Transformation is a vital challenge for Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and their top managers. To explore this increasingly important topic, we first summarize the institutional context of SOE transformation and the conflicting interests and interdependent relationships of six major actors as inside/outside stakeholders. Based on the strategic action view of institutional analysis, we emphasize the role of the change agent's level of aspiration and political skills in transforming an SOE. Then, through inductive case studies on the transformation of three SOEs, we address how top managers, acting as change agents, can initiate and engage in institutional change through strategic actions such as negotiation, manipulation, and coercion; we also illustrate how they adopt different actions to influence different actors. Based on the inductive results, we develop a theoretical model, which we refer to as the ‘strategic action model’ that shows how the aspiration level, political skills, strategic actions, and change outcomes interrelate and offer insights into the strategic action of top managers as change agents. Our most important contribution is revealing the interplay between the proactive role of inside actors as change agents and the enabling condition of institutional context.