Chief AI Officer Recruiting Seen as Top Priority for Most Companies

Artificial intelligence has been a game changer for organizations of all types, leading to an increased demand for AI professionals. Ryan Bulkoski of Heidrick & Struggles joins Hunt Scanlon Media in an exclusive podcast and explores the latest developments in recruiting top AI talent. 
Chief AI Officer Recruiting

July 13, 2018 – Organizations looking to attract artificial intelligence talent are finding such professionals scarce and the competition to land them fierce. Beyond the big tech companies, AI leadership is quickly becoming a necessary investment regardless of industry. A recent study, in fact, identified 400 discrete use cases for AI and analytics.

Sixty-one percent of executives said their organization plans to hire a chief AI officer in the next 24 months, according to a new report by Heidrick & Struggles consultants Ryan Bulkoski and Sam Burman. Moreover, early adopters are cropping up in areas not traditionally associated with technology.

For example, Westfield Corp.—one of the world’s largest shopping center owners and managers—hired a chief data and analytics officer a few years ago to guide its investments in advanced technology strategy. Similarly, global insurer Aviva hired a chief digital officer who helped launch the Digital Garage, a lab that harnesses advanced analytics and AI to create digital insurance products tailored to customers. The company also plans to invest in and acquire fintech companies to close the competitive gap in insurance. CEO Mark Wilson’s statement that data scientists are in higher demand at his company than actuaries is a telling sign of the changing times.

Even with pervasive interest in AI, many companies are still perplexed about where to begin. “Organizations know investing in the right person or team is crucial but have yet to build a cohesive strategy to support their AI goals,” said the Heidrick report.

This interest has created a high demand for talent. LinkedIn lists more than 8,300 jobs in the U.S. alone that included the keywords “artificial intelligence.” Many of these positions are accompanied by six-figure salaries. “Further, companies trying to fill AI roles are in stiff competition with technology firms that can shell out top dollar for talent,” said the Heidrick study. “Even newly minted college graduates with advanced degrees in AI can, in extreme circumstances, command $300,000 a year, so leaders must evaluate whether they can afford top talent or need to build from the bottom up. Organizations must also determine the appropriate structure for an AI capability, which can be a challenge.”

Recruiting AI Talent

In this brand new episode of ‘Talent Talks,’ we explore the latest developments in recruiting top AI talent with our host Andrew Mitchell and Ryan Bulkoski, partner at Heidrick & Struggles. According to Mr. Bulkoski, AI will continue to enhance the recruiting process, “and that means elevating and improving” the entire recruitment lifecycle. AI, he said, “will change the way we find talent” in every sector of the economy. Listen now!

How can companies located outside of AI hotbeds, and in industries other than tech, overcome these disadvantages to attract the right people? “We recommend three tactics to help companies find, acquire and retain AI talent that fits their organization,” said the Heidrick report. “First, develop a clear AI strategy that reflects how AI can support the business. Second, evaluate organizational maturity to determine the company’s ability to benefit from AI talent. And third, formulate an AI talent profile to ensure that promising candidates can be successfully integrated into the organization and retained. Executing these tactics effectively can help companies lay the foundation for a sustainable AI effort.”

1. Develop a clear—and well-supported—strategy.

Given the many ways in which AI could be deployed to further a company’s objectives, executive leadership teams must evaluate their business needs—both immediate and in the future—and clearly define how AI can help support them. “One way to narrow the focus initially is to identify a discrete need—for example, natural language processing in customer experience or robotic process automation  in supply chain management—and then bring in AI experts to conduct a pilot project to achieve quick wins,” the Heidrick report said. “The results from these efforts can be used to enlighten business leaders on the applications and impact of AI in order to support enterprise-wide investments.”

Related: Will AI Enhance Jobs, or Destroy Them?

2. Evaluate your organization’s AI maturity

Executives responsible for hiring AI talent must assess their organization’s technology capabilities and gain the support of the C-suite for additional AI investments. “On the former, organizations lacking the requisite foundation to support AI must build it before pursuing top talent,” Mr. Bulkoski said. “The reality is that many companies, especially those outside tech industries, are still at the beginning of their journey. For this reason, using pilot programs can be effective, as it helps companies build skills and learn as they go.”

Heidrick & Struggles Launches New Recruiting Practice Focused on AI
Citing a shortage of leaders with the ability to apply a deep understanding of artificial intelligence to transform an organization’s business model, Heidrick & Struggles has launched a new specialty practice focused on AI. 

On the latter, failing to have proper buy-in and syndication can stop an otherwise promising AI program in its tracks. Strong executive leadership helps promote AI adoption and deployment, the report said. Cross-functional collaboration is also critical, given the need to tightly integrate most AI projects with the business. “Without buy-in and meaningful coordination among functional leaders such as the CIO, CMO, and CFO, a fledgling AI executive might otherwise become frustrated and exit quickly, wasting valuable time, resources, and even goodwill,” said the report. “AI projects that fizzle without producing results will just make it harder to gain support for future efforts. The endorsement of the C-suite should be reflected in the organizational positioning of the AI leader. Having an AI leader who reports to or works alongside the C-suite sends a clear message to the organization about the importance of AI.”

3. Formulate an AI talent profile

To determine the right cultural fit, companies must create a profile of the ideal candidate based on a combination of organizational maturity and strategy, including the right ratio of AI knowledge to executive experience. “In many cases, this hire will have to acclimate quickly to a new environment, engender confidence among the C-suite, serve as an evangelist for AI, and work closely with leaders of functional areas or business units,” the Heidrick report said. “Rising AI stars in tech companies often bring the backing of a prestigious brand name.”

Yet a strong pedigree is no guarantee that the executive possesses the leadership skills and emotional intelligence required to excel as a newly anointed “AI savior” in a more traditional organization, said the report. In many cases, a formal mentorship program can ease the individual’s onboarding process and help ensure his or her long-term loyalty.

Related: Artificial Intelligence to Transform Workplace Sooner Than Expected

“An effective AI talent effort should consider not just compensation but also cultural fit,” said Mr. Bulkoski. “Striking this balance is critical to set both the AI hire and the company up for long-term success. On compensation, companies must be prepared to weather the ‘sticker shock’ and in many cases pay above market rate in order to compete for talent. Companies do have levers to pull beyond compensation alone, however.”

Attracting Top Talent in the Age of AI
AI is quickly emerging as a game-changer for recruiting – enabling organizations to more readily identify and hire candidates. It is enabling search firms to find and evaluate talent with greater accuracy and speed. New recruitment technology can sift through tremendous amounts of data to identify top …

Often, the opportunity to transform a company or an entire industry through AI can be a compelling challenge in its own right. If a company has an attractive mission—such as a social purpose or a focus on environmental sustainability—this could provide a counterweight to the generous equity packages of most tech giants. “Over the past couple years, we have witnessed a significant increase in the desire of top talent to have a social-purpose angle in their next role or employer,” said Heidrick. “This trait is especially true among younger executives. Other intangibles, such as the opportunity to form strategic partnerships with universities, publish company-sponsored research, or support important research projects can also make the opportunity more attractive.”


Finding talented, experienced executives to head up an AI program is a different kind of challenge than filling traditional C-suite positions. “The relatively recent emphasis on AI across industries has increased competition for qualified candidates,” the Heidrick report concluded. “What’s more, the size of the investment required to hire an AI executive has raised the stakes. Since AI’s business uses are likely to rise in the coming years, companies should ensure that their journey starts soon—and with talent aligned to their strategy and operational capabilities.”

Related: AI Ushers in a New Day for Companies and Recruiters

Mr. Bulkoski is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ San Francisco office. He leads the firm’s artificial intelligence specialty practice and is a member of the digital practice and the disruptive innovators team. His collection of search work has been on behalf of the Fortune 500, venture-backed and private equity owned companies alike. Functional search experience includes chief data officer, chief digital officer, chief analytics officer, data science, artificial intelligence, machine learning, CEO, CTO and general management roles.

Mr. Burman is a principal in Heidrick’s London office. He leads the digital practice in Europe and Africa and is a member of the artificial intelligence specialty practice, the global technology & services practice, and the disruptive innovators team. Mr. Burman guides organizations to navigate and leverage the transformative technology suite of artificial intelligence, data science, internet of things, virtual reality, augmented reality, and 3D printing.

Related: Artificial Intelligence Changing the Role of Recruiters

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor; and Andrew W. Mitchell, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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