A new study out by Spencer Stuart shows an insane number of chief marketing officers who’ve been fired during 2018. But frankly, it’s not a surprise. I served as CMO for Deloitte Consulting and then Starwood Hotels & Resorts, and when I have coached executive teams through transformations, I’ve seen many teams at an impasse with their CMO.
There are lessons we can learn by exploring why so many CMOs get fired—and they can be useful to any executive working to navigate the radically interdependent world of business today.
Although the role of a CMO has been evolving and expanding, people on executive teams still seem to think the CMO must have expertise in every element of her role. In most cases that is a prescription for failure. Success comes, rather, by embracing a role as the facilitator of growth for the business and the four most important levers of that growth:
Brand: This is the traditional role of the CMO: the architect of the brand strategy and the one who establishes the brand’s position within the marketplace and relative to the competition. The CMO is the curator of the creative. She lays out the road map: where the brand has been, where it is going, and how it is going to move in that direction.
Product marketing: For this, the CMO pulls all of the analysis and insights from all of the customer-facing resources of the organization to support and co-design specific solutions with the product organization.
Data and analytics: This has been a fast-emerging competency, and one which is sometimes antithetical to the traditional role of the creative CMO. This role is more rigorous, more focused on numbers, and more focused on data sources—many of which didn’t even exist a few years ago.
Sales support: This has sometimes not been the purview of the CMO at all, but has been taken up and led by the sales team alone. This area is measured by the generation of leads and the support of the field marketing organization, which in turn directly supports and enables the sales organization. In many cases, the incapacity to successfully support the sales operations has been the downfall of a CMO. That is because of the simple truth that revenue and sales always win. In some instances, the sales organization ignores marketing altogether and takes over, leaving only the corporate brand to the marketer.
When faced with the evolving demands of the role, many CMOs steadfastly cling to the one thing they know best. Too often this is a co-creation with the CEO who hired them. For instance, when a refresh of a brand is called for, a CEO will often pursue a CMO from a big brand. After completing an expensive, celebrated brand reboot, everyone finds that the CMO is still beating the drum of “more money for bigger brand.” This just when market pressures are suggesting the CMO should shift to sales support and product marketing.
I have also seen CMOs who have been extraordinary at generating leads, but then struggle with transforming the brand. Because the CEO happens to have a strong point of view, they are reluctant to step up within the executive team and say what the CEO needs to hear. They fear that if they do, they invite trouble. I have also often witnessed a tug of war between the CMO and CEO, particularly in founder-led organizations where the brand is, in essence, a slice of that CEO’s perception of themselves.
What can we learn from watching the pattern of why CMOs get displaced? I see four big lessons:
1. Recognize your responsibilities. You may prefer spending time and energy on one or two of the areas outlined in your job description—the ones you feel especially good at. Nonetheless, you are responsible for all of them. This means that you must learn to successfully facilitate and orchestrate all of these critical areas, not necessarily accomplish them yourself. Most likely, if you try to achieve all of these competencies yourself, it will be your downfall. You don’t have to provide all of the leadership and direction in all of these areas. With good orchestration, the solutions will come from others. This may be a little galling, depending on the size of your ego. But a friend of mine used to say that in golf, nobody draws pictures on the scorecard. That’s because how you got there is irrelevant—what’s most important is that you got there.
2. Build a “team” around your role. So, who is on your team? It’s not the people who report to you. Rather, if you are a modern CMO, your “team” (in quotes deliberately) may include the chief product officer, the head of sales and sales support, the chief strategy officer, those responsible for data and analytics, and the most creative people in the company who have a sense of the brand. Oh, and of course the CEO themselves.
Real success as an executive isn’t based on your direct reports—it’s based on your ability to build your “team” and then lead without formal authority and control.
I have more than one CMO friend whose job is on the ropes. One of them hits the ball out of the park in lead generation and field marketing support, and may even be effective at data analytics. But she is incompetent at co-creating innovative product solutions and strategies. This wouldn’t be a fatal weakness—if she were able to collaborate with the chief product officer to fulfill this part of her role. A lot of executives are in this position, unaware that what they lack isn’t a requisite skills, but the ability to partner with C-suit colleagues who possess it and can fill that gap.
3. See no boundaries. I’m working with too many organizations in which one executive or another is consistently seeking to increase their authority and control. These people often feel frustrated by running into boundaries. Here’s what I tell them: There are no “boundaries” in the growth of an organization, inside or outside the company! Boundaries don’t exist for bold and effective innovators—people who can see big possibilities, enlist talent, and navigate networks to make things happen. All that exists is your willingness to engage the individuals who will execute the most powerful solutions inside of your organization and out to the customer base. This is the definition of the organization design of the future.
4. Overcome the dynamics within your team. I have often seen CMOs fail and then blame the dynamics within the executive team. We have coached many sales organizations through transformations, and we inevitably find ourselves brokering negotiations between the head of sales, head of product, head of marketing, or others who are not enabling salespeople to deliver great solutions. It doesn’t matter who you think is getting in your way as a leader of growth, your job is to facilitate the transformation.
So what happens if the CEO, the head of sales, or the chief product officer is getting in your way? I don’t care. Sorry to be a downer, but it doesn’t negate your responsibility. Your job remains the same. These people are still members of your team. Recognize that you have a mix of individuals within your organization who need varying degrees of coaching, cajoling, and encouragement. Your job is still to enlist and engage your peers—without authority—and even to work with your CEO to achieve the growth your role and vision demands.
Sure, it’s easier to sit back and point fingers. “It’s the founder’s personality that’s getting in the way.” Or “It’s the head of sales’ ego and her disinterest in working collaboratively.” Truthfully, this is self-indulgent. Get over yourself and ask yourself what you can do. How can you reach out and enlist your team members with generosity and authenticity to co-create an extraordinary solution? How can you lead?
Sure, you can be “right,” but you can also be fired. Just ask the CMOs who’ve been pushed form their jobs so far this year.