Chief transformation officer: revolutionary or functionary?

Some are visionaries, others project managers, the newest role in the C-suite is all about change

According to LinkedIn, there are 121 chief transformation officers in the UK, along with hundreds more business transformation officers, digital transformation officers and the like.

But it’s not a job title that’s been around for very long, emerging over the past decade or so as organisations realise the need to be more responsive to change. A 2013 survey by consultancy firm McKinsey found that more than eight out of ten executives had experienced an organisational redesign in their current companies, and more than half believed they would experience another in the next two.

“We’re all living through intense change, the pace of which is only accelerating,” says Jason Dormieux, global chief transformation officer at media agency Wavemaker. “Regardless of title, all companies need people whose obsession is around what products and services they can build in order to help their customers take advantage of the opportunities that this disruption brings.”

Regardless of title, all companies need people whose obsession is around what products and services they can build in order to help their customers

But what does this mean in practice? Where do the people come from to fill these roles, and what exactly are they doing?

Diletta D’Onofrio, head of digital transformation at software company SnapLogic, says: “Typically, people come to it from management consulting. I recommend a period in consulting where you’re exposed to multiple realities. To me, it’s important that you have seen not just one organisation but five or ten, ideally. And industry experience is important: you can specialise by industry.”

In other cases, chief transformation officers come up through the ranks: “Knowing the company you are working in can be beneficial, as you are likely to understand its critical architecture from an IT and business process perspective and have constructive relationships with key stakeholders which can expedite the decision-making process,” says Lauren Chiren, director of support group Women of a Certain Stage, who has worked as head of transformation at three banks.

“Understanding the company’s risk appetite and internal processes around finance, resourcing and procurement can often save time too.”

The term chief transformation officer has a wide meaning: some CTOs see themselves as visionaries, while others are essentially project managers for an overhaul of an organisation’s processes, often through technological change.

Richard Cross of advertising company Clear Channel International says: “My role as chief digital transformation officer is to make sure Clear Channel International builds the capabilities needed to be at the forefront of our technology-driven transformation.

“This covers everything from understanding how technology is impacting the company’s culture, to encouraging a start-up mindset across the business to be more experimental. My job didn’t exist before I joined, so I’ve had some flexibility in defining what the role entails.”

In some cases, chief transformation officers form a permanent part of a company’s C-suite, tracking how a company is performing following change. In a recent survey carried out by McKinsey, only 37 per cent of respondents believed that their business transformations had been successful, and there’s a clear consensus that long-term monitoring of change is essential for success.

In other cases, a chief transformation officer is hired for a particular project or set of projects – in which case success can mean doing yourself out of a job.

“A really good one does it in one to two years, a bad one in maybe five years,” says Ms D’Onofrio. “I know quite a few people in these types of roles, and they tend to be looking for a new job in the third year.”

The good news, though, is that there are likely to be plenty of other positions to apply for. According to McKinsey, companies revamp their organisations more often than they overhaul their websites or upgrade their computer systems.

Ms Chiren says: “Technically, a great transformation officer will be forever innovating.”

The five skills you need to be a chief transformation officer

Adaptability

“A chief transformation officer should be ready for any major change to the business – from a drop in the share price to a problem with new technology or an unexpected executive departure,” says Jonquil Hackenberg, head of advisory practice at Infosys Consulting. “Staying on your toes and being ready to change the predetermined plan at any moment is fundamental to success in the role.”

Preparedness to take risks 

“They need to be personally comfortable with failing fast through testing and learning, while also creating a supportive environment for this to happen within,” says Juliet Eccleston, co-founder of peer-to-peer recruitment platform AnyGood and former programme manager for the change team at Egg, the UK’s first internet bank. “A CTO needs to find this balance and fully support the organisation in taking risks whilst never compromising the platform.”

Strategic vision

“It’s important to not solely be a blue-sky thinker when presenting ideas to the board, but when it comes to effective transformation projects, matching vision with optimism is vital,” says Ms Hackenberg. “Strive for the best, but prepare for the worst – this is the motto of the successful chief transformation officer.”

Corporate expertise

“An external perspective is incredibly important; however, this doesn’t have to mean an external person,” says Mr Dormieux. “Knowing the company well is invaluable when it comes to working out how talent and capabilities can be harnessed in the most agile way to deliver change over as short a time horizon as possible.”

Tech expertise

“Developing technical know-how is an important piece of the puzzle,” says Ms Hackenberg. “The best way to sell new technologies to the board and employees is to know exactly how to visualise their implementation and get speedy ROI [return on investment] – so being at the forefront of new technologies is essential.”