[CMO's Corner] How CMOs Can Proactively Ensure Longer-Term Success in Their Roles

January 9, 2018

CMO's Corner

For CMOs, the struggle is real. And well-documented. Within the last five years, we’ve come to understand that 80% of CEOs either don’t trust their CMOs or are unimpressed by them. That’s just plain staggering for the legions of marketing professionals whose career ambitions include not just a trip to the C-suite, but ideally a long, satisfying stay.

What makes the divisiveness among CMOs and CEOs even more troubling is that it’s unique to the marketer in the boardroom. When it comes to their CIOs and CFOs, only 10% of those same CEOs expressed negative feelings.

With such a massive disparity, it’s only natural to question marketing’s role in the enterprise. Is there something fundamentally wrong with marketers? Or just senior marketers? Or how we go about our jobs in the modern business landscape?

“It was interesting to me that 80% of CEOs were comfortable acknowledging disappointment in their CMOs,” says Kimberly A. Whitler, former CMO and current academic. “This seems to suggest that they believe that CMO failure has nothing to do with the CEO. However, the CEO is the one responsible for designing the role and staffing it. As such, they can help improve their own satisfaction by becoming more knowledgeable about the different types of CMO roles and making sure that the role design fits the needs of the organization.”

Whitler’s opinion holds promise for CMOs in that marketers may not be entirely to blame. Still, as a wise, anonymous person once said, “If you keep blaming someone else for your problems, you will never learn why problems come your way.”

Here’s how CMOs can move beyond finger pointing to proactively build cohesive relationships that ultimately benefit the organizations they represent.

Do You Really Know Your Role?

In a recent HBR article, Whitler and co-author Neil Morgan tell the story of a CMO who landed a highly desirable role with a leading retailer. A mere year into the role, the CMO felt thwarted. His assumptions about the role were nowhere near reality. He explained to Whitler and Morgan that the problem was poor job design, not lack of skill. What the CEO expected from the CMO was a far cry from the authority given to meet those expectations.

It was an all-too-common story for the researchers, and the problem, they found, was that not all CMO positions are the same. Nor should they be. Each company has a unique set of circumstances and the best candidate isn’t necessarily the best marketer on paper, but the best marketer for that company.

Sure, most CEOs can do a better job of defining the CMO role at their organizations, with clearer expectations, responsibilities, etc. But what if CMO candidates (and current CMOs) were more proactive in educating CEOs about what type of role they’re best suited for, what type of role is needed, and what realistic expectations should be? Seems an open-minded CEO – one you’d want to work for – would appreciate that level of insight, right? And a higher level of self-awareness among CMOs certainly makes sense as a means of combatting the problem.

To that end, Whitler and Morgan identified three types of CMO roles (below). 

Delineating enterprise-wide P&L, strategy, and commercialization can only help to clear up confusion regarding what the CEO needs and expects from the CMO role. Sure, some overlap between these roles can be expected, but compared to lumping CMOs into a broad category, it’s progress.

For CMO candidates, it’s logical to push for a realistic sense of responsibilities and expectations – especially when this might be one’s only shot as the chief marketer. And if vagueness or lack of understanding persist, it’s likely a sign that the role in question is not the right fit. Maybe for anyone.

Market the Marketing Department First

“Everybody knows what finance does and what to expect from HR. But, for marketing, things can be fuzzier.” says Thomas Barta, co-author of The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader.

Barta believes that certain internal conditions need to exist if CMOs and their respective marketing departments are to succeed. Namely, internal stakeholders, across departments, need to have a clear understanding of what marketing does. “If sales, R&D, and business units within one company are chasing different goals, it can be hard for marketers to cut through. In our research, lack of internal alignment is the number one complaint of CMOs,” adds Barta.

The solution? Again, it’s gaining clarity. Actually, “extreme clarity,” as Barta puts it. “We all know that satisfaction is the difference between what we expect and what we experience. And if people don’t know what to expect from marketing, life for CMOs can be tricky. It’s, therefore, essential that top marketers create extreme clarity around how marketing helps the company succeed.”

So, all the CMO needs to do, then, is make sure everyone understands exactly what marketing does. Oh yeah, and align with every department. Piece of cake, right?

No one said the alignment needs to be perfect. We know that demanding perfection inhibits progress, and progress, not perfection, is the real goal here. If we’re not at all aligned with other departments now, it’s unreasonable to expect 100% alignment in short order. Or 100% alignment at any time for that matter. But we can incrementally become more effective at working with others to rally around and achieve common goals. And who better than marketers to take on the onus of extreme clarity?

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