April 17, 2024

Soft Skills are More Important Than Ever in the AI Economy, with Christine Heckart, Tech Leader and Xapa CEO

Mariah Petrovic
Soft Skills are More Important Than Ever in the AI Economy, with Christine Heckart, Tech Leader and Xapa CEO

The knowledge economy is giving way to the AI economy with one particularly unexpected effect: an appreciation for human capabilities. As generative AI and automation transform the nature of work, Gartner reports a corollary demand for soft skills like communication, adaptability, empathy, and critical thinking. It’s a plot twist that doesn’t surprise Christine Heckart. Having held executive management and board positions at some of the tech industry’s most iconic companies, she’s developed a knack for spotting such inflection points.

Christine was named one of the ten top strategic thinkers and 50 most powerful people in technology before she was thirty, one of the Fifty Most Powerful Women in Technology, and a Top 100 Silicon Valley Female Leaders, among other accolades. Today, she is the CEO and founder of Xapa, a mobile metaverse platform dedicated to human enrichment.

In this era of explosive AI growth and massive cultural changes, Christine knows better than to miss the moment. “Jumping into the unknown, jumping early into a new technology, that does not feel risky,” she said. “For me, what is uncomfortable is the status quo. The tech industry–where I’ve spent my whole career–moves so quickly. The minute you start feeling comfortable, that’s the risk.”

Xapa is Christine’s way of jumping into this new era of tech acceleration—and meeting the market demand for soft skills. Described as equal parts adventure, life coach, and private mentor, Xapa gamifies the development of highly sought after abilities. Players learn to hone self-awareness and self-control, set boundaries, and build trust in relationships. The platform uses AI to run its curriculum built on a library of wisdom from experts in personal and professional growth.

Where Emotional Intelligence Meets Artificial Intelligence

“If you look at the data, you look at the reason somebody gets hired and the reason people get promoted is 70% or more soft skills,” Christine said.

She’s right. Occupations oriented around soft skills are predicted to account for two-thirds of all jobs by 2030 and grow at 2.5 times the rate of other jobs, according to Deloitte

As a self-proclaimed “blunt instrument” in her early career, Christine learned the value of soft skills the hard way—through experience. Though she was very good at creating and launching new products, she was admittedly not good at accommodating the emotional needs or opinions of people on her team.

With a “get-on-board-or-get-out-of-the-way mentality,” Christine said she would often “run you over” in pursuit of business objectives. It took about ten years for her to realize that this style was ineffective.

Since investing in her own soft-skills development, Christine has been much more successful in getting her agenda prosecuted. “I wish my 20-year-old self would have the soft skills that I have at 58,” she said. But, of course, it’s never too late. That’s one of the reasons she developed Xapa—to help others fast-track their own learning curves.

This is where artificial intelligence and emotional intelligence meet. Automation is inevitable, and the future of AI is coming “whether you’re ready or not,” as People.ai CEO Oleg Rogynskyy recently noted. Businesses are now hiring for people skills, leadership skills, problem-solving and decision-making abilities that cannot be performed by a machine.

These soft skills will direct and enhance the performance of AI. At the same time, AI will support the work of people.

It feels like AI is great at creating things, Christine said. But what AI is really doing is recreating things in new ways. AI can perform a variety of important tasks at an astounding speed, like content generation and curation, or code generation, translation, and optimization. It can automate mundane but essential business tasks such as sales account planning, capturing customer data, or managing inventory and logistics.

By consuming the tedious work, AI frees up people to spend more time on higher functioning professional and personal endeavors. “Nobody really enjoys doing tedious work,” Christine said. “Entry-level people don’t enjoy tedious work. They enjoy building context. They enjoy building skills. They enjoy being useful. But nobody wants to do stuff that a machine could do better.”

For Christine, Xapa, which means ‘joy’ in Greek, brings together soft skills and technical skills.

“Xapa is the culmination of a career that was mostly focused on technology to help business, and Xapa is not that,” she said. “Xapa is technology to help humans. Now, we also happen to help businesses as a byproduct of helping their humans. We help them grow the people that grow their business.”

After decades of practice, Christine says her soft skills have greatly evolved. In any situation, she now looks for ways everyone can win, applying a high degree of empathy and compassion for the people on the other side of an issue. “Nice goes a long way in this world,” she said.

Empowering People To Do What They Do Best

Some see the uncanny valley, fearing a future with AI will be bleak, while others see a bright future where AI empowers progress across industries. Many business leaders have lurched into a tactical panic mode around AI in an attempt at a competitive advantage. 

Christine has an insightful perspective.

“The thing that technology and automation and even artificial intelligence can do for us is to make us better as humans,” she said. She cited AI’s ability to “release the drudgery of work that we don’t want to do so that we can focus on the things that we, as humans, are uniquely good at.” And she noted her personal favorite AI tool, one that’s been around for decades: spell check.

Christine takes a positive view of how AI will support employees, especially as the workforce moves through generational shifts. She sees people finding greater productivity and feeling happier at work because they are spending more time aligned to their higher purpose. The focus will be on values and creativity—on “the thing that you do best”—without the drudgery.

“I am naturally wired to think in terms of market dynamics, not individual technology or company dynamics,” Christine said. “When you expand AI out, you can see these huge curves that could perfectly intersect and potentially create a solution to a global GDP and business problem, a demographic problem that otherwise would not have a positive outcome.”

An Early Work Ethic: ‘I Just Really Wanted a Job Indoors.’

Christine worked from the age of 12 through college at her parents’ gas station in Denver, Colorado. For 40 hours each week, she would be there pumping gas and checking oil, tires, and transmission fluid. (She now drives an electric vehicle.) One summer she took a break from the gas station to work as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesperson.

This early life experience added up to one major takeaway for Christine. “I wanted to graduate college because I just really wanted a job indoors. I didn’t want to work outside in the elements. I wanted to be in management, and I wanted to work in one of the fancy buildings downtown.”

She graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Colorado, Boulder. After college, her first job was as a product manager and marketing manager at WilTel. While there, she launched the industry’s first frame relay service as well as the first managed internetworking service, creating what would become a billion-dollar industry. Throughout her career, Christine has held senior leadership positions at TeleChoice, Juniper Networks, Microsoft, NetApp, ServiceSource, Brocade, Cisco, 6sense, Scalyr, and SiTime—all inside jobs, incidentally.

Beyond the Bottom Line: The Most Important Impact you can Have is on People.

Christine recalls the most powerful catalyst in her professional journey. When she moved from leading products or projects to leading people, she had a critical realization.

“Even if you create new products, new categories, whole new industries—which I’ve helped to do on more than one occasion—they come and go,” she said. “The products come and go. The teams you build come and go. The companies you work for come and go. Entire industries come and go. The only lasting impact that most of us ever have is the impact we have on people, positive or negative.”

The key to having a positive impact lies in remaining true to your values, she said. Value-based leadership empowers people to consider all stakeholders in decision-making, not just shareholders and certainly not short-term shareholders. It’s about considering long-term investors, employees, the community, customers, partners, the supply chain, and the planet.

This line of thinking reinforces the call for soft-skills development to keep pace with AI development. It asks employees, leaders, and whole companies to be more emotionally intelligent, more attuned to the need for communication and collaboration, ethical problem-solving and decision-making.

“Those kinds of companies, I’ll call them conscious companies, are ridiculously more successful than all the other companies combined together by a margin of 2-to-1 over a long period of time,” Christine said. “The role that technology can play in helping us achieve conscious business versus the technology itself being conscious, is to provide better tool sets. The role of technology is to bring equilibrium to these curves that would otherwise be in opposition.”

Learn how to select the right AI vendor for your GTM organization with our comprehensive GTM AI Vendor Guide including key things to listen for and a comprehensive RFP template. 

Learn all of the ways People.ai can  drive revenue growth for your business