Adapting to AI: Schulich Expert Highlights Keys to Success for Managers in Changing Industries

Last updated March 27, 2024

“Flexibility” may be a key to success for rising managers — and the watchword for successful companies in the age of AI. Professor Stephen Friedman of Schulich ExecEd and the Schulich School of Business explains the critical skills managers need to thrive in today’s economy and the industries most susceptible to change. 

There’s no question that Canadian workers will face rapid shifts in the demand for their skills over the next decade and beyond with rising pressure to become problem solvers. Many segments of the workforce will be affected by technology such as Artificial Intelligence and automation, including mid-career workers who are often resistant to change or face barriers to training. But keeping up with the shifting need for skills will be critical in the years ahead.

According to the Future Skills Centre, 46 percent of new jobs in natural resources and agriculture and 40 percent of new jobs in trades, transport and equipment will require an enhanced skillset to meet the goals of a net-zero economy. The RBC report on Green Collar Jobs indicates that managers in engineering, architecture, utilities and manufacturing are already seeing over 50 percent of their tasks shift due to the climate transition — five times that of managers on average.

Whatever the driver of change, the reality is that mid-tier managers are uniquely positioned to help businesses manage the complex problems they face as well as guide the people who report to them into new ways of working.

So, how can you make yourself more valuable as a manager or rising leader in an organization? Consider skills training that leverages what you know, and helps you manage teams through this period of change, says Stephen Friedman, an adjunct professor of Organizational Studies and a Senior Faculty member at Schulich ExecEd at the Schulich School of Business.

“One of the big issues today for middle managers, and this has been coming for some time, is the idea that specialization may not be as important as it once was,” says Friedman. “My students always want to talk about the one thing they are great at — their niche, but I tell them, ‘If you want to be great at one thing, make it about learning, because breadth of skill is much more important to organizations. Companies want to know that you have flexibility as the industry changes.”

Managers in today’s workforce need to be ready to take on new projects and shift with where the business is going. That requires having a strong business acumen and an understanding of the whole organization and what it does.

Apply critical thinking to your business to help it grow, or even survive

“Ask yourself: do you know how the company sells their products? Why do people buy and sell the products or services?” says Friedman. “The most important skill in the next 20 years will be critical thinking and that includes asking, ‘Is there information that I don’t know about?’”

Friedman points to the challenges being faced by large professional services firms as technology takes over traditional roles in accounting, as an example. “The people that can’t adjust because all they do is accounting are going to be out of work,” he says.

The same applies to industries such as automobile manufacturing. “If all you know how to do is repair engines, you’re not going to get a job at Tesla because it’s not about combustion engines anymore. The idea is, can you adjust?”

While almost every industry will undergo radical change in the next two decades, some are moving faster than others and need people who can apply critical thinking to the problems each sector faces. From the cosmetics industry to the energy sector and local government, Friedman works with a broad range of industries to help them navigate the change they are anticipating or are already experiencing. He cites several sectors that are ripe for change and will need leaders who have expertise in managing people and with business strategy, including:

  • cosmetics
  • energy transition
  • engineering
  • entertainment
  • finance
  • fintech
  • food
  • healthcare
  • human resources
  • local government
  • media
  • pharmaceutical
  • teaching
  • trades

“I think that municipal government is on the rise. I see the innovation that municipal governments are doing and how they operate their business is so different than the provincial or federal government,” says Friedman.

Friedman says the food industry overall, including the structuring of distribution, development of innovative food products and new ways for people to get groceries and achieve lower prices will be in demand. This demand will require professionals who can apply complex critical thinking and lessons learned from business management.

In the energy sector, demand is growing as legacy energy producers move from old modes of production and are disassembled in preparation for what will replace them. “We’ve got all this infrastructure that needs to be taken down and removed in Canada, so that points to professions like engineering which will be in demand,” he says.

Engineering also comes into play with what Friedman predicts will be another housing boom in Canada once interest rates come down.

Hone business skills to cure the healthcare system

The nursing profession will also continue to be tested over the next decade as it is asked to respond to the demands of an aging population with more complex medical needs, an increase in primary care capacity, and the need to address the social factors that influence health and well-being. Many nurses looking to leave the profession due to burnout may find a calling to stay in the profession they once loved by applying a business mindset to help manage the demands of change.

“I think a business degree and a nursing degree as a combination, is a really smart way to go,” says Friedman. “If someone is interested in becoming a nurse, I would say in addition to learning about nursing, add business acumen – learn about finance and marketing, learn about operations, because then you will be more valuable to the organization.”

Friedman says more people need to think about their current roles and skillsets as including both people and finance skills — especially for professions such as human resources.

“We still look at so many roles and professions as: ‘Are you a numbers person or a people person? I just think that’s a silly dichotomy,” he says. “You have to be both.”

Don’t underestimate the human component

“The business students who are excellent at finance and take my elective course in organizational behaviour often say, ‘I love this, but what am I going to do with it?’ I tell them to go into compensation and benefits. That area needs people who understand human beings and who get costs and business.”

Friedman says a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree provides the right breadth of skills and learning to prepare someone for a range of career challenges.

“Our mini-MBA is the best program we have at Schulich,” says Friedman. “We do a half day on critical thinking skills, plus all the classic areas of management, finance and strategy. And we also do a full day on people management, compensation, and the law. People are just blown away by it and they’ve already been in business and working as a manager for a long time. It is such an epiphany for people.”

Friedman also teaches a two-day program called Solving Complex Problems for mid-career leaders and senior leaders, which covers critical thinking, decision making, crisis management and organizing teams and resources. Students will learn how to utilize the five-step Dialectical Solutions Method (DSM) to weigh options, then put these lessons into action by practicing on a current issue.

Wherever you may be in your career, consider where you could add value to an organization by leveling up your skillset to prepare for the opportunities that are sure to come in Canada’s high-growth sectors.

Jennifer Brown

Jennifer Brown is a journalist and communications professional with extensive experience creating engaging content internally and externally for various B2B and consumer audiences. As a journalist, she has written about and interviewed leaders in the health care, education, legal, enterprise technology and cannabis sectors.

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