Navigating Tomorrow: 3 Leadership Skills to Succeed in the Age of AI

Navigating Tomorrow: 3 Leadership Skills to Succeed in the Age of AI by Jon "Jet" Theuerkauf
Leadership Skills

The advancements in AI have captured everyone’s attention. Some view it as the potential catalyst for a dystopian future, while others hail it as a game-changer, surpassing even the invention of the internet. Barack Obama, in a recent interview with Nilay Patel for the Decoder podcast, likened the impact of AI to the invention of electricity. What’s certain is that AI will quickly find its way into every aspect of our lives in ways that many of us cannot yet imagine, disrupting it in both positive and negative ways.

In addition to technological advances, we live in a VUCA world – where volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity require leaders to develop the ability to anticipate and adapt to changes quickly, to think strategically, and to develop creative solutions while considering the broader context in which their decisions are made. In this rapidly changing business landscape, success demands a different kind of leader—one who combines shared humility, resilience, and a clear sense of purpose with achieving business success.

Given this context, over the next few months, Margaret Jaouadi, Marking Manager at Pacific International, will be speaking to senior-level business leaders to ask them what in their view are the top 3 leadership skills needed by the leaders of tomorrow to succeed in this changing world and why. I will also ask them what shaped them as a leader.

To kick start the series, David Howells, Group CEO of Pacific International Executive Search, introduced me to Jon “Jet” Theuerkauf who most recently worked at Nintex, a market leader in end-to-end process intelligence and workflow automation as Chief Customer Officer.

Jon “Jet” Theuerkauf is a rare breed of senior-level leader whose breadth and depth of experience make you wonder how one person could pack so much into their professional career. At first glance, one can feel almost intimidated by it but as soon as you speak with Jet you feel completely at ease and as if you have known him forever.

Jet’s Early Career

Jet’s early career took an unconventional turn after graduating from the University of Kentucky with a master’s degree. His curiosity was piqued by Japan’s remarkable post-war recovery and success in challenging industrial giants like the US in terms of quality, cost, and efficiency. Inspired by a news article and documentary by Lou Dobbins titled “If Japan Can, Why Can’t We?”—which highlighted Dr. Deming’s work in using statistical process control to rebuild Japanese industries—Jet became passionate about bringing this transformative approach to American companies.

At the age of 25, armed with a strong background in statistics and personal training with Dr. Deming, Jet quickly immersed himself in learning and applying the principles in the steel, auto, and waste management industries. His consulting firm successfully secured contracts with major corporations like Bethlehem Steel, US Steel, Ford Motor Company, and others, introducing them to statistical methods and processes to enhance operational efficiency.

Not Focusing on Failure but on Learning From It

Seeking further growth, Jet joined GE during the early stages of its Six Sigma program. As one of the first 26 Six Sigma quality leaders globally, he worked in a division with responsibilities akin to investment banking, achieving the position of managing director before turning 40. The experience at GE, under the leadership of Jack Welch, proved to be an interesting and enlightening time, providing Jon with profound leadership lessons.

The culture at GE under Welch encouraged taking risks and learning from failures, shifting the focus from the act of failing to extract lessons from those failures—an approach not commonly found in most organizations. One of Mr. Welch’s favorite principles was that “if you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying hard enough. These lessons continued to shape Jet’s growth and development.

A Pebble in a Shoe

Following his experience at GE, Jet transitioned into financial services and began a notable career in business transformation, joining HSBC as Managing Director: Head of Best Practice – Global Transaction Banking to establish its operational excellence program within the investment banking division. Subsequently, he moved to Credit Suisse as MD, Global Head of Operational Excellence, Efficiency Management, and Centers of Excellence, where his role expanded to encompass cost management, outsourcing, and business transformation. This journey continued with a move to Russia, where Jet became the first American member of the C-Suite and Advisor to the President at the largest bank, Sberbank, and then onto ASB Bank as Head of the WorkSmart Programme.

Throughout these experiences, Jet emphasized the diverse learning opportunities offered by each large financial institution. Despite their common industry, the distinct cultures of HSBC, Credit Suisse, Sberbank, and ASB Bank shaped by their geographic locations and different approaches to leadership, provided unique insights and learning experiences for Jet. In his transformative roles, he recognized the temporal nature of being a catalyst for change, likening himself to a “Pebble in their shoe,” when leading and sometimes pulling organizations through transformation.

The Wondrous World of Automation

During his tenure at ASB Bank in New Zealand, Jet developed a keen interest in automation and delved into the early world of AI. He recognized the potential of these technologies in helping transform organizations beyond traditional approaches like Lean Sigma, cost management, offshoring, etc. Returning to work for BNY Mellon as Managing Director and Group Head of Performance Excellence, Jon integrated these technologies into his transformation strategy, creating a fifth transformation pillar focused on the use of these “smart technologies”.

After a very successful career in financial services transformation and armed with his newly found insights into RPA, ML, Data acquisition, Integration, and Manipulation, it was time for a career change. He had an opportunity to further transform operations at a software development company Blue Prism starting as an Advisor the the Founders and the CEO and soon becoming the Chief Customer Advocate and Americas Head of the Customer Office. Not long after, Jet was asked to join the Blue Prism C-Suite as the Global Chief Customer Officer and served in that role before being tapped by the new CEO to co-lead the development of the next-generation Blue Prism product and operating model. Following the acquisition of SS&C of Blue Prism, Jet joined Nintex as their Chief Customer Officer and served in that role until recently.

3 Leadership Skills Needed by the Leaders of Tomorrow to Succeed in the Changing World

Margaret Jaouadi: Thank you for participating in our Leadership Insider series, Jet. Your career took you across many sectors and to every corner of the world allowing you to observe, collaborate, and learn from many great leaders. It also helped you identify the traits of those who were not-so-great. Which three skills would you say are vital for the leaders of tomorrow to help them succeed in the ever-changing and complex world?

Jon “Jet” Theuerkauf: Thank you for the opportunity to share my insights. I wholeheartedly believe in the value of continuous learning and drawing inspiration from individuals who have led principled, centered lives. I greatly admire those who exemplify stewart leadership—guiding with a commitment to leaving behind a legacy that propels people and organizations forward. In this context, here are my choices, and these are what I see as maybe more important now given where the world is going and where AI can take us. There is always going to be a basket of skills, attributes, characteristics, personality traits, and values that good to great leaders will need to be successful, but these 3 stand out for me right now.

Purpose and Agility: Each generation of workers brings with them different needs and aspirations as we are moving beyond working just to get a paycheck. They have a much higher level of expectation around what companies do for corporate and social responsibility. Leaders should be able to find a clear purpose bigger than delivering financial results, explain how it will impact individuals and the organization as a whole, and guide it forward, ensuring that their actions align with a clear and meaningful direction. Leaders must be highly agile, adapting to the fast-paced changes but agility in my view is not about acting upon every new technology or innovation but rather the capacity to adapt and focus. Their agility should empower them to adapt processes in alignment with the organization’s North Star, ensuring that every action propels the organization forward in a clear and meaningful direction.

Open Communication and Emotional Intelligence: In navigating the transformative impact of AI or any changes impacting organizations, leaders need emotional and cultural intelligence to understand and address the concerns and fears of their team members, and be open about how the changes are going to affect them. I’ve been at the forefront of implementing changes at every company I have worked and I understand the negative impact lack of honesty and clear communication can have. Preparing the ground, and ensuring emotional and cultural readiness, becomes crucial as AI becomes more prevalent. Openness and honesty create trust and followership and this in turn helps manage resistance or difficulties in bringing people on board with new strategies.

Accountability: We don’t do or achieve anything on our own. Not one thing. Recognizing that success is a collective effort, leaders need to stay accountable and foster a culture of shared accountability within the organization. They have to make sure each person knows what they are accountable for and what they are not and that when we win, we all win, not just the star performers. Humility becomes especially important for a leader amid the allure of new technologies. It can be very easy to get wooed into thinking that since a leader approves budgets, this is what I did; preventing a loss of focus on the collective contributions of the team.

Margaret Jaouadi: What is the biggest learning that shaped you as a leader?

Jon “Jet” Theuerkauf: I reflected on the fact that while many people tend to focus on their successes, I acknowledge and take pride in mine too, attributing them to collaboration with great people. However, my most significant lessons came from being open about my failures, particularly my experience in Russia working for that large bank, which I classified as a failure on my scorecard.

The role in Russia was initially intriguing, and despite initial reservations, I decided to pursue it. However, the experience turned out to be a failure because I had underestimated the challenges posed by the Russian business environment and the Russian business mindset. I had always been confident in navigating uncertainties and blind spots, but I learned that there are situations where even the best preparation may not be sufficient.

Sometimes, no matter how well-prepared one is, there are unforeseen circumstances that one must accept. While I don’t live in a world of paranoia and I do take on higher-risk roles than a lot of people, I now recognize the importance of incorporating a larger percentage of uncertainty into my planning and the importance of accepting certain situations are going to be beyond my control.

Margaret Jaouadi: Thank you, Jet, for this fascinating interview.

For a confidential chat about how Pacific International can assist you with your Talent Acquisitions and Diversity challenges, please contact David Howells or one of our Executive Search Consultants specialising in your sector.