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What Not to Do As a New CMO

Don't struggle quietly. Demand support from those above, below, and around you in the hierarchy

Senior Executive in Corner OfficeYou may have just become a new chief marketing officer (CMO) or you may have aspirations to be one in the future.

Either way, once you’ve got over the novelty of a bigger office, more respect, a shiny new title to dazzle people with on LinkedIn, and probably a lot of congratulatory calls from vendors and agencies, there will be work to do.

For a start, nearly half (46%) of marketing leaders will struggle quietly in their new role, and that causes ripple effects. Direct reports perform 15% worse than those reporting to a high-performing new leader, and they are 20% more likely to leave. Tougher to quantify are the botched growth strategies, new product launches, or major marketing initiatives that come with a struggling new leader.

CEB work on leadership transitions based on data from nearly 30,000 leaders and hundreds of interviews, shows that the best leadership transitions happen when firms tailor the new leader’s experience for one of four transition types.

  1. Replacing an icon: Stepping into the shoes of a Steve Jobs-type figure.

  2. Following a train wreck: Sometimes this is due to personal failings but often it’s because of underlying business problems.  This is what Kathy Savitt faced when she joined Yahoo!, for example.

  3. Jump start: The prior leader was neither strong nor weak, but Marketing needs to move in a new direction. Campbell Soup appointing Michael Senackerib as CMO would be an example of this.

  4. Breaking ground: Filling a newly created position. For example, Bill Hornbuckle at MGM Resorts filled an expanded CMO (and president) mandate with a new responsibility for product development.

Good Leadership Transition Depends on the Context

Each of these contexts demands different types of activities and support from the organization.

  1. Replacing an icon: About 20% of marketing transitions fall into this category. The first priority is to clarify the role and build relationships that will help legitimize the new entrant as a leader and to advance their agenda. “Stakeholder alignment” is important here, both within and outside of the company.

    One B2B CMO in the CEB Marketing network fielded a diagnostic survey to both the marketing and sales teams. He found common areas of perceived strengths and weaknesses in 20 different dimensions, from lead generation to sales enablement to customer insight development. Most importantly, he found the areas of greatest disagreement and sought to understand why people disagreed.

    He then found an important difference in the view of how sales reps should engage customers. This was something that the prior iconic marketing leader was able to skirt past by sheer force of personality. That discovery led to a dramatic shift in Marketing’s demand generation and content marketing strategy.

  2. Following a train wreck: Accounting for about 20% of leadership transitions, leaders that take over in this situation must establish a clear vision, build new relationships, and repair damaged ones.

    New marketing leaders should seize the opportunity to redefine marketing’s role and set KPIs that align with that new vision. This is especially tough for CMOs today because how Marketing creates economic value has shifted dramatically. To that end, helping CMOs get off to a good start in this kind of situation might sometimes require a re-think of Marketing’s overall role.

    For example, the sales and marketing teams at one financial services provider in CEB’s networks encouraged investment of $250 million in data and analytics across the past four years that helped Marketing develop new products in a slow moving industry. Success allowed Marketing to expand its role beyond just providing marketing communications and to do more work to understand customers and develop products.

  3. Jump start: Another 20% of transitions are jump starts. To be successful in these situations, leaders must quickly understand the industry and organization, as well as the dynamics of the new team.  For CMOs, this means understanding where (if anywhere) there are gaps in the fundamental marketing skills required by the function.

    It also means assessing the team mix and identifying the highest performing marketers, especially in a volatile environment.

  4. Breaking ground: About 40% of transitions involve moving into a newly created position, and this is increasingly the case in marketing. In many cases, the CMO’s portfolio will expand to include some combination of strategy, customer experience, and even technology. That means a new role for the CMO, as well as new roles for certain direct reports.  In these transitions, success hinges on properly defining the role and organizational structure, and gathering a deep understanding of the neighboring stakeholders.

    For example, some marketing leaders re-draw the traditional lines around and within marketing to break apart silos. One consumer packaged-goods firm re-organized marketing services away from traditional lines of TV, promotions, digital, etc. Instead, it is organizing roles by paid, earned and owned communications by forcing the mixing of digital and non-digital knowledge and expertise.  For instance, paid media roles have responsibility for both TV and paid digital media (including paid social display). Earned media includes both PR and social of the earned variety.

    This is the sort of re-thinking that the “breaking ground” transitions require. There will likely be much more of it in the areas of customer experience, insights and analytics, and innovation, where traditional silos are causing more harm than good.


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