It took me a long time to know the difference between being an executive and being a mid-level or senior-level manager. In my first executive position, I tended to act as I previously had rather than what I needed to be. Luckily for me, I received good mentoring and could model executives around me.

One thing that separated the skills of an executive from those of everyone else: the ability to think strategically. While that sounds like some management consulting buzzword bingo winner, it has proven to be true. It’s not about thinking big, it’s about thinking of what’s important and letting others work through the details.

Getting Away From Assumptions

CMOs differ from other marketing professionals in that they must think at all times about customers. Deeply and thoroughly. A CMO can put herself in the head of her customers -- any customer -- and envision what that customer wants, how they will react and most importantly, how they will feel.

The brand's essence comes down to the emotional connection that a customer makes with a product or company. No emotion equals no brand. Everything else is commentary.

This is hard.

It is hard to get into someone else’s head. It is hard to imagine what others feel, especially if you don't share those feelings. It’s even more difficult to predict what others might do when you wouldn’t do that.

Data can help. Data helps us understand customer behaviors. We can tell that if we say or do something, some customers will react in a way that might appear counterintuitive. Data helps us to break away from our biases by challenging our assumptions.

However, data isn’t enough. Data often lacks nuance. By quantifying and aggregating actions and behaviors, there is a loss of fidelity. We lose the depth of emotion when we reduce people to a set of numbers. Data guides but stories -- the customer narrative -- provides true insights into what our customers want from us.

Welcome the Chief Listening Officer

This brings us back to what skills it takes to be a CMO in 2015. Modern CMOs elicit and listen to customer stories. They look beyond the data to the emotion laden narrative.

More and more I am convinced that the Chief Marketing Officer must become the Chief Listening Officer. They need to listen to customers, their own people, journalists and even analysts and then synthesize these points of view into a picture of what customers really need -- physically, professionally and emotionally. The marketing team comes in here to craft programs that tap into customer's minds and hearts.

Technology, like all tools, can help but it can also be a crutch. If CMOs listen to software and not customers, they will fail. They cannot afford to drown the narrative in the number.