In an era of zero-sum thinking, business leaders must unlock a mutually beneficial future 

By Natasha Zhao

ChatGPT has dominated the airwaves the past couple of months, with fears that artificial intelligence will take over our jobs.

This fear has been so tangible, especially against the backdrop of Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong’s Budget 2023 announcement, in which he describes the future as a new era, marked by zero-sum thinking on the global stage.

It would be disingenuous to say that such fears are unfounded. After all, history reminds us that the Industrial Revolution saw machinery-enabled optimisation being accompanied by widespread unemployment. 

The assumption is that once we have new technologies like OpenAI’s ChatGPT, people’s jobs are next on the chopping board, as they are rendered redundant in the face of a tool that does their job at a fraction of the speed, and without having to pay for employee benefits like health insurance and paid time off, or even a salary.

But there is one perspective missing from this equation: employers. The very ones who decide how to drive the business forward, and how firing, hiring, and reskilling come into play.

Even before ChatGPT broke into the scene, the future has been murky, with uncertainty looming on the horizon. 

Amongst all the crises and urgencies requiring attention, four areas take up the majority of time and attention of senior corporate leaders in the next 6 to 12 months. This discovery was the result of an informal poll we conducted with over a thousand enterprise C-suiters and Board Directors. In no particular order, we have the following domains: Innovation and Technology, Society and Sustainability, Leadership, and Talent and Human Capital. 

To shed greater light on what is to come, we spoke with Patrick Tay, Assistant Secretary-General of the National Trades Union Congress, and senior leaders with a perspective of the respective domains to share what they viewed as pertinent from their vantage points. Their views help us better understand the concerns and issues, with insights into navigating these turbulent waters.

“Change is inevitable, but business leaders must make sustainability central to their company’s strategy and look beyond simple cost-benefit analyses,” said Mr Tay. “Business leaders must ensure a just transition that prioritises a future that is fair and inclusive, not only providing new and meaningful jobs but crucially, safeguarding workers’ livelihoods while getting them up to speed.”

Innovation & Technology - Data with potential insights for strategic decision-making
Workers’ concerns around what the rise of exponentially more advanced technology like ChatGPT might mean for livelihoods are valid, especially when this comes against the backdrop of widely publicised layoffs in the tech industry. 

However, it would be a mistake to think of it as a zero-sum game.

The domain of Innovation and Technology is often put to the test when new problems emerge more quickly than existing solutions can solve. The push to innovate then becomes greater, and for the best chance of success, data amassed and collected may hold latent potential in offering ideas, insights or some semblance of a potential answer.

As a result, Ms Wynthia Goh, Senior Partner, Global Co-lead NEXT, said, “Organisations need to master data. Business leaders need to focus on building the capabilities to acquire, manage and use quality data to support the execution of their business strategy. The move from 3rd party to 1st party data means businesses need to build customer data platforms that can support the end-to-end customer journey. Also, businesses need to invest in building data literacy so both leaders and working teams can uplift their ability to use data to run the business.”

Society & Sustainability - short-term pains, but long-term gains

If sustainability is about meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future teams or generations to meet theirs, we as leaders will have to worry about both the short and long term.

As new expectations and habits are forming around the workforce, workday and workplace, the challenge and talent crunch is greatest not at the top nor bottom, but in the middle. People managers are burning out from the duality of having to manage both up and down.

Ms Shubha Shridharan, Group SVP HR – APAC, The Adecco Group, said, “Revitalising and equipping future leaders is one of the many pertinent challenges business leaders face and will continue to face. Mid-level managers experience a unique pandemic-related stressor: they have to cascade strategies from senior leadership, meet key performance indicators, and keep their team engaged, all at the same time. To motivate and retain top talents, businesses must genuinely care.” 

Ms Shridharan added, “In this regard, HR and top leaders need to support people managers to be at their best for the success of the overall workforce, as they are the critical drivers of employee performance. People managers should be role models for the right behaviours and support their teams' holistic growth and well-being. Managers should continuously improve their skills to coach and care for their employees.”

Additionally, in the spirit of the Sustainability Development Goal on Decent Work and Economic Growth, which has a component around global unemployment figures, shouldn’t corporates pursuing this walk the talk by exploring manpower upskilling, reskilling or restructuring as a first response, rather than resort to more drastic measures?

Leadership - Cultivate both character and competency

Ultimately it comes down to the leadership style and corporate culture. In good times and more so in uncertain ones, people turn to leadership. Imagine a cargo ship wrecked by stormy waters. In one version of the story, the captain lost all the cargo but saved all the crew. In another version, he saved all the cargo but lost all the crew. 

What flavour of leadership will we embody? An expedient one, like that of a manager on contract that places speed, efficiency and immediate gains as sole priorities? 

Or do we act as an owner, concerned about the legacy that the corporation is continually building for itself and what it will look like in 30 years – worrying about today but keeping our eyes on tomorrow and the long game?

If storms are on the horizon, let us be leaders whose characters don’t undermine our competencies. Let us cultivate both as we’re responsible for the future – of our organisation, of the people we lead and of their livelihoods. 
We should also remember that we are not alone in steering the ship. Our crew may be most willing to step up and go beyond but remember: there are also many other ships alongside ours, with other captains with whom we can collaborate, to chart paths of least resistance towards safety, creating a pool of knowledge needed to navigate and withstand the stormy waters that lie ahead, going beyond the exchange of information and insights, to something deeper like the sharing of resources and possibly uncovering mutually beneficial relationships. 

Perhaps then we can weather a storm that won’t wear us out and instead thrive in spite of it.

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