The rise of the Chief Transformation Officer

A critical role at a time of urgent change

Organisations face an urgent imperative to transform. The PwC CEO Survey found 22% of UK CEOs believe their current business model will not survive the decade. Add to that a great many whose prognosis may not be existential - yet - and it is clear the case for change cannot be ignored.

The forces creating that imperative range from changing consumer and regulatory demands to scarcity of talent and climatic, digital, economic and geopolitical disruption. And they impact every part of an organisation, necessitating changes from strategy and culture to product and service portfolio, operating model and supply chain.

But transformation should not just be a defensive measure. It should also be an ongoing, proactive and strategic activity in pursuit of growth and opportunity. PwC global research shows the majority (83%) of top performing companies surveyed have changed their business model in the last three years and nearly a quarter (24%) increased their investment in enterprise-wide transformation by more than 50% during that time.

Who takes the lead on transformation?

The importance of transformation is indisputable, yet few organisations have a consistent answer when asked who leads on transformation.

Responses can fall into three camps. First is a top down model, where the CEO leads, delegating to respective C-Suite colleagues to drive action. The second, is a more devolved approach where other members of the C-Suite lead, potentially on rotation - for example, the CMO leading on marketing transformation and the COO leading on supply chain and operations transformation. But both these approaches can suffer from issues ranging from transformation getting lost amid other priorities, to it being shaped at too functional a level, missing out on the potential for enterprise-wide transformation.

The third is where a dedicated individual is focused full-time on developing and delivering the transformation strategy.

The need for such a dedicated transformation leader may be dictated by the scale, complexity and ambition of the transformation strategy. But as the heightened imperative to transform becomes ‘business as usual’ for many organisations, the requirement for such a role is greater. In some instances, this may be somebody working within one of the first two models whose passion and aptitude for transformation projects has driven the evolution of their role.

But increasingly we are seeing organisations creating a board or C-suite role such as a transformation director or Chief Transformation Officer, and filling that position through a range of routes, from identifying the right candidate within their organisation or elevating the role of their current de facto transformation leader to recruiting externally for the right candidate.

The need for a dedicated, elevated transformation leader

The CEO may lead the organisation, but the transformation leader will increasingly drive its ambitions for change. That person should be elevated to the top table, ensuring transformation remains a fixture on the boardroom agenda. They must be the face of the transformation, set the tone and challenge current wisdom. They’ll also need to bring together functional transformations and other organisation-wide priorities such as sustainability, purpose and digital transformation to ensure their strategy is an all-encompassing approach that creates a viable future for the organisation.

The primary role of the transformation leader is to gather insights, uncover the impetus for change, devise a view on what the future looks like and design the key steps to get there.

At PwC we recently convened our Transformation Leaders Network, bringing together clients who are all tasked with leading transformation at their respective organisations but who all come from a diverse range of backgrounds. That emphasised the extent to which there is no universal career path to succeed as a transformation leader.

But what is at least as important as specific technical expertise is a range of human qualities. In particular, an analytical and curious mind to horizon-scan and unpick the forces influencing transformation, alongside creativity to connect the dots across an enterprise in innovative ways.

Communication skills to evangelise for a clear strategic vision, combined with the empathy to inspire and guide people through change are also essential. A grounding in crisis management - because there will be bumps in the road - will always be valuable, as will the political savvy to keep transformation on the board’s agenda and handle complicated stakeholder relationships.

Making the case for influencing skills, one attendee at the PwC Transformation Leaders Network event said:

“You've got to have senior buy-in. In a corporate environment, it's impossible to make changes without senior executive and board sponsorship.”

Transformation needs collaboration

It is undoubtedly a challenging role, but not one any individual should tackle alone.

Very few organisations will deliver successful transformations without drawing on the experiences, insights and services of others, and a key marker of success for the transformation leader will be their ability to quickly decide where support is most needed.

For example, technology will play an integral role in all transformations, but understanding its potential - and knowing where to look for answers and guidance - is more important than being a technologist first and foremost.

As one attendee at PwC’s Transformation Leaders Network event put it:

“You need to know who to hire. And you need to hire people who are smarter than you.”

Others talked about the need to lean on the specific subject matter experience of others - positioning the role as a convenor and collaborator, rather than one with the impossible brief of being expert in every part of the business.

Another attendee talked about the importance of mining personal and business networks for insight and tapping into communities, such as the tech start-up space, where there will be important lessons to be learned.

That need for shared experience and support is why PwC UK will regularly convene our Transformation Leaders Network. We’ll be bringing that community together to learn from one another and share insights on how organisations can elevate the importance and leadership of transformation to the boardroom and consistently deliver better outcomes as the transformation imperative becomes business as usual.

Contact us

Dr Colin Light

Dr Colin Light

EMEA and UK Strategy& Leader, PwC United Kingdom

Chris Samson

Chris Samson

Financial Services Deal Value Creation & Transformation Partner, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0) 7718 865185

Follow us