Strategic Leadership Sets CMOs Apart from Heads of Marketing

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The celebration was surely muted when Forrester Research predicted that in 2015, the average tenure for a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) would reach five years. That’s not long, but it’s nearly double the average reported as recently as 2006.

Why are CMOs still being replaced so quickly?

It’s because many still aren’t acting like CMOs, but rather as heads of marketing departments. What’s the difference? Plenty.

Sales Opportunities vs. Company Growth

Approach is the overarching differentiator between a marketing department head and a CMO. The former typically views himself or herself as the manager of a marketing team, while the latter feels a responsibility to the business as a whole.

My Chief Outsiders colleague Pete Hayes takes that argument even further, saying,

At the end of the day, a marketing department is charged with creating opportunities that the sales function can capitalize on. But a CMO is really charged with growing the company. And while those two intersect, they are different.”

Hayes recalled a panel discussion he led in which he raised this distinction. A CEO stood up and said, "It’s my job to run the company. It’s my CMO’s job to grow the company. So while I want to get the right people doing the right things to make us operationally effective, the CMO’s focus is to identify and deliver on growth opportunities.”

What specifically does it take for a marketer to deliver on those opportunities and be an effective business leader? In my view, there are five keys:

  • Strategic leadership
  • Business results
  • Innovation
  • Focus on the customer
  • Continuous improvement

Hayes, who as a Chief Outsiders CMO focuses on mid-market technology and professional services companies, recalled one of his engagements that required an unusual amount of strategic leadership.

All of the companies we supply with fractional CMOs have never had a marketing executive. Marketing to them means lead generation; and plenty of people think that the CMO’s job is just to sell stuff. Actually, it starts with where to focus. Sometimes it means assuring relevance, which has to do with focusing on the right products or services and getting the messages right. It can even mean doing less.”

Narrowing the Focus

Such was the case with this particular prescription and healthcare services company. “Every six months there was a new idea. They didn’t realize they were trying to do too many things with what they had, and that those things weren’t synergistic. We had them narrow their focus, and the company grew. We actually had a second engagement with the same company, and we recommended they narrow their focus still further.”

What was the reaction? Hayes said, “Great joy. They didn’t realize why they were running so ragged.” He explained, “Once you get the strategic things done, the sales force has products and services that are relevant and a story that makes sense. And you have markets that care, because you’re going to solve a problem for them.”

True CMOs fuse strategic, long-term vision with a strong bias for sales and marketing integration, and they balance creativity with hard financial data and marketing analytics. They also take responsibility for the brand, customer experience and product/service management. They are key players when it comes to making decisions involving mergers and acquisitions.

In short, they are strategic, and they are leaders. 

Editor's Note: This is the first in a five-part series. Read the rest of the series here.

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