Resilience in AI leadership: In conversation with Stela Solar

UNSW Business School Dean Frederik Anseel discusses resilience in AI leadership with Stela Solar as part of a Learn to Lead 2024 special content feature

Led by UNSW academics and alumni who are experts in their field, Learn to Lead helps UNSW alumni upskill in leadership in a flexible, self-paced manner. The program inspires leaders to come to grips with the challenges that our changing world presents and look at opportunities to improve their workplaces through leadership. The course develops solutions and skills to help UNSW alumni become better leaders for tomorrow’s world. Learn to Lead is presented by UNSW Alumni Experience in collaboration with AGSM @ UNSW Business School.

In this Learn to Lead 2024 special content feature, Professor Frederik Anseel, Dean of UNSW Business School, recently spoke with Stela Solar, Director of the National Artificial Intelligence Centre, about AI leadership and the importance of individual and organisational resilience in disruptive technologies like AI.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Professor Anseel: Welcome to this Learn to Lead program and our conversation on resilience in AI leadership. I’m Frederik Anseel, Dean of UNSW Business School, and I’m very excited to be talking to Stela Solar today, who’s the Director of the National Artificial Intelligence Centre. Stela has had a fabulous career in AI and technology, and today we’ll learn a bit about how she sees the future of AI and how she got here in the first place, as she’s an alum of our Bachelor of Commerce at UNSW Business School. Stela, welcome to our Learn to Lead program. I’m very curious to hear about your personal journey and how you came into this role.

Ms Solar: A lot of people ask, and the interesting thing is my career in technology is a complete accident. I was going to be a film composer, and so I already was writing music for film and theatre, and the negotiation I had with my parents was I was going to do a Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Arts so I could keep my arts and commerce would be for a real job. I ended up just keeping the commerce. But when I graduated, I didn’t really know what kind of career I would enter and I just accepted the first job that came my way and so that was in tech. And I worked at a tech startup in cyber security, then from there I moved into technology distributors and resellers, then I moved into Microsoft where I spent about 10 years of my career and now I’m leading the National AI Centre. 

Read more: Ethical AI: navigating opportunities and risks in business

But what I found through that journey is I had this preconception that I could only be creative in creative industries, but what I found was I could be very creative in technology industries. And so I ended up going back to university and doing a Masters of Interaction Design and Electronic Arts and that’s where I really connected my arts and technology together. I was making interactive sleep cocoons, robots that were painting portraits, emotion-sensing dresses, and I found that, you know, I wish I’d known that sooner, that technology could be this creative. But that’s how my path went. Most of it was learning on the job, completing short courses, having mentors and especially in the emerging technology space, which is where I focus on, there isn’t a structured path to help you succeed there. And so very much you rely on your own resilience, adaptability, networking, connecting with others and really strong mentors and continuous learning as well.

Professor Anseel: Well that’s great to hear and I was not aware of this. It’s sort of a story of a bit of serendipity but also then grasping the opportunities and meeting the right people. And I think a lot of our students and alumni who hear about this will be very inspired because, of course, people often wonder if a career in tech is something for them or not, right? So thank you for sharing that. We’re talking about the theme of Learn to Lead is resilience, and we’re talking about AI resilience. What does that mean for you, AI resilience? How would you sort of give your take on that to our students?

Ms Solar: Well, first of all, I think we’re all going to be working in tech. That’s actually what this transformation is about. We’re all becoming more literate in technology and AI. And so when I think about what resilience means in that context, I connect it to the ability of individuals, organisations, society as well to effectively navigate this rapidly changing landscape. And the key thing that’s different about AI, especially in the last year, is that the rate of change, the speed at which this transformation is happening, is unlike anything we’ve seen before. And so resilience to me is about how effectively that landscape is being navigated by individuals, organisations and society. And it’s really important right now.

"What is coming out for businesses is that when they do apply AI, they’re seeing improved decision-making, they’re also seeing cost savings, and they’re seeing new revenue and services that are being established"


Professor Anseel: Yes, and it is exciting but also a bit scary, right? And I know that people listen to all those stories about change that is coming and sometimes they’re a bit scared. Will this be for me? How will this affect me? But also lots of new opportunities. And so maybe if you can sort of talk a bit where you see the biggest challenges and opportunities both for individuals when they’re sort of navigating their career but maybe also for organisations, what is on the horizon for them?

Ms Solar: Yeah, and especially at the National AI Centre, our role is to help industry, to help businesses succeed during this AI moment. So we’re engaging a lot with various sized organisations from small businesses, medium businesses, and large enterprises. We’re interacting with them on a daily basis. And what we generally hear is that AI has this opportunity that is promised, this opportunity of navigating complexity, taking action at scale. It has this capability of speech to text, you know, for transcription, natural language interaction, recognising objects, forecasting, optimising decisions. So the opportunity is immense. 

And what is coming out for businesses is that when they do apply AI, they’re seeing improved decision-making, they’re also seeing cost savings, and they’re seeing new revenue and services that are being established. So new revenue streams are incredibly meaningful for a business. But at the same time, there are some really fundamental challenges right now with AI. You know, a lot of people are very aware of trust and ethics and bias and responsible AI. It’s generally what we’re seeing as the headline news of the moment. And that is important to tackle. There are many, many people who are focused on that element. There are additional organisational challenges to navigate. One of those is the bottom-up disruption that generative AI has brought into the organisation. 

Read more: "This wasn't created by a human": marketing leader calls for AI ethics

Generally, when it comes to digital technologies, when it comes to AI, the leaders will come up with a strategy that will cascade through the organisation. With generative AI, that has turned on its head and now individuals are bringing tools and applications that they find work for them, they bring them into the organisation and most of the time the organisation doesn’t even know about it. You know, the data points are really interesting. About 85 per cent of knowledge workers in Australia are using generative AI at work and 68 per cent are not telling anyone about it. So that’s a major disruption for businesses. These tools are being used, and your people are finding ways to be more productive, but generally, you know nothing about it. The other challenge is holistic workforce transformation. There is a fascinating data point that 49 per cent of professionals will need to be reskilled by 2025, that’s next year. 

That’s a huge transformation that is affecting the productivity, competitiveness of a business. And especially right now, many CEOs, the data point is about 40 per cent from one of the big consultancies in their research globally, about 40 per cent of CEOs don’t believe their business will be viable in the next 10 years due to this disruption.

Professor Anseel: Those are impressive numbers and I love the example that you give of this sort of, it’s almost bottom-up innovation, as people are coming with their own tools, insight and organisations needing to adapt. It sort of reminds me of maybe 15, 20 years ago when companies struggled to bring in devices that were up to date, and it was just bring your own device, and we’ll see how that works. And honestly, we see the same thing with our students. Our students say we have GPT or other tools open 24/7 all the time and so it forces universities to adapt quickly. And what I see is there’s a lot of talk on how it will increase individual productivity because people bring those tools and are using it all the time. Can you also talk a bit about how maybe completely different business models will emerge from adopting AI? And so not only individuals using it but organisations thinking about how do we address our market, different audiences, how would that work?

"About 40 per cent of CEOs don’t believe their business will be viable in the next 10 years due to this disruption"


Ms Solar: Organisations are doing amazing things in this space. And before we move to the business model innovations, the way businesses are finding that agility and resilience right now is impressive from community engagements at a large scale to share more about what they’re thinking or doing when it comes to AI and sharing these ideas with communities to also doing company-wide enablement. We were really excited during AI month to see several businesses do an all-of-company uplift in AI to teach them more about AI and the AI tools that they have, and also, some are doing hackathons. Hackathons to find new use cases but also new business models are coming out from these hackathons. 

So a couple of things are influencing the shaping of product, services and business models. One element is data. So there is just so much data around us. As a person who’s living and breathing this every day, it seems like everything now is generating data, and somehow, we have to gather the insights and be really intelligent and strategic about how we use it. And AI helps us untangle and make sense of this data. So, in this data, a lot of businesses are finding signals for how their customers are using product services, what features and functions are effective, and where they are losing customers, and it’s helping them rapidly iterate and innovate the products and services. 

Another really interesting evolution is generative AI. Generative AI is helping move from idea to prototype very rapidly and we saw this in several of the hackathons that organisations ran where an individual who might have been with the company for multiple years and they had this IP and knowledge of how they operate, what their function does and suddenly as they learn about AI and generative AI, this idea of how they could do something better becomes more possible to prototype. And so we’ve seen generative AI be really effective to bring idea to prototype. 

Read more: James Cameron on how AI will impact creativity and innovation

And one of the final things I want to highlight is the models, the business models are also transforming. One of the areas we see this the most in is professional services with their billable hours. So whether that be consultants or law, legal professionals, there is this business model where billable hours are how clients are obviously billed. And now when those professionals are able to use generative AI to be more effective, they’re able to do the same amount of work, even more value development but in a shorter amount of time. Does that mean the business model needs to be reevaluated? So these are some of the considerations businesses are tackling.

Professor Anseel: That is super intriguing because suddenly, whole industries that are not used to disruption, knowledge workers, they will need to rethink, and that’s why, of course, you see the statistics you mentioned that half of the workforce needs to be reskilled. How would you suggest our leaders, you know, we’ve got alumni and students that are thinking about careers, how do you manage this tension between innovation and risk? There’s so much opportunity and people get excited but then also the risks involved. How would you suggest they think about this?

Ms Solar: So when it comes to balancing this innovation and risk, there’s three key areas I’d like to highlight. And this is focused around people and individuals as they go through this journey. First of all is building competency. And competency is an ongoing process of skilling, having a growth mindset and mindset is everything when it comes to understanding and applying AI and navigating this moment. So building that competency is really key. The second is context and setting the right context within the organisation to allow teams to feel psychologically safe, to have trust within the organisation, to have trust to share the ideas of where they see things are working, where they’re not working and to co-design with them. 

We actually really see organisations being successful when they take this approach, when they design AI solutions with their people because they’re the ones who know the customers, they know the function, they know the process, they have that experience and that IP. So co-design is incredibly important. And finally, capability development and focusing on building strong teams within the organisation. We are seeing huge organisational change happen. That is very unsettling to many individuals and when we create strong collaborative teams, the teams help maintain the stability and the capability development. So this allows the businesses to continue to innovate but also bring their people along that journey.

Professor Anseel: Thank you for sharing that, and I particularly like the points you mentioned about collaboration, teams, and designing with your employees because, of course, there’s also this fear factor you mentioned. People get worried. People think is there a future for me, how will it change? And now sort of to look forward, if we think about the future and maybe we’ve heard a lot about GPT but maybe there’s other trends, where do you see the big evolutions coming? Where do you see the next big thing emerging in AI? And particularly what should we prepare for if we think about the next five to ten years?

Subscribe to BusinessThink for the latest research, analysis and insights from UNSW Business School

Ms Solar: One thing we’re seeing is the move from asking AI and AI tools what to do or requesting information and the next wave that we’re observing is the age of AI agents where we will be collaborating with them and they will assist us. So that might be through cognitive task assistance, through reasoning and planning with us. And this is a really interesting field. I mean we talk about it like AI is the autopilot for our lives and so these agents will play a really key role. And I mean this is what we’re hearing from students, they’re using these tools to be able to navigate university and assignments and work and they see that as a big productivity lift. But that will play out more and more across our lives. The interesting thing is how these AI agents will be interacting with us through multi-modal interaction. So that’s through sound, vision, text, all of these different modes to assist us in different ways. 

The key thing for individuals, though, is understanding how these tools work and having the AI skills to be able to use these tools to be more productive and leverage them in the right ways. The final thing to highlight is we will need to really focus on trust as these systems become more embedded in our daily lives. Trust, reliability and really ensuring that they don’t get it wrong. One of the things that has been highlighted is that we tend to give AI a lot of trust and authority, and when it gets things wrong it can be very detrimental to our trust and to us. So a key thing as we progress is to maintain and develop that trust so that we’re not having these errors or misinformation or, you know, hallucinations that are giving us the wrong information.

Professor Anseel: Thank you Stela. That was amazing and thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights on resilience in AI leadership. I’m sure our audience will have found it very valuable and inspirational.


You are free to republish this article both online and in print. We ask that you follow some simple guidelines.

Please do not edit the piece, ensure that you attribute the author, their institute, and mention that the article was originally published on Business Think.

By copying the HTML below, you will be adhering to all our guidelines.

Press Ctrl-C to copy