With the significant increase in automation of operations and the increase in change initiatives and project work, a new role is emerging in the executive committee. Companies are beginning to consolidate responsibility for orchestrating and successfully implementing the organization’s continuous transformation and significant strategic initiatives within a single C-level executive.

  • In January 2022, Katie Mullen was appointed JCPenney’s chief digital and transformation officer, leading the e-commerce business’s growth and reimagining how consumers experience JCPenney. She is also responsible for driving enterprise strategy and the company’s transformation agenda.
  • Gfinity, a world-leading esports solutions provider, appointed Thomas Preising in April 2021 to the role of chief revenue and transformation officer, where he is responsible for overseeing all revenue generation and technology transformation across the company and reports directly to the CEO.
  • Stacey Tank of Heineken N.V. was appointed in late 2020 as chief corporate affairs and transformation officer. Her role entails supporting the orchestration of crucial change and transformation initiatives of Heineken’s strategic agenda.

It’s not only multinationals and for-profit organizations. The CEO of a nonprofit that competes for government contracts to improve health care recently wrote me: “I plan to add a chief project officer to my small executive team. This individual would not only lead a newly re-constituted PMO [Project Management Office] but would lead one of the most important projects we will perform over the coming year: building the structure and culture needed for project success.”

These are just a few of many organizations creating a similar role. Their mandates and exact titles differ, but their primary responsibilities remains the same: to drive major strategic projects in the organization, streamline the project portfolio to accelerate growth and value creation, and deliver on the sustainability and diversity agenda. I propose a single, plain-language title for this role: The chief project officer. This article will explore the benefits a CPO can bring, how to understand whether your organization needs a CPO, and how to hire one.

The Rise of the Project Economy

The emergence of the chief project officer coincides with exponential increase in projects over the past two decades, a phenomenon I cover extensively in the HBR Project Management Handbook.

The 20th century was the golden age of operations. In 1908, Henry Ford launched the Model T, perfecting the mass production of automobiles. Three years later, Frederick Winslow Taylor presented his theory of how to improve worker productivity by determining how a task could be performed more efficiently.

To support this model, organizations were structured functionally in vertical departments such as marketing, logistics, and accounting. Staff skills were developed to reach departmental objectives. Information systems and processes were adjusted to reflect this reality. Even company profitability was broken down by department. The COO, who focused on leading, managing and running the operations of a company, emerged as a preeminent leadership role in most organizations. And it worked: Productivity skyrocketed, decade after decade.

After the turn of this century, however, something changed. Since the tech boom, productivity growth has been almost flat in the west, despite the explosion of the internet, shorter product life cycles, and exponential advancement in AI and robotics. Why? There comes a point after which a strategy of more volume, more product releases, and more brand extensions simply runs out of road. Sustainable growth through further efficiency becomes impossible, especially in times of uncertainty and rapid change. And change cannot be implemented with efficiency methods. Change must be implemented through projects.

Enter the Chief Project Officer

Thirty years ago 80% of the resources in an organization were dedicated to operations, and 20% to projects; today, that ratio has flipped.

Despite this massive disruption, most organizations still don’t have one senior leader overseeing all the project activities in an organization, as we had with the chief operating officer. Imagine if the manufacturing of electric cars had the sourcing of the components, the assembly, and testing of the cars all answering to a different executive sponsor rather than a single COO. Redundancy, waste, and strategic drift would be rampant. Yet that’s how many organizations still run their projects.

The lack of clarity and ownership in the project space is one of the most common challenges I hear from CEOs and executives. Combined with the exponential growth in projects this obscurity leads to silo thinking, project overload, demotivation, projects not delivered, and a massive amount of resources wasted and value lost.

The chief project officer goes far beyond the direct sponsorship of individual projects. They must push their organization toward adopting a project-driven structure and foster a collaborative and empowering culture that reaches across silos. They must also collaborate with HR to ensure that project-management competencies are developed throughout the organization. The CPO has many responsibilities:

Translating strategy into execution through project selection and prioritization.

The core responsibility of the CPO is to work with the rest of the senior executives to translate the organization’s strategy into programs, initiatives, and projects. The CPO will ensure that projects are appropriately selected, prioritized, and resourced, based on the strategic priorities of the organization and available capacity. The selection process must be fair and transparent, based on criteria against which both new proposals and ongoing projects are assessed. The Hierarchy of Purpose is a valuable tool to carry out this exercise.

Promoting a “less is more” mindset.

In order to add new strategic projects, leaders must free up capacity and resources. In normal circumstances, employees and management are fully booked with projects on top of their day-to-day business activities. Projects must be stopped to make way for new ones.

There is an unwritten rule which says that if you have between one to three strategic projects, you have good chances of achieving all three. If you have between four and 10, you will only be successful with two. And if you have more than 10, you will not achieve any of them. I recommend having three strategic initiatives. Although it is painful, the CPO must be willing to ruthlessly cancel projects to increase the organization’s focus and overall success.

Establishing accountability and governance.

The CPO plays a crucial role in clarifying accountability in projects and establishing a project governance committee to break silos and work together more closely as one organization. This committee decides which initiatives the firm will invest in and which will be stopped or delayed. The chair should be the CEO, with all the executives as members, and the CPO will facilitate the meeting. The committee should meet at least once per month. (The head of projects at Chipotle recently told me that they meet on a weekly basis due to their need to innovate constantly.)

Optimization of resource allocation.

Ineffective resource allocation leads to organizations launching more projects than they can carry out, overwhelming employees and harming their performance and engagement. The CPO will ensure that projects are not launched until the right resources have been selected and people have been freed up from some of their ongoing responsibilities.

Likewise, project managers and the executive sponsors need to be able to dedicate sufficient time to carry out the project successfully. In my experience, an organization in standard circumstances can stop about 50% of their projects without any real impact on the business.

Modernizing organization and project management practices.

The CPO, in partnership with learning and development teams, ensures that the organization develops the right capabilities to deliver diverse projects, including waterfall, agile, and hybrid frameworks, as well as introduction of new technologies, such as AI, to improve project implementation. They also make sure that business cases go beyond the narrow scope of projects deliverables to address broader issues such as sustainability and diversity. An essential last area for the CPO to champion is to create a more agile and project-driven organization that will help to deliver projects more successfully.

Promoting a culture of value creation and benefits delivery.

Beyond making sure that projects are progressing and completed, the CPO is responsible for ensuring that the full bottom-line targets of the projects are delivered and benefits are accelerated to deliver early when possible. The CPO’s compensation should be linked to performance, with potential incentives for over-delivery. Finally, the CPO must ensure that projects are officially closed and that value and benefits delivered are measured and evaluated.

Determining Whether Your Organization Needs a CPO

Every organization needs projects to generate value and keep their business alive. However, not every organization needs a CPO. The role is particularly effective within the context of large and midsized companies (both public and private). Consider the following seven questions to help determine whether your organization would benefit from a CPO:

  1. Is there a lack of clarity on the number of projects being carried out, their status, and their order of priority?
  2. Has the number of projects grown exponentially in the past years? (That is, do you launch more projects than you stop or close?)
  3. Have silos become more predominant, impeding the implementation of cross-business initiatives?
  4. Does your staff feel overwhelmed by the number of projects they are asked to contribute to?
  5. Is there a lack of visibility on the value expected and created from your strategic initiatives and critical projects?
  6. Are the responsibilities of selecting, launching, and overseeing projects spread across three or more executives?
  7. Do your executives and CEO act as sponsors of more than five projects yet have little time to dedicate to them?

If you answer yes to five or more of the questions, then your organization will undoubtedly benefit from a chief project officer. If you answered yet to three or four, you might consider establishing the role, as your organization will benefit from it soon.

Hiring a Chief Project Officer

When looking to hire, most organizations are surprised to realize that they may have already had an unofficial CPO — in fact, many CEOs played the role of the CPO during the first months of the pandemic in 2019 and 2020. They focused all their time on selecting the most important projects — mostly about the survival of their business — ruthlessly canceling all the others, assigning the best resources to these few projects, and dedicating most, if not all, of their time to implementing these projects successfully.

My recommendation is to appoint an internal candidate to the chief project officer position, someone that has demonstrated several of the abilities required for the job and that board wants to groom as a potential candidate for CEO succession. As the role is an executive position, the hiring should be done by the CEO with the support of HR and eventual advice from the board. When an organization’s situation is critical and radical changes are needed at speed, external candidates with the required competencies and experience should also be considered.

It is important to note that a CPO is not a project manager or a director of a project management office; the role goes beyond traditional project management and requires additional skills. Here is what to look for when hiring or appointing a CPO:

  • Executive and growth mindset
  • Strategic and critical thinking
  • Goal and value creation driven
  • Situational leadership and emotional intelligence
  • Able to implement strategic initiatives through uncertainty and silos
  • Change management and communication skills
  • Experience in bringing ideas into reality
  • Experience with program, project, agile, and other implementation methods

Most of these skills are part of the typical path of the MBA degrees, executive education, and grooming for the C-Suite. However, the final bullet, project management and project sponsorship are usually not. This should change now. In the project economy, potential CPOs and CEOs must find ways to develop these skills. HR leaders should be part of this vital change.

To be successful, the CPO should be independent and have full support from the board and the organization’s CEO. The role can coexist with the COO, who will focus on operations, while the CPO will focus on projects. They should be fully integrated into the C-suite. Just as COOs have in the past, CPOs should behave like an extension of the CEO or even the board and, as such, hold the top managers accountable.

Now is just just the beginning for the chief project officer, and their rise will surely have ripple effects on executive teams. I even predict that within in the next 10 years the CPO role will overtake the COO in terms of seniority, power, and prestige. Today, most senior leader recognize that their organizations need to adapt and rapidly embrace new technologies such as AI and automation. This will lead to a further shift of focus and resources to project-based work and away from operations. CPOs may not be common yet in the C-Suite, but their steady emergence is a leading indicator of how companies will organize themselves to thrive in the project economy.