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Why CEOs Need A New Playbook In The AI Era

Hands of robot and human touching on big data network connection, Science and artificial intelligence technology, innovation and futuristic, AI, Machine learning.
To ensure that human touch remains at the forefront of technological transformation, top executives need a deliberate strategy for maintaining trust and authenticity.

Let’s thank AI, in part, for the volume of information already written about how companies can tap into the power of this technology to unlock new sources of value, drive efficiencies, or improve the customer experience. And that’s only scratching the surface. Add to the mix much, much more on managing disruption, threats and risks, plus governance, education and employee upskilling. Given the magnitude of the impact, it’s easy to understand why the conversation has shifted to all AI, all the time, inside many organizations. 

Even so, what may be missing from the conversation is a focus on how this impacts C-level leadership, particularly when it comes to the executive behaviors that accelerate execution and drive action.

In an era where conversations about bots and ChatGPT dominate, how do senior leaders demonstrate authenticity, grow trust and show even more of their humanity in order to accelerate performance or drive change? Consider the following:

1. Take a ‘do not interfere’ approach. It’s fitting that renowned film director Steven Spielberg quoted a line from “The Godfather” when discussing AI at a June 2023 Yale CEO Summit: “I’m very much for AI as long as, as Vito Corleone said in the first ‘Godfather’ movie, ‘as long as your business doesn’t interfere with mine.’”

Spielberg may have been referring to the role AI should play in the creative process for writers or directors, but the sentiment equally applies to how executives must uniquely lead in the workplace. When it comes to the qualities of leadership that engage, inspire and move others to act, AI should not interfere. 

At BTS, we’ve conducted more than a decade of research into the specific set of executive behaviors that accelerate execution and drive growth. Some of the most important qualities fall under the dimension of character and how executives create trust, including authenticity, integrity, humility and restraint. It’s areas like these where executives might be tempted to rely on AI to boost their impact, but here is where a “do not interfere” rule should apply. When it comes to strengthening character, a favorite quote by the motivational speaker Jim Rohn comes to mind: “You can’t hire somebody else to do your pushups for you.” 

2. Use AI tools selectively to build skills. Several 2024 studies on trust, including the 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer,  highlight unsettling trends across society, including a decline of trust in authority and in companies. Add in more concerns about the risks surrounding AI, and it creates an even higher bar for senior leaders to clear when it comes to gaining trust with employees, stakeholders, the media or members of the community. This is where executives can leverage AI, using coaching bots and tools to evaluate aspects of their communication style, impact and body language, providing real-time feedback that can help leaders make helpful adjustments in their approach.

Transparent communication also requires a clarity of message to help others understand the rationale behind decisions or changes, and tools like generative AI can find new ways of expressing familiar concepts so messages feel fresh and differentiated to employees. The options are endless, but the “do not interfere” principle stands: You are the message, and the minute your message starts to sound like it came from AI instead of you, the words lack soul. Another quote from Spielberg captures the idea: “I think the soul is unimaginable and is ineffable. And it cannot be created by any algorithm, it is just something that exists in all of us.”

3. Understand whether others see you as genuine. In the AI era, employees need to see even higher degrees of honesty, transparency and authenticity from their leaders. This raises the question of how your employees see you. Would they describe you as authentic, transparent, genuine?

Research shows just how important these qualities are today inside companies: Employees who describe their leaders as authentic are often more committed, engaged and satisfied. With engagement rates hovering around 33 percent, executives have an opportunity to take a deeper look at these aspects of their own leadership. Go beyond standard questions about trust in leadership and ask others to provide examples where they experienced you as authentic, genuine and real so you appreciate what is working and where more is needed.

4. Create an updated ‘trust and authenticity’ playbook. AI isn’t only disrupting ways of working; it is also disrupting ways of leading, which is why the pre-AI playbooks on “growing trust” or “leading authentically” require updates to lead change. Consider the case of one CEO who was a strong champion for AI, providing additional resources and investments to fast-track progress at his company. In spite of these efforts, months later, little progress had been made on the AI front, frustrating senior leadership, who wanted to understand what was getting in the way.

It turns out that employees were generally enthusiastic about the benefits of the technology, but they did not believe the organization would “have their backs” when changes were implemented. To address these concerns, the CEO recognized that his standard playbook to align employees and drive change wasn’t working. No matter how quickly he wanted the organization to move ahead with AI initiatives, the trust foundation needed strengthening first.

Says this CEO today: “The ‘slow down to speed up’ idea applies. Before, I focused on speed of execution, but to get traction on AI, we had to address trust gaps first. We created forums for employees to share where we let them down in the past, and we do a better job of listening and creating solutions together. I also share my own hopes and dreams about the future and talk about my fears, too. This is a process, but they know I hear them, I get it and I feel it, too. I say far less about moving fast, but today, we’re moving much faster.”

In the age of AI, where technology profoundly influences how organizations operate and innovate, leadership at the C-level must evolve to maintain authenticity, trust and humanity. Executives are encouraged to adopt a “do not interfere” approach with AI, using it selectively to enhance skills without compromising the unique human qualities that inspire and drive teams. By focusing on genuine interactions, communicating transparently and building a culture of trust, leaders can effectively navigate the complexities of digital transformation, fostering an environment where both people and technology thrive together.


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