In 2020, Stacey Tank was appointed chief corporate affairs and transformation officer at Heineken. The following year, Thomas Preising became chief revenue and transformation officer of Gfinity. And just this year, Katie Mullen was appointed JCPenney’s chief digital and transformation officer, directing the company’s growth strategy.
These are just three leaders Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez highlights in the Harvard Business Review in an April 2022 article entitled “The Rise of the Chief Project Officer.” While the titles are different, the concept is the same: a C-suite officer responsible for directing and planning a business’ project efforts, in charge of everything from aligning business objectives with specific initiatives to choosing the best project management tools and methodologies.
As the problems we face and the projects we undertake to address them become increasingly complex, more and more businesses are embracing out-of-box solutions. Enter the chief project officer (CPO).
What does a CPO do?
As a formal title, the CPO is a relatively new concept. For different organizations and industries, it may mean different things.
That said, the CPO’s main role is certainly to govern project strategy and operations. Because this is a C-suite position, they will usually work with other leaders within the organization to ensure that big-picture and smaller initiatives alike align with and support the overarching goals of the business.
While a project manager or director oversees specific projects, laying out the specific project management process to be used, choosing the appropriate team members and tools, budgeting, and so on, the CPO is responsible for thinking longer-term, considering how the project fits into the larger organization.
They may, for example, select the project management methodologies that the organization employs for all of or the majority of their projects, and they can put systems in place for managing all initiatives the business has in its pipeline. They will also perform routine reviews of the types of projects that support the organization — and those that aren’t contributing meaningfully. They should also look at outcomes and key performance indicators (KPIs) to evaluate performance.
The CPO will also tie project objectives with far-reaching concerns and issues, such as sustainability and inclusivity.
In order to be successful in the role, a CPO must have strong project management skills, as well as leadership competencies. Many people in this role will come from a project management background.
The history of the CPO
According to Nieto-Rodriguez, the rise of the CPO is a response to a surge in the number of projects organizations and individuals have been undertaking since the start of the current millennium.
This, he writes, contrasts nearly a century of operation-based structures, launched by Henry Ford’s introduction of the Model, kicking off the mass production era that characterized much of the 20th century. Even as late as the 1990s, the vast majority of resources were devoted to operations over projects. That’s no longer the case — in fact, the opposite is true.
That’s not to say a chief operations officer is no longer critical for keeping an organization running smoothly. But more and more, a counterpart who is dedicated to projects over operations is necessary, too.
Why is it an important position?
By now, it’s probably clear that projects are reigning king within many organizations. And because of that, professionals dedicated to overseeing them are becoming more and more common across industries. But why is an executive necessary for governing projects? Why aren’t project managers enough?
In truth, in some cases, such as smaller organizations and those where projects aren’t foundational to the mission, a CPO isn’t absolutely pivotal — a project manager or project management team may suffice. But in larger organizations and those where projects are intrinsic to the vision of the business, you may very well need a CPO.
While the project manager will oversee and handle individual projects, the CPO is in charge of larger objectives. In addition to tying project purpose to larger organizational goals, they are tasked with determining accountability, ensuring inter-departmental unity, working with stakeholders, balancing project manager responsibilities, ensuring teams are equipped with resources, and generally managing project flow. They are also ones to kill projects when necessary.
Ultimately, they are project advocates. They relay the benefits of projects and larger strategies to their C-level peers. They measure and believe in their value, championing their purpose and contribution to the larger organization.
What separates a CPO from other C-level roles?
It’s often said that C-suite executives have more in common with one another than with lower-level professionals in their field or specialty. To some extent, this is true of the CPO, who is in charge of the tough decisions, rather than the day-to-day goings-on, when it comes to projects. But that doesn’t mean that a CPO isn’t a different beast from, say, a chief technology officer (CTO) or chief information officer (CIO).
“The main differences are subject matter expertise, their strategy lens, and their place in the corporate value chain,” Peter Moutsatsos, Chief Project Officer for Telstra, said in an interview with ProjectManagement.com.
“A CIO/CTO tends to be more upstream in a value chain. They are mainly accountable for information technology strategy and defining the future information and technology architecture of a business.…The CPO’s contribution is to work with the CIO/CTO to frame project alternatives, select the right projects, help prioritize programs and projects, identify and develop key talent to lead major technology initiatives, develop and maintain project methodologies, and provide quality assurance over project delivery.”
The future of the CPO
What’s next for the CPO? Perhaps the first step is solidifying this as a real role and title. While there are plenty of organizations that have adopted the CPO as a critical executive position, it remains a little-known leadership title. In fact, there are likely already many CPOs — who simply don’t know they’re CPOs.
But the fact remains that the CPO can certainly bring real value to their organizations. Across sectors, businesses that are constantly producing and engaging in projects should consider how this executive role can contribute and help their organizations grow, ushering them into a new era of business prosperity.