEOs are trying to redefine their role and the purpose of corporations in the new world of work.

So how might you lead a different kind of organisation and still be successful in this new machine age?

Well, I would argue that a different leadership perspective is required, one that taps into the human intelligence of your workforce. One where employees and their experiences are at the heart of your thinking.

Some organisations are already making great progress in this, but many more have barely started their employee experience (EX) journey.

When I think about employee experience leadership like this, three things stand out:

  1. Purpose: This means ensuring that people are able to make small changes to their jobs, so they achieve more and get more out of their work. Sometimes this is called job crafting and it’s one practical way of helping people get meaning from their efforts. As you think about the skills you need in the future, this kind of approach to involving people in shaping their work becomes more critical. It’s a bottom-up approach to organisational change. Another way of providing purpose is to ensure alignment between employee experiences and customer experiences. In other words, making it clear to people how their work impacts customers in positive ways. To do this well, you need open communications and transparency, so that information flows to everyone who needs it. This also helps in working simply and end-to-end.
  2. Learning: A second key focus should be on learning and feedback. Team learning (which was first described by Peter Senge) means taking advantage of the collective wisdom of your people. It requires innovative thinking and coordination, as well as a focus on organisational capability. Team learning leads to personal growth, but it also makes organisations better equipped to solve problems and it ensures a better flow of information and ideas across silos. New technologies also provide the opportunity for more personalised learning and more useful feedback. There’s especially a need to improve performance management, which is probably the most impactful process in terms of employee experience overall. Performance management should be a process of frequent check-ins, setting and re-setting relevant goals, encouraging developmental conversations, and providing lots of real-time feedback and recognition.
  3. Authenticity: Above all else, EX leadership needs to be personal and authentic. In terms of communications, this means designing and producing materials, preparing and delivering messages, in order to meet employees’ individual requirements. Three key elements stand out: providing personal content; when it matters to me; so that I can use the feedback to improve my experience. The final aspect of making EX personal is the individual contribution that people make through their own behaviour and their own openness to feedback. As such, the most important component is leaders’ own behaviour and consistency. Doing what you say, builds trust and confidence.

You can read more about EX leadership in my book. I have looked at how the best companies are using technology and data to create better workplaces. In particular, I have looked at the critical role that leaders play in shaping employee experience, building trust and improving engagement.

Please also connect with me here and on twitter and on LinkedIn to ask me questions and to find out more.

Notes:

Obviously, this is all a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the article that got me thinking along these lines is this OneZero piece by Erin Marie Miller: https://onezero.medium.com/how-robot-ceos-could-save-capitalism-e410a33b1405

Also, I am hereby trademarking the term “Human Corporate Mascot” as I think it’s got legs. :-)

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