The CMO Problem No One Wants To Talk About — And 5 Things To Do About It
A former boss of mine used to talk about the “loneliness of leadership” — that feeling you get after the warm glow when you finally reach the top of your field. The weight of the world rests on your shoulders and yours alone, with no one around who can truly share the burden — or even really understand it for that matter.
While this anxiety nags at many C-suite leaders, it’s fair to say that none feels it as acutely as today’s CMO. In addition to being all alone atop the function, marketing leaders also face a daunting array of diverse challenges, outsized (and often unrealistic) expectations, brain-numbing complexity and an environment that isn’t always supportive. All of this can combine to generate a deep-seated sense of anxiety, vulnerability and pessimism.
And it’s not something anyone really wants to talk about. As a three-time CMO in multiple industries, I certainly felt that crushing sense of unease at times, but never made a point of showing it. I’ve spoken with several sitting CMOs who also acknowledge these anxieties, but were not eager to publicly admit to them.
One CMO of a large consumer-facing company described the feeling as “a form of impostor syndrome. It’s this sense of not really deserving to be in this role, and that if anyone ever found out how much I really don’t know, they’d run me out of here.” Another described it as “feeling as though I’m dancing on ice — always one hop ahead of plunging in over my head.”
Top recruiters of marketing talent see this pressure as well. “It’s a really tough role right now, more so than ever,” said Caren Fleit, Managing Director of Korn Ferry’s Global Marketing Officer Practice. Greg Welch, a Senior Partner at Spencer Stuart, and a member of their Marketing Officer, Consumer, Board and CEO practices, agrees: “While these are exciting times given the influence of digital across organizations, our CMO community is under tremendous stress”, he said. “Facing sky-high expectations from their CEOs and organizations, and not to mention empowered customers, even the very best marketing leaders are having trouble keeping the troops calm.”
Given these outsized demands, it’s not surprising that many CMOs wonder if they’re up to the job. Let’s start by unpacking some of the sources of CMO anxiety.
Massive expectations. CMOs generally don’t get placed because everything’s rosy. They’re brought on to fix, transform and most often to accelerate growth that has gone sluggish. Boards and other C-suite colleagues often have unrealistic expectations for what marketing can deliver, and with what resources.
Poor alignment. CMOs often walk in with one agenda in mind (say, revive the brand) and the CEO and Board are looking for something completely different (say, greater sales efficiency). This mismatch inevitably leads to heartburn and disappointment.
Complexity and ambiguity. The marketing function now encompasses everything from the highest order of data analytics to the creative art of storytelling. Clearly no one can be a master of this full spectrum, so by definition everyone feels deficient to some degree.
Experts everywhere. We now live in a world where “influencers” and “gurus” abound — conferences, podcasts and books all merchandise legions of “experts” who claim exactly that depth of knowledge we uneasily feel we lack. We’re surrounded by reminders of what we don’t know.
Insufficient runway. We all know the gloomy stats about the short (and shortening) average tenure of the CMO — ranging from 2.5 to 4 years. Combine that with the realities of what it takes to actually deliver on some of their expectations (say, 3 years for true digital transformation) and you’ve got an uncomfortably loud mortality clock ticking in your ear.
Inadequate language, metrics and standards. Unlike most other functions, marketing lacks a well-established and commonly understood set of frameworks for assessing and communicating marketing payback. CMOs are then challenged to convincingly demonstrate the value they deliver for the resources they’re given — making it all that much harder to beat the mortality clock.
Unsupportive environments. This can take many forms: zero-based budgeting that can gut critical long-term investments; misalignment on goals and KPIs; cultural tensions around scope of responsibility; resistance to progressive programs; boards that don’t understand or appreciate marketing. Korn Ferry’s research shows that lack of organizational alignment behind a CMO’s change agenda is a big driver of short tenures.
Ironically though, even as marketing leaders feel this gnawing insecurity, they feel unable to share it and thereby address it. In the face of this daunting responsibility, CMOs feel obliged to show up as confident masters of their domain, revealing none of their unease. “I don’t dare confess to any of my colleagues how anxious I feel, let alone ask for help,” one told me. “And when I meet other CMOs I feel like we’re generally trying to impress each other.”
So what’s an unsettled CMO to do?
Here are five ways lonely leaders can safely create environments where they can let their hair down, express uncertainty and vulnerability and get the support they need to soldier on with confidence.
Realize it’s ok to invest in yourself. You’re a high-value (and high-priced) asset to the company. You invest in all sorts of resources for the enterprise, so don’t hesitate to devote some time, energy and money to shoring up your skills and comfort level. You deserve a little support too — the payback will be there. And don’t be sheepish about sharing your vulnerabilities: Greg Welch emphasizes, “Young teams today want to know that their CMO is talented and well-prepared, of course, but they also crave authenticity.”
Get a CMO coach. Hire someone to act as your sounding board, confidant, cheerleader, counselor or whatever else you might need on a stressful Monday morning. Greg Welch says he sees many CMOs working with coaches these days. Caren Fleit emphasizes the importance of getting the right coach: not only someone who can effectively provide counsel and feedback, but who has also walked in the CMO’s shoes and knows that drill.
Create your own board of advisors. Companies have boards, so why shouldn’t you? Greg Welch recommends rounding up a group of people you can regularly turn to for perspective, feedback and advice. These can be former bosses, former peers, friends who know you well, or anyone who brings a valuable perspective. Caren Fleit suggests “including individuals that bring expertise in your weaker spots, whether that’s analytics, CRM, creative or some other areas.”
Join a mastermind group. These take different forms, but they are essentially groups of executives who gather with a facilitator on a regular basis to share challenges, help each other with major issues and continue to build skills as a group. They can consist of non-competitive players within an industry or simply executives who face similar challenges.
Attend CMO peer forums. There are a number of these, each with a different focus and member set. These settings provide an opportunity to gather with other CMOs, share perspectives and develop a sense of community. With different pricing and value propositions, there are a number of options, including the CMO Club, Marketing 50, Forbes CMO Summit and the CMO Council, among others. These can be great places to recruit candidates for your personal board.
Perhaps the most important point speaks to the very first step: don’t talk yourself into a job whose requirements don’t line up well with your greatest strengths and passions. Caren Fleit advises, “Start by putting yourself in the right role — don’t set yourself up for anxiety.”
After all, the job is plenty tough enough — the last thing you want to do is make it harder before you even start.
Originally posted on Forbes.
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