CEO TalkBack: AI From The Top


In the last quarter I had the privilege of facilitating a discussion with a group of 10 CEOs around artificial intelligence. Do they think it matters for their business? Are they already investing in it? Importantly, do they consider their organization ready for AI? Here are some of the highlights of the discussion.

Every CEO in the room agreed that AI is important to acknowledge and learn more about, yet on the whole, they felt like they were dipping their toes into the AI space, just now figuring out what it means for their business. Although only 1 of the ten CEOs had an active investment strategy with a clear budget, the two areas that were the most intriguing for investment were AI to improve recruitment and the customer experience.

Exploring AI Targeting Talent
Specifically, one of the CEOS was considering how to use AI to shorten the hiring window and to better match what they needed and expected from candidates with information on resumes. They were exploring whether AI could help them predict who could potentially perform in the business and who might be better suited for advancement—particularly for C-suite and other tough to fill roles.

Another CEO was researching whether they could create an algorithm that would gather performance data from multiple data sets to help them better understand which data had more predictive power. Their goal is to target their investment towards team members who had the highest potential to thrive as they advance—and AI is seen as another tool that could help them remove potential biases and uncover candidates who might otherwise be overlooked. Similarly, one leader said that they were investigating software that used chatbots to do some of the initial screening.

Deeper Data, Better Experience
The customer experience is the other area that is continuously undergoing refinement as AI’s potential gains resolution. One CEO commented that their organization wanted to move beyond anecdotal customer data and use AI to create a more fact-based profile of customer preferences so they could target their services and information towards customer’s needs.

A second CEO wondered if they could use AI to sift through the enormous amounts of customer data that they already gathered to produce value-added decision making reports that would help their customers make more informed decisions. Although there is plenty of upside with the technology, the same CEO acknowledged that one of the primary areas of threat is a potential data breach. They were taking extra caution to ensure cyber security because the last thing they wanted was to tarnish their reputation which could take years to recover from.

Leading With Further Learning
As to whether the organizations were AI ready—and what was getting in the way of making an investment—on the whole it was room of open minds regarding what AI might do for the business. However, the CEOs themselves felt they needed to become better educated on the potential impacts of the technology so they could make more informed investment decisions over the next two years.

One thought-leading CEO recently hired a PHD student with a specialization in decision sciences to do an audit of one of their business areas and to recommend some potential AI applications and an investment approach. Although in its infancy, this strategy was inspiring, and gave hope that there were some quick-win methods that could help leadership teams learn the ropes quickly.

Barriers to Change Persist
A lack of curiosity about AI within the management team was seen as a barrier to the technology. The sense was that managers throughout the business were unsure and not always curious about how AI might yield positive business outcomes. Much to the surprise of the CEOs I spoke with, there seemed to be a lack of curiosity amongst many leaders also.

This could be because managers and leaders are grappling with how technology will impact roles, and humanity in the workplace, or it could simply be a sign of resistance to change, or overload with technology advancements. Whatever the reason, CEOs recognize that engaging teams to be a part of the learning journey with technology is a key part of the CEO role over the next decade.

The Crux of Curiosity
Another barrier was a concern that customers may prefer to be served by a human rather than a computer in years to come—particularly as more business processes get automated. Would you rather talk to a call service agent or a bot? It’s unclear whether the human touch will lead to a competitive advantage or disadvantage in the future, and this is something that only time will tell.

What emerged from our discussion was that in order for CEOs to embrace and invest sufficient resources to the technology, they need to deepen their understanding of AI, while encouraging managers and leaders to similarly explore the technology’s benefits and applications—because, ultimately, if CEO’s and customer teams want to be smarter, it’s more about curiosity than technology.

In my view, it is the curiosity—not the technology per se—that is the driver for innovation, most specifically curiosity about the applications and implications of AI. Personally, I admit to that bias. I want to know how AI can improve the employee experience and how it can make HR teams more responsive and proactive alike.

Interested in HR and technology? Attend the HR Technology Symposium + Showcase in Vancouver on October 29. Find out more about this and other professional development opportunities at

Natalie Michael, CPHR is a CEO and Executive Coach with She is also the author of The Duck and The Butterfly: Coaching Questions for Leaders at Work and the co-author of Your CEO Succession Playbook: How to Pass the Torch so Everyone Wins.

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