The exponential growth of technology is changing the way we live and work. How will automation change the executive roles of the future and what impact will that have on senior talent acquisition?

Ray Kurzweil, Google’s chief futurist, believes that we will have computers with the processing power of the human brain by 2025 and the processing power of the entire human race by 2050. Having predicted the fall of the Soviet Union, the astronomical rise of the internet and the day when a computer could beat a chess champion (as happened in 1997 when IBM’s Deep Blue computer triumphed over Gary Kasparaov), Dr. Kurzweil is not to be ignored.

executive_jobs_and_automationWe now live in a world where self-driving cars could soon be zipping around large cities, personal assistants could be automated through machine learning, drones can deliver items in minutes instead of days, and we trust algorithms to recommend the restaurants we eat in, the TV shows we watch, the books we read and the holidays we book.

So what do these changes mean for the future of work? Are we on the brink of widespread technology-led unemployment? Or are we approaching an unparalleled era of technology-enabled human productivity?

Where could machines replace us?

The McKinsey Global Institute recently explored these questions in its whitepaper ‘Where machines could replace humans – and where they can’t (yet)’. The central thesis is that very few, if any, entire occupations will be entirely automated in the next decade, but almost all jobs will be affected in some way. The whitepaper breaks down work into seven activities, analyses how much time is currently spent on each activity and predicts the technical feasibility of automating them in the decade by adapting current technology.

The three activities most likely to be automated in the next decade are predictable physical work, data processing and data collection, while the least likely activities are managing others, applying expertise and stakeholder interactions. To provide an additional filter, AESC surveyed 400 executive search consultants and executive-level candidates to understand how much time is spent performing each activity and, therefore, project if there are certain executive roles that may be more susceptible to automation.

In all seven C-suite roles, the time spent on the three least automatable activities (managing others, applying expertise and stakeholder interaction) totals over 75% - and scores over 80% in the case of CEOs, CMOs, CSOs and GCs. Excelling at these activities requires a combination of outstanding leadership traits – such as agility, emotional intelligence, decisiveness – and deep industry and functional knowledge built over decades of professional experience. These factors are so nuanced and differ so much from one person to another, which makes it much harder to create sophisticated computer code to automate.

When noting the small share of time spent on the four activities that are more likely to be automated, it is likely that C-suite roles won’t change dramatically in the next decade, in terms of the activities being performed themselves. However, the fact that the C-suite appears so impervious to automation suggests that the impact of automation will be felt on a larger scale further down the organization.

Richard Vincent (Holland), Partner at Leaders Trust / AltoPartners, says: “Technology will lead to much fewer middle management roles and will raise conversations around what skillsets we will need for leaders. I believe that key competencies will be interpersonal skills, communication and an ability to understand and work with other cultures.”

So while the time spent completing activities in the C-suite may not change the focus likely will. For instance, managing others ranked as the activity that C-suite executives spent the most time on, even more so than applying expertise. If the next decade poses the potential for large-scale automation of activities, that will pose new leadership and management challenges. 

Read more of this article and the rest of this issue of Executive Talent.


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