I’ve worked in the HR technology space since 2008, and I’ve been involved in hiring over a dozen CMOs (Chief Marketing Officers) and VPs of Marketing for some companies you know and some that are no longer in business.
CMOs have the shortest tenure in the C-suite at just over four years, according to Korn Ferry. When they arrive, there’s a lot of hoopla. They bring big ideas from the outside world and often change the brand, logo, and sometimes even the company’s name.
But almost immediately, marketing leaders get locked in political battles with key sales leaders. New CMOs try to win the favor of the CEO and board of directors instead of finding allies and, even, co-conspirators among the rank and file employees.
The currency of business is relationships, and, ultimately, CMOs get fired for not building connections. Then a new CMO arrives to repeat the cycle.
(That’s oversimplified, but not much.)
So, when I’m asked to consult on CMO searches, I do a quick premortem. How will this new CMO fail? What’s the path to success? What attributes will work against this new leader? What skills are needed to ensure a smooth transition and steady leadership?
I won’t give away the farm, but here are some things you must hire for — beyond the obvious competencies — in the HR Tech CMO role.
Likability. The single most important quality for a CMO is likability. The role, when done well, opens doors and creates cross-departmental collaboration. The best marketing leaders create fellowship and inspire trust between teams, and the CMO has the power to unite an organization behind a brand and to generate excitement with vendors, partners, and contractors. Get this wrong, and your marketing team becomes an island, and the organization doesn’t move forward. Don’t be afraid to check around and ask, “Was this individual likable? Did people enjoy working with him?”
Perceptibility. The best CMOs have spidey sense and know what’s happening in the company — and the industry — before anybody else. You’ve got to hire someone who has operational acumen but also has a strong sense of communication, culture, and art. Ask your CMO what they do when they’re not working. Do they travel? Support the arts? Volunteer? Teach? Mentor? All work and no play makes for a one-dimensional leader.
Maturity. Sometimes we use the words “seasoned” and “experienced” when we mean mature. A lot of people finally get promoted to CMO and lose their minds — they imbibe in company perqs, act like benevolent rulers, and forget that marketing departments run on the blood, sweat, and tears of assistants and coordinators. The best CMOs are emotionally regulated, understand the priorities of the organization, and know that they’ll be rewarded if the company meets its goals and objectives. You can screen for maturity by asking your candidate to reflect on the notion of power. What are their priorities and core values? What matters most to them in a leader?
Prior Experience with HCM. In the world of HR, we often hire business leaders with no previous experience and ask them to swoop in and fix it. (My friend Kris Dunn writes extensively about this phenomenon.) While most CMOs have prior marketing experience, I believe marketing leaders in the world of HR must have previous HCM experience. Even if it’s just a stint during the early part of their career, it’s vital for marketing leaders to understand the industry and love the technology to some extent before trying to convert eyeballs to users. If you can’t find someone in the HCM industry for your CMO role, ask yourself — am I working with the right executive recruiter?
Tenacity. Finally, your CMO must be tenacious and outwork everybody else in the marketing department. It’s always nice to have staff. How you keep your team happy and engaged is by showing them that we’re all in this together. It’s not about working 100 hours a week or being on email at weird hours; it’s about digging into the real work, being a part of everyday conversations, and being gracious enough to take on tasks that should really be done by a junior member of your team in order to facilitate better work-life balance. A tenacious CMO models good behavior for the marketing department but also raises the game for other leaders in the organization, too.
Those are my thoughts on how to hire a successful CMO who lasts longer than four years. Have you hired marketing leaders? Do you have some expertise in this area? Leave a comment and let me know what resonates — and what I’ve missed — in this blog post.
I’m about to help out on another search, and I’m trying to be useful to my clients!