Customer obsession as the key trait for an effective Chief Transformation Officer (CTO)

Jack Welch famously said “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.”

By that measure most businesses are on the slippery slope to failure – we’ve all heard about VUCA, exponential change and now with generative AI as a new inflexion point, the rate of change is now turbo charged –  who’d be a CEO in this environment?

It’s often said that change is the only constant – but is it? 

Let’s think about  it … all business works to service the needs of customers; people with needs, wants, desires and aspirations. Have these needs wants and desires really changed that much over time? I’d argue not – what’s changed is the way in which these needs are met. And the clamour to meet them is the nature of businesses, striving as they do to meet these needs in better, cheaper and more efficient ways.

What’s changed is the availability of new tools that enable us to satisfy these needs – in the words of Tony Ulwick and Clayton Christensen – to help customers achieve what they described as their ‘jobs to be done’. New technologies and ways of working create new opportunities for these jobs to be done better, cheaper and more cost effectively than they were before.

Better, cheaper, faster.

This is the nature of disruption, customers will flow to those providers who can help them achieve their jobs to be done better than they were before. The incumbents who are all geared up to do things the old way find themselves unable to respond – a mass of legacy systems and processes, ways of working, culture and mindset make it near impossible to respond effectively and the decline begins.

So how should the CEO of an incumbent business respond? 

To quote Jeff Bezos:

“In Today’s era of volatility, there is no other way but to re-invent. the only sustainable advantage you can have over others is agility, that’s it. Because nothing else is sustainable, everything else you create, somebody else will replicate.” 

Business readiness and agility

This is the nature of true digital transformation – until your business is able to adapt and respond at pace you’ll struggle to create and maintain a position of competitive advantage.  Whilst your customers’ jobs to be done may remain the same, the ways and means of satisfying them are constantly changing and if you want to serve them better your business will need to raise it’s game.

Digital transformation is really about achieving business readiness – an ability to adapt and innovate at pace and this means the ability to execute effectively. No strategy however well conceived will deliver value if there is a failure in execution. It’s a sobering thought that most strategies fail in the execution phase.

So the first thing is agility; you need flatter hierarchies, collaboration across silos and a relentless focus on creating value for your customers from all levels in the organization.

Customer obsession

Your customers should in fact be your ‘North Star’ – and the best Chief Transformation Officers know this; in my experience the very best of them are relentless in their focus on the customer to the point of obsession.

Strategically aligning around customers and helping them to achieve their jobs to be done brings meaning to every interaction and decision within the business. This is where alignment will come from along with the absolute commitment from the CEO to be visible and effective in communicating and demonstrating their commitment to the vision whilst partnering with the CTO who will drive the transformation to make it achievable.

Strategy & execution

Of course agility alone will not guarantee success – you also need to make choices about your strategy. As Roger Martin and his advocates famously say, you need to decide where you will play and how you will win. Which customers will you serve and how will you create value for them in a way that confers a sustainable competitive advantage.

Changes in technology will always render opportunities for you and your competitors alike but your business must be ready to adapt to this and your focus must always be on the customers you choose to serve. What’s your strategy, who are you serving and and does your business have the capability to execute?

Hire an effective Chief Transformation Officer (CTO)

Hiring an effective Chief Transformation Officer (CTO) is the best thing any CEO can do to create the conditions for agility and the capability to execute on their strategic vision. And whether you actually call them a CTO or not, in my experience the most important indicator of success for the person who should lead your transformation is their passion for and relentless focus on the one true constant – your customers and their jobs to be done.


‘What is Jobs to be Done’ by Tony Ulwick

How Strategy Really Works Works – by Roger Martin

What Job Would Consumers Want to Hire a Product To Do? – An interview with Clayton Christensen

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