A woman looking up an electronic board, which is reflected on her eyeglasses
Looking ahead: Innovation, adaptability and the abilities to learn and pivot quickly will be key in business and technology © Getty Images

Tomorrow’s business leaders face an uncertain future. Geopolitical conflicts in the Middle East, Ukraine and beyond, technological innovations including artificial intelligence, and financial pressures from higher inflation all point to a challenging outlook.

In volatile times, arguably the most important lesson that business schools can impart is a willingness to be flexible. Future-proofing careers will mean not only gaining hard skills around technology but also developing a willingness to innovate, pivot and learn on the fly. It also requires that students understand how non-technical, community skills inevitably play a role in any successful business. So what do those grappling with today’s uncertainties around changing technologies think will help future leaders?

For Roman Dokuchaev, chief technology officer at fintech Salmon, one basic building block for business school students is a fundamental knowledge of mathematics. “This is going to be the greatest contributor for the development of abstract and sequential thinking, [and] of your ability to understand how complex systems work and interact,” he says.

Dokuchaev’s comments reflect the accelerating development and importance of generative artificial intelligence. So-called “frontier AI” systems, including OpenAI’s ChatGPT, are becoming increasingly powerful, with potential repercussions across the labour market.

Anton Churilov, Salmon’s head of product portfolio, says that learning a programming language to at least a basic level provides useful insights into how systems work. But he also offers advice for students on the bigger career picture.

“While you are choosing the fields to focus on, developing depth in your area of expertise is something you need to focus on,” he says. “Do not just simply try to know a bit of everything: this is a road to nowhere.”

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Salmon, based in the Philippines, was launched in July 2022 with the aim of disrupting financial services in south-east Asia. Many of its employees and two of its co-founders are from the Russian fintech Tinkoff. Salmon raised $20mn in debt financing in July.

If education is one part of the battle, another is adaptability. “It’s about thinking outside the box,” says Michael Sindicich, executive vice-president at fintech Navan and general manager of its Navan Expense product. “Nobody knows what they’re doing, there are not really hard rules, it’s more about being flexible and figuring out solutions.”

The company, formerly known as TripActions, announced a new corporate spend management partnership with Citi Bank in October. Navan’s focus was corporate travel, which was among the sectors hit hardest by coronavirus, requiring rapid reactions.

A person in the waiting area of an airport
Fintech Navan was able to pivot faster than bigger rivals when Covid-19 hit its business travel expenses product © Getty Images

“All travel went to zero — it was all hands on deck,” he says, recalling early 2020. “Our revenues didn’t just go to zero, we were having to issue refunds with no end in sight of what was going happen.”

Faced with a challenging outlook, Sindicich says that, as a start-up, it was able to move quickly when bigger rivals were slow to react. “We doubled down on enterprise and hired professional sales people to attack the market on the larger end. We told companies that the best time to change a travel programme is when no one is travelling.”

The lesson for business students from Navan’s bold move is that there is often an opportunity in uncertainty. By eschewing conservatism in favour of a more proactive approach, the company was able to build up its client book. This sort of adaptability will serve well those looking to start their own companies — or to join others — as they navigate turbulent times.

“I’ve been hearing more and more of these stories about creativity — it’s not just about staying in your lane working and building start-ups,” says Sindicich.

Daniel Armanios, BT professor and chair of major programme management at Oxford university’s Saïd Business School, says learning about the nexus between soft skills and technological ones is vital for the leaders of the future.

“Let’s say you want to work on high-voltage direct current, which is needed for renewable energy — you’ll have to understand things like transformers, but where a lot of costs happen is dealing with things like right of way,” he notes.

Another example he cites is cloud computing systems. More businesses are moving away from on-site hardware to rely on tools provided by companies including Amazon and Google. But that adds geopolitical uncertainty into the mix, as a major source of rare earth materials needed for the components, including vital semiconductors, is in China.

The growing ubiquity of ChatGPT and other large language models, which can “hallucinate” inaccurate information, adds more complexity. “When people are selling me technology, half the work is understanding what’s at the cutting edge and what’s not fit for purpose,” Armanios says. “Once I’ve got those details, you have to abstract them for social or managerial challenges. You’re going to have an appreciation of both.” 

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