A short guide for Chief Transformation Officers starting a new role

Business man in a blue suit, climbing some stairs, carrying a brown leather bag.

As explored in our recent series on the emergence of the Chief Transformation Officer, to successfully operate in an environment of turbulence and constant change, businesses must ensure change is delivered across the organisation in a coordinated and coherent way. Faced with this challenge, organisations are increasingly appointing Chief Transformation Officers (CTrO) into board level leadership roles with exclusive responsibility for the delivery of enterprise-wide transformation. Whilst the CTrO job title is the most common, there are a range of other job titles applicable to this role including Group Transformation Director or Chief Innovation Officer, but for simplicity, we will refer to them as CTrOs.

In response to the emergence of this role and the challenges in performing it successfully, BIE’s Transformation Practice offers this guidance to transformation leaders who are considering a move to into a CTrO role, those who are preparing to start one and those currently in one.

Leading transformation at board level

The commercial drivers for an organisation electing to appoint a board member to a role with this focus vary, but there is a common theme behind its increasing presence. A CTrO is required when a business has reached a point when the successful delivery of enterprise transformation has become a priority to the extent that it needs to be led by a board member who is accountable to the CEO. It is their role to ensure transformation activity is strategically aligned across the group, that it has the appropriate governance and crucially, that it is supported by all members of the executive committee with the explicit backing of the CEO.

Given the relatively recent addition of this role to the boardroom, the CTrO position across different organisations is understood, positioned and executed with significant variance which also explains the diversity in career experience of the leaders who find themselves in CTrO roles.

Whilst most CTrOs will have a background in technology and will have held senior leadership roles in consulting firms, it is not uncommon to see leaders with careers in Operations, HR, Finance, Commercial and Procurement move into CTrO positions from within an organisation.

These leaders are typically asked to take on these roles precisely because they are NOT a “transformation person” and are often found in organisations that have been through at least one failed cycle of change that has created “transformation fatigue”. Their ability to successfully deliver transformation is understood to be derived from their knowledge of the organisation, their strength of relationship with key stakeholders and their understanding of the levers for change.

Understand the challenge

Before taking the role, you must be certain you understand the challenge ahead and that the organisation, particularly key stakeholders in the leadership team, are aware of what will be required to make the transformation successful. You need to get to know the organisation, the people involved and the ambitions of the business. You should assess and analyse the leadership team as much as possible beforehand – paying particular attention to the CEO – how engaged are they with the transformation and is this someone you can work with? Are the teams’ ambitions credible and achievable? Is there sufficient enthusiasm and drive within the organisation to make this change happen? Does the business have the resources to get where they want to be? Does the business have a strategy that the transformation will be pinned to? It is not uncommon for CTrOs to join organisations which have an awareness that transformation needs to happen, but no strategy in place at which point the CTrO will then need to work with the executive team to develop one before the transformation can begin.

As mentioned above, you may be the first CTrO the organisation has hired. How familiar is the organisation with your job title and role, what are their expectations and what do you need to do to communicate the extent of your remit and how you want to work? Importantly they should understand that your role is not routed purely in technology, finance or HR – you will have scope over all these functions – but they should also understand that the leaders of those functions will be responsible for what happens. It is the CTrO’s job to ensure that the agreed strategy is executed but not to carry out all of the actions that make it happen. The strategy needs to be decided by the senior leadership team as they own, and are responsible for, the direction of the company. Ensuring that supporting actions to deliver transformation are carried out should be the responsibility of each department or function leader.

For “non-transformation” leaders stepping into a CTrO role, it is critical they are given the opportunity to develop transformation capability around them. The experience that has made them successful in their careers to date is often different to that required to deliver transformation and without this support, the CTrO is more often than not set-up to fail.

Take the wider view

It is also necessary to take time to develop a view of the wider organisation. Enterprise Transformation encompasses everyone at all levels of the business so you need to understand how this will work practically, and emotionally, for everyone involved and establish the appropriate change management methodology to support this. This way you are better positioned to identify areas which may need trouble-shooting or special attention in advance. This in turn will create a smoother transition process. As change takes place, your role will always be to respond to the organisation and circumstances, but you will still need to retain focus on the North Star – the primary aim and objective of the transformation.

Once in the role, building trust among those around you as well as determining how change can be encouraged and coordinated is crucial. Try not to come to the role with pre-existing assumptions and develop a plan that has some flexibility on how progress will be made. Every change project is different in terms of scope, objectives and, of course, organisation. Your early days in position will therefore be about developing credibility and understanding what ‘levers’ you need to pull in order to have the impact and effect required.

Aligning for change

Creating change that meets business objectives means ensuring all parts of the business are aligned throughout the transition, and that requires huge skills in terms of technical understanding, relationship building, people management and the ability to perform in high-pressure and high-stress situations. In all likelihood, you will already have had a great deal of experience in change, gaining the buy-in of your business, managing the actions – and reactions – of those around you and guiding a business to a new position. If so, you’ll know that this kind of large-scale all-encompassing project can be incredibly exciting and satisfying – and that’s precisely why you want the job.

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