Explainers

What Happens When Your Role Transforms into the Chief Transformation Officer

When companies realize they need to become more innovative, they often anoint one person to lead the charge. Here’s how to spread transformation through the organization.

You’re a leader in your company who thinks obsessively about the future. You might be the CMO, CDO, CTO, or the leader of a new-ish business division. Recently, your team has started coming under scrutiny for bets you’re making to help the company become more customer-centric, digitally savvy, and collaborative—bets you believe are crucial to the future success of the company. Guess what—your CEO noticed, too.

Congrats: you’re now Chief Transformation Officer.

An increasing number of our clients at NOBL are moving into this new role. If you’re a leader who thinks ahead of the pack and is a natural steward of change, you’ll find yourself being called upon to lead the charge and make change happen, at scale. As CTO, you’re one-part architect of the change, one-part coach who can align people around it, and one-part mobilizer who can inspire people to make it happen.

Working with CTOs across industries, all over the world, we’ve noticed how the transformation agenda unfolds in three waves.

First, people resist it.
You may operate under the radar for awhile, but once people realize you’re here to change their way of working (and making money), you’ll face resistance. That’s a natural part of how people process change as loss. Get ready for cynics emerging left and right, while former allies start undermining you.

The good news is, this means you’re finally doing the work that matters—you’ve gotten to the heart of what needs to change in the organization.

Then, you start to get traction.
In this second wave, a few visible wins shift the winds of change in your favor. Your influence and profile in the organization grows. Soon, people start coming to you and your team at all hours of the day for advice, resources, and support. People even start angling to join your team (and take credit for all your hard work).

The umbrella for what counts as “transformation” gets bigger and bigger. Until it’s too big. You’re losing focus, and the amount of initiatives you have in your remit becomes overwhelming. A year ago, you would have given anything to have this problem. Right now, not so much.

At this point, the third wave kicks in.
You start to prioritize what’s in your remit, because you have no choice. It means making tough decisions about where you and your team invest energy, time, and resources. As a result, something pretty great happens: you become an arbiter of best practice across the organization. Suddenly, you and your team are the de facto “center of excellence” for collecting and housing success stories within the company. You have status, street cred and, most crucially, the ability to say “no.”

The question you’ll ask yourself now is, where does transformation start and end? Many of our clients wonder if their ultimate goal should be that they are eventually out of a job. Once the transformation is “complete,” would (and should) the organization still need them?

We’ve never seen a “finished” transformation—in fact, we’re not sure if it’s possible. Change is the only real constant we have in today’s business environment, where disruption is the new normal. Instead, we think of transformation as a muscle—over time, you get better and faster at doing the work.

The good news is that there are many tools and resources to help you weather the ups and downs of driving change at scale. Here are four steps to riding the waves of transformation:

  • Map your influencers. As an agent of change, know that your voice (and the voice of your team) has its limits. Know who your allies are, and focus on quality even over quantity. A few well-placed, well-respected leaders who are on your side can make a huge difference in getting you traction.
  • Listen deeply. It’s tempting to focus your team’s reputation and narrative for change in the business. That’s important. But the key thing, especially in early stages of change where you face resistance, is making sure people feel heard. Employ your coaching skills and talk to people 1:1. Hear what they are concerned about, and show them how you are addressing it.
  • Focus on getting to the next wave. “Transformation” can lose its meaning at an org-wide level. Don’t let yourself get spread too thin. Keep your team—and your fellow leaders—relentlessly focused on what to prioritize to unleash the next wave of change. Trying to change everything will lead to changing nothing.
  • Don’t take credit. This is a tough one. You’ll want recognition for the work you’re doing, and the many late nights you’re spending figuring out how to deal with the latest crisis. But the key to success in org transformation is for the people who need to change to feel like they’ve done it themselves.
Published July 15, 2019

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