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  • Writer's pictureIttai Shiu

Mentorship in the Age of AI

In an Increasingly Automated World, Human Mentorship is More Important Than Ever


AI-driven tools like ChatGPT, an advanced language model that generates human-like text responses based on the input it receives, have presented themselves to potentially be a solution for many businesses facing declining productivity and inflation. It’s easy to see the scary side of this and many can fall victim to the alarming realization that every industry is being disrupted and an untold number of jobs are going away. It probably doesn’t help that these sentiments are amplified in news and social media. A 2018 study by the Pew Research Center found that about 67% of news articles about AI had a negative tone.


But what if we looked at AI with a bit more optimism because its ability to assist people and businesses to do more with less is undeniable? A research study conducted by LaunchPoint, a social impact non-profit organization, found that college students are actively coping with the paradox of AI. While there’s the acknowledgment that AI represents a fundamental shift in the future of work, less than 10% of the students surveyed had strong concerns about its negative impact on future job opportunities. In fact, 47% believed that AI is the key to pursuing their career objectives.


I started my career in digital marketing, crunching numbers (Excel, pivot tables, SQL, etc) and reporting data from multiple platforms and campaigns. Despite these very manual tasks often taking up most of my day, it was a great way to understand how all the data worked and how to find insights. From there I developed the ability to see the story in the data, make optimizations that improved my results, propose new tactics, and grow the partnership with my clients through strategic recommendations.


However, as my value grew, so did my employer’s expectations of me. I’d be put in charge of a team to scale up my output as long as I could do four things: 1) Maintain focus on the bigger picture 2) articulate my vision 3) manage my team towards that vision and 4) adapt to changes in the environment. These were not skills acquired smoothly and, as with most seasoned professionals, the path to success meant navigating the trial and error and finding the balance between doing and delegating grunt work.


AI TAKES AWAY MORE THAN JUST GRUNT WORK


The fear of job loss due to AI is real. Take for example the Wharton professor who used AI to create an entire advertising campaign within 30 minutes. With some direction and minimal costs, AI-driven applications created high-quality copy, images, scripts, and marketing campaign outlines. The AI’s final production effort was described as “superhuman” and could have easily cost $8–10K in human resources. It’s easy for anyone (especially me) to be blinded by the job loss these results represent, but is this just the tip of the iceberg?


Again, let’s stay optimistic because the good news for young professionals is that they now have access to this technology that empowers them to accomplish a lot on their own. No longer do they need to prove themselves by doing, or have the potential to do the type of grunt work we’ve typically associated with correlated to “paying dues.” Instead, they can prove themselves by applying their energy, perspective, and approach to take pre-emptive steps to create something bigger. To be successful they will need to do the same four things — 1) Focus on the bigger picture, 2) articulate a vision, 3) manage their resources towards that vision and 4) adapt to changes in the environment.


So if grunt work teaches valuable lessons, are young professionals missing out by skipping the line? The emergence of new technologies from the calculator, to spell check, to the copy & paste function has removed barriers from a road we rarely look back on. We now view these advancements as an indispensable part of how we work and the point from which things evolve, and this is how we need to think about AI. Many senior professionals, however, will tell you that these “lessons” taught humility, and core skills and were a critical component to their success.


HUMAN MENTORSHIP IS THE KEY


Senior professionals have their own reasons to fear AI, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. AI, unlike other big technology shifts, is accessible to anyone, easy to understand, and simple to use. This means it becomes technology with the potential to equalize gaps in education level, socio-economic levels, and, of course, age. Anyone willing to embrace and experiment with it can be as innovative as anyone else.


Adaptation, improvisation, leadership, and the myriad of experiences that come through accomplishments AND also failures create a level of wisdom that needs to be harnessed. Conveniently, there is an incoming generation who will need this wisdom, which means that in a world where AI is everywhere, human mentorship and collaboration are more important than ever.


CEOs from Fortune 500 companies give credit to mentors for helping them avoid costly mistakes, becoming proficient in their roles, and making better decisions. There is plenty of new territory to cover, especially in a post-pandemic environment where communication rules have been reset, but that also leaves the field open to error. If failure is a rite of passage for entrepreneurs, then one of the most valuable contributions that a senior professional can make is to ensure the next generation has the tools to succeed and the guidance to at least make unique mistakes!


For GenZ, we expect new perspectives, great ideas, and youthful exuberance, but if they want to have an impact, they will need to learn focus, resource management, and prioritization as well as how to lead and inspire. AI will significantly increase the velocity of business, so these skills need to be adopted faster than ever.


In the face of this challenge, my advice is to NOT do it alone. Seek out the type of guidance that can only come from human mentorship. Develop relationships offering counsel that is as rigorous as it is personalized because not only will the journey be difficult, it will be unique to each entrepreneur. AI will create new opportunities, but GenZ’s technical adaptability may not be enough to capitalize on them. However, with the potential of AI and the right mentorship, it’s harder to imagine scenarios where an ambitious GenZ professional can fail. And if ego is an obstacle, stow it.



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