Leadership lessons for 2021: How leaders can balance technology and humanity

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By Jacob Morgan

Over the past two years I had the opportunity to interview over 140 of the world’s top CEOs from organisations like Verizon, KPMG, Unilever, MasterCard, and dozens of others. I did these interviews as a part of the research for my new book. I wanted to understand how the world of work is changing and what these changes mean for leaders and organisations around the world.

The number one trend that these CEOs identified as most impacting leadership and the future of work was technology (followed closely by the overall pace of change).

John Legere, the former CEO of T-Mobile told me, “Today’s leaders need to either decide to embrace new platforms and technology or be prepared to be left behind.”

Yet, there remains a risk that too many leaders still assume that technology is something that happens in the IT department and nowhere else. Every company is now a technology company which means every leader needs to be a technology-driven leader. In fact, in a recent study conducted by Pega, they found that the role of IT is also becoming far more holistic – 78% of respondents say that everyone in the business should see themselves as part of IT. And the rise in AI is accelerating this process with most leaders in the Pega study agreeing AI’s growth is increasing the role of IT in business.

Optimistic about technology

One of the things that I found fascinating when interviewing these business leaders is their collective optimism about the role that technology will play over the coming years.

In the same Pega study, most (65%) business leaders said they see technology as an avenue to achieving higher quality work and 49% even see it as a way to increase

employee satisfaction. However, one of the top challenges that CEOs point out is balancing humanity and technology.

Nancy Brown is the CEO of the American Heart Association when we spoke, she offered this valuable reminder. “There’s so much focus on technology and how it’s going to change the workflow, the work product, and how we communicate with customers and employees. It’s vital to not lose sight however, and that the world still goes around because of relationships between people. I think current and future leaders need to be able to work both with people and technology, which will require more collaboration and teamwork.”

The benefits of technology investments

This is also affirmed by business leaders generally. The study by Pega found leaders regarding technology investments as less about driving up profits and more to improve the workplace experience for colleagues. It’s striking to me how 65% of leaders see technology as an avenue to achieving higher quality work, and 49% see it as a way to increase employee satisfaction.

This balance requires what I refer to as the mindset of the Chef. Chefs have to balance many ingredients when making a great dish, leaders, however, have just two crucial ingredients they need to balance, humanity and technology. I call this balance of humanity and technology “HumanIT” (humanity).

The Human side is about things like purpose and meaning, relationships, employee experience and psychological safety. The IT side includes things like hardware,

software, apps and the tools and resources that are required to get work done.

Practicing the mindset of the Chef

Organisations need both crucial ingredients. If you focus only on the human aspect then you will be able to attract and retain great people but your organisation will be slow, not very productive, and will struggle with decision making. If you only focus on technology then your company will be fast, productive, and efficient, but you won’t be able to attract and retain top talent.

Use technology as much as you can and want, but not at the expense of your people. Meaning, it should be used to augment, not replace your workforce.

One of my favorite examples of this comes from Accenture, which over the years automated close to 20,000 jobs but didn’t replace a single human being. The jobs that were automated were in accounting and finance. Thousands of employees were sitting in rooms crunching numbers and Accenture realised that technology could do that better and faster than humans. Instead, Accenture upskilled and retrained these employees to be strategic advisors to their clients, moving away from crunching numbers to helping clients understand what the data actually means and what actions should be taken as a result.

Fostering collaboration

Technology should also be used to decrease the distance between the people who interact with your brand, this of course includes customers and employees.

There is an appetite for how technology can bring people together. Pega’s Future of Work study contains some powerful insights into how IT is judged to be a force for collaboration. The vast majority of business leaders (83%) are in agreement that the IT function is becoming more collaborative with colleagues across the business.

Yet, this collaboration needs to be carefully calibrated. To keep tabs on the impact that technology is having on your organisations also means that you need to “taste test” frequently. If you simply lock yourself away in an ivory tower without constantly getting feedback from your employees and customers then you will create an organisation that is out of balance which means… a bad dish!

The flip side of this means that as a leader, you also need to genuinely care about the people who work inside of your organisation.

The best and most successful leaders are those who acknowledge and respect that their company would not be where it is today had it not been for the people who work there.

We live and work in a rapidly changing world and it’s clear what worked in the past won’t work in the future. Leaders around the world must practice the mindset of the Chef and focus on building an organisation with an eye on combining human values with digital excellence and so create a world that we are all proud to be a part of.

Jacob Morgan is author, speaker and futurist.

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