The Most Critical Skill for Tomorrow’s CMO

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A recent article at the Harvard Business Review website argues that many chief marketing officers are at a career crossroads and face four possible futures, some more attractive than others.

The authors contend that customer expectations have risen to exceptionally high levels, and that meeting those expectations requires companies to achieve an unprecedented level of coordination across the business. Many CEOs have responded to this need by creating new C-level roles with responsibilities that span traditional business functions.

These new roles come in several “flavors” with titles such as chief revenue officer, chief growth officer, chief customer officer, or chief digital officer. The growing use of these new senior leadership positions obviously raises questions about the future role of the CMO.

Not surprisingly, the article’s authors describe four possible “pathways” for today’s chief marketing officers:

  1. Up – The CMO is promoted into a new role and given broader responsibilities for leading growth and customer experience functions.
  2. Over – The CMO keeps the same title, but his or her role is expanded to encompass new growth and customer experience responsibilities.
  3. Down – The CMO’s role and responsibilities are downgraded, and the “head of marketing” may no longer be a member of the senior executive team.
  4. Out – The CMO leaves the company, either voluntarily or involuntarily.
If CMOs (or other top marketing executives regardless of title) want to move up or over instead of down or out, they need to demonstrate a new set of skills and capabilities. And there’s no shortage of advice regarding what those skills and capabilities should be. Dozens of recent articles have weighed in on the skills and capabilities that the “modern chief marketing officer” should possess.
An article published earlier this year in the Deloitte Review provides an outstanding analysis of how the CMO role needs to change and offers concrete suggestions for how CMOs can earn the trust and confidence of CEOs and other members of the senior management team. The article is based in part on research jointly conducted by Deloitte and the CMO Council.
The Deloitte/CMO Council research revealed that the three most important drivers of CMO success are:
  • Knowing how to use customer data and analytics
  • Having an enterprise-wide business mind-set
  • Being the voice of the customer at the leadership table
In the Deloitte article, the authors recommend that CMOs should begin redefining their role by focusing on three key behaviors.
Relentlessly pursue customer expertise – Marketing is uniquely positioned to be the voice of the customer, and CMOs should constantly strive to improve their understanding of customers and demonstrate their customer expertise to other senior leaders. CMOs need to leverage data-driven insights to understand the whole customer journey, including those parts that don’t directly involve the marketing function. They also need to build partnerships with other organizational leaders to deliver better end-to-end customer experiences and support the achievement of other strategic business objectives.
Make marketing make sense – CMOs should “speak the language” of other senior leaders and be ready to translate marketing concepts into terms that align with the objectives of those leaders. In other words, the CMO’s goal should be to explain how marketing activities and programs will help other senior leaders achieve their objectives. Obviously, this will often require the CMO to quantitatively connect marketing initiatives with financial outcomes.
Establish a “center-brain” mentality – CMOs must balance the “right-brain” creative aspects of marketing with the “left-brain” analytical/data-driven aspects of marketing. Going forward, successful marketing will demand both strong analytics and inspired creativity.
The need for CMOs to acquire and demonstrate new skills and capabilities is also being driven by broader business management issues. Another recent article at the Harvard Business Review website observed that the average size of the senior executive team at large firms has ballooned in recent years. 
Although these larger teams provide some benefits, they also come with downsides. For one thing, many CEOs increasingly find themselves refereeing conflicts between senior executives. And even when outright conflicts do not erupt, there is a danger that each C-level executive will bring an overly narrow perspective about how to achieve enterprise-wide business objectives.
What CEOs really need are senior leaders who combine a broad and deep understanding of the business, functional expertise, and perhaps most importantly, sound business judgement. So the most desirable skill for “tomorrow’s CMO” to demonstrate is the ability to understand how the business works economically and competitively, and how the marketing function can effectively support and advance the company’s strategic agenda.
Image courtesy of cykocurt via Flickr CC.

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