5 essential traits that tomorrow's AI leader must have

Here are the skills you'll need if you want to steer your organization's AI deployments in the right direction.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
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If your company isn't already implementing artificial intelligence (AI) technology, then it will be during the next few years. 

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From machine learning and analytics to bots and generative tools, AI is being embedded in technologies and businesses around the globe.

Someone senior in the organization will need to oversee these implementations. 

So, what are the five essential characteristics that make up a successful AI leader

Five executives suggest the capabilities that will define the role.

1. Visionary

Mukul Agrawal, director of technology at Vistaprint, says the great AI leaders of the future will not be your typical IT chiefs.

"These are going to be very different roles," he says. "You'll have to think about things from a very deep perspective. Any director of AI will need to be more technical than a director of engineering."

Agrawal says in a video interview with ZDNET that future AI leaders will also need to have a clear viewpoint on future directions.

"And not just one year, but five years or 10 years," he says. "And they'll have to have expertise in these emerging areas as well."

Agrawal says it's crucial to remember that AI technologies aren't built overnight. While the rise of ChatGPT and other generative AIs during the past year has been remarkable, their emergence was prefaced by many years of development and refinement.

"The journey takes time," he says. "People will need to have patience and better long-term vision in these roles, and they will have to be more technical in nature than anything else."

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However, Agrawal says the opportunities are considerable for senior professionals who have patience, an awareness of the total cost of ownership, and an eye on value-generating opportunities.

"People in these roles can be very successful," he says. "You will have to be ahead of the curve in technology to be a director of AI."

2. Influencer

Lily Haake, head of technology and digital executive search at recruiter Harvey Nash, also believes a technical grounding is important for successful AI chiefs.

"A successful AI leader will need to have a technical grounding that most of us just don't have," she says. "They'll need to understand AI technologies, machine learning, computer vision, AI frameworks, and algorithms."

However, Haake says technical aptitude must be allied to soft skills: "Amazing commercial acumen, strategic ability, spotting opportunities, horizon scanning, and then leadership."

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In fact, she believes one leadership skill is going to be crucial: influence.

"This person is going to have to influence their peer group, right across every department," she says in a video conversation with ZDNET.

"Those soft skills and that ability to drive change -- without having direct line-management accountability -- is going to be important. It's quite a person we're describing because they're a techie, but with phenomenal leadership skills."

3. Builder

Nigel Richardson, SVP & CIO Europe at PepsiCo, says successful digital leaders today understand business operations and possess the leadership skills to inspire others across the organization.

Future AI leaders will need to understand what really drives competitive advantage -- and that's going to involve a blend of traditional and emerging technologies.

"Spending time getting to know all areas of their business end to end is critical," he says, replying to ZDNET via email.

"You'll need to think strategically about where the business is heading and look into the future -- whatever that may look like."

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Richardson says successful leaders will be the ones who continually build talent and find the balance between ground-breaking technologies that have tangible business impact, while retaining the core skills needed to run flawless day-to-day operations.

"To do so, we need to fully embrace modern technology and processes to increase the pace at which new capabilities are deployed. We're already making huge strides in this area," he says.

"From the widespread adoption of cloud and software as a service to rapidly embedding AI/ML into solutions, we are developing advanced capabilities at an incredible rate. Understanding how to build robust, secure, and scalable platforms on which all teams can build digital products will also be a key capability."

4. Connector

Great ideas for digital innovation don't come just from the IT department. Lisa Diehl, director of consumer care at Freshpet, is considering how a generative AI tool like ChatGPT might be used to help bolster customer service.

"I'd like to be able to integrate some of what we're doing today to make things a little bit easier," she says to ZDNET in a one-to-one video interview.

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"I know there's a lot of concern around IT and security issues. Everyone's understandably moving at a snail's pace on AI right now to make sure they think very carefully about how we might use it."

Diehl is no stranger to AI-enabled applications. She's already using Emplifi's AI-powered chatbot technology to answer customer queries automatically and to allow employees to focus on high-priority consumer issues that need a human touch. 

She says AI leadership success will rely on someone being able to connect the dots in terms of challenges and opportunities.

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"We collect a lot of data around consumer care and the voice of the consumer," she says.

"That information goes down our innovation pipeline and over to our marketing teams. It's critical that the data we are collecting is making its way through our organization."

5. All-rounder

Sasha Jory, CIO at insurance firm Hastings Direct, says the AI leader of the future will need a kitbag of skills.

"They'll need to be adaptable," she says. "The business will require a person who has experience with customers, who understands the market, and who knows their work colleagues."

Jory, who spoke with ZDNET at the recent London leg of Snowflake's Data Cloud World Tour, also points to the importance of understanding new risks and challenges in a fast-moving marketplace, and the ability to consider how these threats and opportunities related to work activities.

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"They'll need to understand good behaviors and bad behaviors," she says. "They'll need to understand that success in AI is such an important thing to be able to achieve. But they'll also need to recognize how bad AI could be bad for everybody; bad for business, bad for customers, bad for colleagues."

Jory says the upshot is the successful AI leader is going to require more skills than just an aptitude for emerging technologies: "I think that would be somebody who's more of an all-rounder than somebody who's just a technologist."

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