sign in the shape of a number 2 pencil which states "Love to Learn"
PHOTO: Tim Mossholder

No other executives had to adjust to 2020 quite like CMOs. Plans and messaging campaigns became obsolete only a few weeks into the year. Questions of revenue and regulation prevented businesses from making significant investments into marketing initiatives. For CMOs, realistic goals quickly evolved into complete unknowns.

Despite last year's struggles, 2021 looks to be a more promising and more stable period for marketing leaders. Assuming a second prolonged global catastrophe does not occur, businesses should have a much firmer grasp of what they can and cannot expect to achieve.

This return to stability will not be a return to normalcy, though. The role of the CMO evolved quickly and permanently over the last year. Skills that allowed CMOs to thrive in the past will still hold value, but in 2021, the list of priorities will change. Outsourced CMOs will become even more common. Some high-level marketing competencies will be less useful than before, while others will be critical. Considering the context and the challenges ahead, these are some of the top competencies CMOs will need this year.

1. Enduring Flexibility

Many CMOs will be eager to return to normal this year. Most will be disappointed. The world will not return to what it was, online or in brick-and-mortar businesses. Flexibility has always been key to executive success, and now that flexibility is more important than ever.

Every CMO had to bend to survive last year, but that flexibility cannot expire in 2021. Executives expecting to reach a plateau of stability will find that the world continues to evolve. New turmoils will arise to replace the old ones. The only constant will be change, and the CMOs who embrace that truth will fare better than their counterparts.

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2. Customer Experience Alignment

Businesses must continue to align marketing and sales, but lately the connection between marketing and customer experience has also become essential. Customers today are more informed than ever. They can spot hypocritical companies, and they know when marketing campaigns make promises that actual experiences cannot deliver.

This alignment matters both for in-person experiences and for digital events. People who visit restaurants will expect to have socially distant dining options for at least another year. Shoppers will feel more comfortable with visible cleaning efforts from staff, and they may feel cheated if what's advertised doesn't match the practice. The same goes for online experiences: align the customer expectations with the experience created.

3. Collaborative Creativity

Marketers have always prized creativity. Like flexibility, creativity allows CMOs to make the most of bad situations or capitalize on short windows of opportunity. In 2021, though, creativity will continue its trend away from individual efforts and toward team-first thinking.

Leaders are not always the most talented individual contributors on their teams. In the case of CMOs, there is almost always someone on the team with a sharper creative skill set. Rather than lead teams from the top, CMOs must seize the role of empowering their top contributors to shine. While CMOs can't make everything happen on their own, they can go much further by relying on their talented teams.

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4. Honest Writing

In 2020, remote work evolved into a necessity instead of a luxury. Zoom meetings filled every calendar. CMOs spent their fair share of time in video calls, but they also spent more time communicating with their teams and partners using the written word. Even as some businesses return to the office (not all will), honest writing will remain a critical skill for CMOs.

Asynchronous communication methods help teams stay focused. It's always easier to refer to documentation or messages than to remember what the CMO said in a meeting. This is not to say meetings will go away for good, of course. Brainstorming in a group remains a vital and valuable part of marketing. However, by writing clearly and openly, CMOs can connect with team members in situations where face-to-face meetings don't make sense.

5. Proactive Inclusivity

The struggles of 2020 shined a harsh light on diversity and inclusivity shortcomings in businesses. People in leadership positions cannot afford to sit back and stay out of the spotlight. Inclusivity matters, both internally and externally. Marketing teams should include people from a variety of backgrounds, and brands should speak to a diverse set of audiences.

Inclusivity does not happen by accident. CMOs must take this issue seriously to source more diverse candidates for open roles and challenge biases in messaging. Many CMOs will struggle to accomplish this. Some will refuse to try. In all cases, though, the leaders who address inclusivity will have an advantage over those who avoid the subject.

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Upskilling for 2021 and Beyond

For CMOs, every year shares a common theme. No matter which skills are in demand, passion for learning defines a good leader. Proactive inclusivity and excellent writing skills will always be valuable, but what will next year demand?

Change is inevitable, especially in marketing and at the top of business. Those who hold C-suite marketing positions are under more pressure than anyone. Nurture these skills for 2021, but remember to continue learning to stay sharp in 2022 and beyond.