Five issues preoccupying business leaders

Rohit Talwar

One of the most common questions I get from CEO’s is, “What are the biggest issues on the minds of other leaders right now?” Here are five topics that seem to be top of mind for the leaders I meet and work with.

Brexit – This is occupying an inordinate amount of time for top teams in the UK and more broadly around the world. Uncertainty is holding back major investment decisions and projects in many firms and the prospect of moving key activities such as R&D out of the UK is causing immense intellectual and brexit-fiemotional distress. At present, we have an ‘away from’ decision with no plan for what an exit might entail in terms of trade with other EU members, ‘passporting rights’ in financial services and freedom of movement. This is coupled with growing concerns over the time it will take to complete the exit, the cost of doing it and a lack of clarity for Britain’s post-Brexit strategy, what we’ll do with the new-found freedoms or the long-term implications for Britain and the generations to come.

Right now, the most sensible thing to do seems to be to explore a range of possible scenarios for Britain and Brexit, make and get on with positive decisions around the highest ‘current risk’ issues, continue with the actions that are still required under any scenario and park the rest that can only be addressed once the plan is announced.

President Elect Trump – The issue here is that even if business may benefit from some of the measures being mooted, like tax cuts and infrastructure spending, there are concerns about the broader impact of a Trump presidency. There are genuine fears about rolling back progress on global connectivity, international relations, climate change commitments, the environment, women’s and minority rights, and attitudes to anyone who isn’t strictly heterosexual. The noise around both illegal and legal migrants is worrying many sectors – particularly in the science- and technology-led firms which are worried about a brain drain. Our view is that at least the initial plan will start to take shape quite quickly and firms will then have to make choices on what they are prepared to live with in return for a more pro-business environment.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) – While some now understand what AI encompasses and its transformational potential, many are still taking their first exploratory steps to learn more. In many cases leaders are expressing concerns about the amount of effort that goes into creating AI solutions using machine learning and deep learning. They are also worried about the gap between the scale of the applications undertaken by the likes of IBM, Google, Tesla, and Uber and the limited ambitions their own organisations are displaying in the developments being pursued. A chatbot that can answer customer service enquiries seems trivial in comparison to diagnosing cancer, discovering new drugs and driverless vehicles.

My view is that leaders must accelerate their own learning about AI and then put their support behind the pursuit of game changing applications alongside the more cautious learning pilots. The challenge is that the bigger the opportunity, the greater the mindset shift required internally around how we view markets, what we sell and how we can make money from it.

Digital Dehumanisation and Accelerated Obsolescence – Across every business sector, firms are embarking on – or well underway with – digital transformation projects. In many cases, exploring the power of digital is long overdue. However, two concerns are rising to the fore. The first is that each successive stage of automation within the firm seems to eliminate more jobs than it creates and this seems to reduce the capacity to respond quickly with brainpower when new opportunities or challenges arise. It is also raising concerns about the broader impact of long-term technological unemployment in society and how that society will view the firms that contributed to it. A second concern is that the more our businesses automate, the more similar we become to our competitors as it is hard to maintain digital differentiation for any period of time. This can lead to commoditisation and eventual obsolescence – we all know sectors that are facing that dilemma right now – broadcast TV, printed newspapers and media buying spring to mind instantly.

Our view is that firms need to make a conscious choice to retain a level of talent within the firm, and take a cold hard look at their digital transformation strategies in comparison to those of their competitors. How unique are our strategic choices, how can we sustain any points of differentiation and what new options and challenges will we have one, three and five years out if we carry on down the current path? The analysis is the easy part, any resulting course correction on large-scale transformation programmes will take immense courage and honesty.

Stress – Finding an Outlet – In turbulent times, the pressure grows to deliver results rapidly and find answers to emerging issues ever-more quickly because we don’t know what might come with the next news cycle. This appears to be driving up stress at every level of the organisation and many still have relatively few coping mechanisms in their personal toolbox. Far too often, it is still seen as a sign of weakness to admit we are feeling stressed. The problem exacerbates the further up the organisation we go, as few leaders can countenance sharing their issues with colleagues. We are seeing real progress though where firms are helping their staff through activities like learning better sleep habits, and introducing them to meditation, yoga, and stress counselling services. We are also seeing a growing number of leaders acknowledge that the issues that are manifesting in their decision making at work are appearing in many other aspects of their life, and may indeed have been present for some time. What’s encouraging is that many are turning to a trained therapist to help explore those issues, as seeking help is actually a sign of strength and may be the most powerful way of addressing the issues.

Rohit Talwar is the CEO of Fast Future Research – a global research and consulting company that specialises in identifying future growth industries and helps governments and global companies to explore and respond to the sectors, ideas, trends and forces shaping the next five to 20 years.

© 2016 Distributed by Troy Media