Carola Wahl

Carola Wahl

Board Member and former CTMO Axa Switzerland
Alumna since 2004

The power of change - How technology, culture, and courage
all play a role in transformation

“Leaving your comfort zone can be scary,” says Carola Wahl, an expert in digital transformation. “But it’s necessary for learning and growth. As William Faulkner said, ‘You cannot swim for new horizons until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.’”

Having spent the majority of her career as a change-maker, Carola knows a great deal about courage and determination. Prior to her current role on several boards and as the strategic advisor to a number of startups, she served as the Chief Transformation and Market Management Officer at AXA Switzerland. Before that, she was responsible for leading a major turnaround as Senior Vice President of Indirect Sales and Service at Deutsche Telekom. Today, Carola lives near Zurich with her husband, their 13-year-old daughter, and their 12-year-old son.

During a recent conversation from her home office, Carola reflected on her career path, the power of technology, and the future of working in a digital-first world.

What were your early years like?
We lived in a very small town in the Bavarian Forest, and my father was a self-employed architect. Every day, my mom cooked lunch for us — my father, herself, his two employees, my brother and myself. I remember that all important business decisions were made at the lunch table. Work and life were never separated in my family. Customers called on Sundays. But my father loved his job and he never wanted to retire. I actually thought I wanted to be an architect, too, but instead, I became what you might call an “organizational architect,” transforming and reinventing businesses.

What does an “organizational architect” do?
We focus on enabling change, and there are two main levers in business transformation: culture and technology. In contrast to culture, technology is exponential and not linear. Just look at the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 and the successive shift to mobile-first strategies across industries. Another example is the use of videoconferencing during homeschooling in lockdown: Seeing my son’s productivity rise by 100 percent doing his math homework together with his buddies was mind-boggling. Technology is the key driver for transformation and often leads to Schumpeter’s “creative destruction.” It can create fundamental shifts in behavior, in culture, and eventually in values.

How should companies be thinking about transformation today?
I think there’s a big opportunity for leaders because the need for transformation in a post-pandemic world is really clear. We’re not going to talk any longer about whether we need to change, but how fast we are able to change. If you’re taking over a burning platform, that’s culturally the “easiest” because everybody already realizes change is inevitable. On the other hand, if you’re in a successful business, you can argue that the best time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining and you still have all the options. In any case, now is a good time to start a change. You just need to strike a good balance between being respectful and appreciative for the things that have already been built, and being crystal clear about facing the brutal facts about what is not going well. There’s a great saying: “Everybody wants change, but nobody wants to change.” In other words, transformation is not easy, and it usually doesn’t happen overnight. It is a risky endeavor, but in my experience, it’s necessary for the long-term success of every business.

What’s the best advice you can offer others?
Every transformation needs to start with yourself. You have to “learn2unlearn,” which is not easy at all. For example, at AXA, I was responsible for data analytics. I wanted to understand the work of my data scientist team, so I took a class at EPFL in Lausanne to learn how to program Python. But what I realized at the end of the course was that, for me, knowing how to program was not necessary for the successful scaling of our data strategy. More important was fostering a new way of collaboration within the company, in particular the closer alignment of IT and business.

Of your many achievements so far, what makes you most proud?
Having worked in transformational roles in several industries now — media, telco, retail, and financial services — I’ve had to adapt and reinvent myself. I often started as an “outsider,” but being underestimated at the beginning just increased my motivation to prove people wrong.

Any lasting lessons from your time at Strategy&, then known as Booz & Company?
It was a wonderful training ground for how to structure and solve problems, and for how not to be intimidated by complexity. In those years at Booz Allen Hamilton, I worked for more than 25 clients. Being assembled in new teams every couple of months and learning how to “crack the case” was an amazing learning experience for me. Especially at the beginning, I remember feeling quite desperate about having no clue how to tackle these big and complex client problems and even less why I would be the right person to work on them. But learning to overcome that kind of humility was a great preparation for my later career across industries. It taught me that you can contribute something very valuable as an external party by taking a step back and giving something a fresh look through a good strategic tool set. I also cherish my fantastic network, across industries, of people who I met while working at the firm.

What’s your focus now?
I’m advising high-growth, technologically driven, and private equity–backed companies, such as powercloud, the fastest-growing software as a service company in the utility space, in their scaling and internationalization. It’s especially meaningful to me because sustainability is close to my heart. I believe we can only tackle the biggest challenge of our lifetimes, like climate change, with technology. And I’m working with publicly listed, regulated businesses going through digital transformations, such as Generali Switzerland.

Finally, together with the applied AI initiative at TU Munich, I’m training C-suites and boards on how to become data-driven companies. AI consulting is continuing to boom in the coming five years. Consulting firms who become the trusted source for AI transformation advice will not be those who hire the most PhDs, they'll be those who can educate the client's leadership and help to mold a coherent roadmap and vision.

It’s a fascinating time to be working as an “organizational architect,” and I feel privileged to be part of it. I love to work and, like my dad, I never want to retire.

How do you feel about the future?
Personally, I’m very optimistic. I believe the workplace is permanently changed, and I think that will be positive for women. With more hybrid work models, double-income families will be able to more easily integrate work and private life. And I just don’t think people will want to go to the office to sit alone and work quietly anymore, not even the CEOs. We can do that better at home (provided kids are back in school). We will want meeting places where we can brainstorm together — where we can be creative and be inspired by each other. I’m ready for that.

This interview was conducted and edited by Ina Fischer, Strategy& and Jen Swetzoff, founder of CLOSEUP, a creative studio in Brooklyn, New York. Jen was formerly the deputy managing editor at strategy+business magazine.

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