The BusinessBecause Big Interview series showcases the thoughts and lives of some of the world’s leading business figures
Not everyone will be taken into the future. This was the title of an art exhibition late last year at the Tate Modern in London, UK, and is a warning that could be equally issued to the business world.
Workplace expert and futurist, Alexandra Levit, says that to succeed, businesses and business leaders must remain relevant in the face of technological advances.
Chicago-based Alexandra helps organizations and their employees prepare to be competitive and marketable in the future business world.
Skills and attitudes to learning need to change, she says, and MBA students will be affected more than most as the business world is being revolutionized by technology.
“I’m not worried about human unemployment, but I am concerned that some people will not be able to adjust to what’s rather a new form of employment.
“Most people will have access to work, but those who are unwilling to learn the skills necessary to work alongside machines will be left behind.”
In a Harvard Business Review article written by H. James Wilson and Paul R. Daugherty of Accenture—co-authors of Human + Machine: Reimagining Work in the Age of AI—they lay out why companies should combine humans and machines.
They state that of the many companies who have used AI to automate processes, those who do it to displace employees will only see short-term productivity gains.
Of the 1,500 companies they researched, they discovered that the most significant improvements to performance occurred when humans and machines worked together.
Where AI offers speed, scalability, and significant quantitative capabilities, humans bring value in the form of leadership, teamwork, creativity, and social skills, they argue.
The most important skills that millennial and Generation Z MBAs will therefore need to take into the future are interpersonal sensitivity and interpersonal communication, says Alexandra. She believes that empathy is what will ultimately set humans apart from machines.
“Being able to make other people want to work with you […] that’s what will cause machines to have a limited role. People only want to work with machines so much, as we are social creatures by nature."
Creativity and innovation are also vital skills employees of the future will need, regardless of your role. Alexandra is often told only artists need to be creative—not true, she says.
Which is why MBAs will be affected. Like the interpersonal skills and learning agility that are mandatory in the business world, she says, creativity must be added to that list.
So too, learning agility, trying new opportunities in your current employment, taking on volunteer opportunities, and developing cross-functional expertise: all are traits of a successful MBA who will be taken into the future.
“Command and control no longer works. You need to be far more transformational, receptive to new ideas and different approaches, and not get stuck on doing things the way they’ve always been done," she says.
So being at ease with ambiguity, uncertainty, and change are absolute necessities for 21st century leaders.
While the C-Suite may have a proclivity towards automation, Alexandra says that leaving humans out of the loop will lead to reputational and bottom line damage.
Her favourite example is 2017’s United Airlines debacle, where a man was forcibly removed from an oversubscribed flight in order to accommodate cabin staff who had been covering another, understaffed flight.
“They did that because the algorithm told them that these flight attendants had to get to their destination or else,” Alexandra explains. “People just blindly obeyed the algorithm.
“Blindly trusting machines, that’s dangerous. We’re going to have a lot more of these scenarios popping up, and this is what we need to be prepared for.”
Despite the need for these skills, in a 2018 study by Deloitte both millennials and those from Generation Z highlighted interpersonal skills alongside innovation and creativity as critical gaps in their development.
“Look at what you need to learn and what’s the best way to learn it,” Alexandra advises. That could be an MBA with a keen focus on creativity and soft skill development.
The Friday Forum on The Lisbon MBA pushes students out of their comfort zone. In groups they take to the stage to experiment with acting and leading within theatre—previous years have put on Shakespeare performances for their peers.
At the University of California Berkeley Haas School of Business, students on the MBA travel to the THNK School of Creative Leadership, in Amsterdam, for a module on design thinking, innovation strategy, and entrepreneurship.
Students could study online microcredentials, online degrees, tap into the world of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), or simply read.
The importance of learning from failure
Alexandra has developed a successful career in predicting future work trends and says the seeds were sown early. She grew up just outside of Washington, DC, and developed a love of science fiction. She toured the World Future Society (WFS) with her father when she was 12, and was left entranced.
“I knew I wanted to be involved in it in some capacity,” she recalls.
Whatever their career paths, Alexandra advises MBAs to learn from their mistakes—something which has had a big influence on her own career as well.
Alexandra admits she “failed miserably” in her first few jobs in PR. It took three years for her first promotion. She remembers her bosses taking pity on her and sending her on a professional development course. “That’s the kiss of death when you’re 24,” she says.
The course taught her everything she needed to succeed in business: diplomacy, problem solving, cooperation, and encouraging people to like you.
While she was making her early mistakes in the business world, she also tried to be a fiction writer, which she came very close to achieving.
“If there’s a clear sign you’re terrible at something I think it’s easier to move on,” she explains, “but when you get a lot of positive feedback and it doesn’t happen, the inconsistency is distressing psychologically.”
From that failure though, came her first non-fiction book—They Don’t Teach Corporate in College: A Twenty-Something’s Guide to the Business World—and everything fell into place.
“The first book is almost single-handedly responsible for where I am today. The biggest influences were my early career failures that led me to want to write non-fiction.”
Alexandra has since published in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and last year published her latest book, Humanity Works, which focuses on what leaders and companies need to do to reach their potential and work with machines efficiently and effectively.