What does the future hold for people leaders?

Today we’re chatting with senior partner and chief people officer Katy George, who oversees all people functions across McKinsey. She recently joined other global leaders in Davos, Switzerland, for this year’s meeting of the World Economic Forum.

So you’re recently back from Davos. What conversations have stayed on your mind since your return?

The big topic across all dimensions was gen AI (and other advanced technologies) and its implications on work, organizations, performance, and productivity. What was exciting for us as people leaders was to ask: “How are employees going to use this tool to advance? What opportunities will it create? How will it impact apprenticeship and learning? How will it shape career paths? How can it encourage the fun of creative exploration in our work?”

Amid all the questions, any answers regarding what’s to come?   

At Davos, there was a real focal shift that hints at what’s ahead for people professionals. In years past, we focused on thinking through use cases of gen AI within the HR function.

While those conversations have continued, we can already see how gen AI is starting to be used. Talk has turned to how it’s changing organizations on a fundamental work and mission level in a way that impacts talent models.

How so?

We’ll certainly see changes when it comes to building capabilities among existing workforces. Because gen AI is so user friendly, it can serve as an accessible front end for advanced analytics tools, making it easier for those with less specialized knowledge to pull deep insights from complex machine learning and data visualizations.

So tools like gen AI can help upskill people to reach the top tier of what their role can become. This, in turn, will enable greater consistency across how work is done. It will encourage organizations to ask themselves how to be distinctive for their people, and how to provide distinctive insight and value beyond what customers can generate on their own.

We’ll also see AI enabling organizations to develop tailored learning and development journeys based on employees’ current capabilities. This will lead to more meaningful personalization of the employee experience.

Day-to-day, eventually everyone will learn how to embed gen AI into their work. I think we’ll start to see gen AI like a calculator. You don’t really need to know the intricacies of doing math without a calculator; you do need to understand what computations will get you to the right answer. That will shape how we develop our talent. 

How do you see AI impacting future hiring processes? 

We’ll see organizations reframing the hiring process to ask: “Who do we hire and why? How do we ensure there isn’t bias in that process? How do we develop and apprentice talent once they’ve joined?”

Gen AI will change the mix of essential skills expected of employees. For example, we’ve identified some of the uniquely human traits that make someone a great gen AI prompt engineer. There’s learning agility, which means identifying how someone gathers the information they need to navigate the unknown. There’s curiosity. There’s a willingness—and even enthusiasm—to try new things. 

That “enthusiasm around exploration” piece will be a core part of what gen AI offers organizations. I spoke with one people leader at Davos who put it well when he said, “We’re going to move from a mindset of ‘productivity is performance’ to ‘productivity is play’.”

Of course, it will still be important to get a return on investment and be rigorous in our measurements of that. But the way we’re going to get there is by people experimenting and documenting what works. This will be the year where we all become developers and creators, in which users share best practices and organizations rapidly adjust to adopt those innovations. It will impact organizational structure and team deployment. It will enable a more complete mix of colleagues that can come together to create fuller, more diverse teams than ever before.
In this spirit, at McKinsey, we are moving beyond pedigree to potential in our talent recruitment process. We’re exploring how AI can help us understand the potential and skills individuals have in a way that’s much richer than traditional résumé scans.

You mentioned the possibility of AI bias. What guardrails should we expect to see as advanced technologies become ubiquitous across organizations?

Institutions need more cross-functional governance around how technology is used. This means bringing together business, HR, risk, legal, tech leaders [and more] to really think about the ethical use of these tools and to leverage responsible AI principles. We’ll need tough pressure testing to ensure good results. We’ll see commitments to transparency about how these technologies are being used. Employees across organizations will need a deep understanding of the risk guardrails around using personal data and awareness of how bias enters AI. 

Beyond advanced technologies, what other topics were on the minds of people leaders at Davos?

Definitely trust and resilience. It’s often said, “We’re seeing the slowest change we will ever see again.” We all must adapt to living in a more volatile environment. On a global scale, that volatility used to be mostly business cycle related. Now, it’s business cycles, technology changes, geopolitics, changing workforce expectations, and more. 

So I do think there’s an important role for people professionals to be thinking about the organizational structures that breed flexibility, agility, adaptability, resilience, and trust.

Another topic that took center stage was women’s health. During Davos, McKinsey launched a report on women’s health that sparked eye-opening conversations on the part people leaders should play in closing the gender health gap.

In talking to people leaders at Davos, it’s clear there’s more awareness and education that can be done in the workplace to ensure that women are getting the healthcare they deserve. This might mean offering third-party navigation support services to assist employees with complicated health conditions, helping identify treatment options and communicate between doctors. Another example I was really inspired by was hearing what other institutions are doing to educate their workforce around menopause, as that’s an area in which women often lack sufficient support and care.

Gen AI, resilience, and women’s health. Was there a common thread through these conversations? 

Central to each of these discussions is that it’s critical for organizations to prioritize people development, and that we as people leaders need to take a 360-degree view to achieve that. We’ve seen that the organizations that invest in learning are top performers (and were the most resilient through COVID), while those focused primarily on performance management fell short. 

All of this to say, I think we’ll see even clearer business cases for investing in people, which means that the role of chief human resource officer will continue to be an increasingly critical and strategic one.