As a chief marketing officer (CMO) or senior B2B marketing professional, there are few things as satisfying as earning and maintaining the trust of your CEO, and for that matter, the rest of the executive team. Conversely, if you do not have this trust, your professional life can be quite painful.
In my career, I’ve had the pleasure of coming full circle and working with two terrific CEOs both earlier and later in my career. Had I not earned trust the first go-round, there would not be, as they say, a second rodeo. I’ve also utilized these two individuals and several other CEOs that I have worked with, as references for positions as well as potential clients in my fractional CMO practice. CEO references are highly valued because they will (usually) not hurt their reputation by recommending a sub-standard candidate.
You would think that a CMO would be judged strictly on the achievement of objectives but this is not what happens in the real world. In truth, things like internal politics, likeability, connections, and perceptions count as much or more so, than quantifiable results. I experienced this when I was VP of product marketing at a software company where my counterpart on the marketing communications side was a master at corporate maneuvering. He spent more time schmoozing executives than doing actual marketing and his career thrived.
Ideally, you want a work environment that is both pleasant and productive. Most teams that perform well do so because team members have a high degree of trust combined with a fun, loose, and lighthearted atmosphere.
How to Forge a Strong Relationship with Your CEO
Following are some things you can do to earn and maintain the trust of your CEO and anyone else that is in a position to influence your career.
Listen. You may be a top gun at marketing but the CEO and other exec team members likewise earned their stripes in their areas of specialty. You need to honor this, especially when it comes to domain expertise. Listening means that you really listen (and absorb), instead of waiting for a pause so that you can start talking. The listening skill is particularly important when you first join the company. Your new team members will be more impressed with the quality of your questions than your statements.
Honor commitments. Simply put, this means that when you say you are going to do something, just do it. Don’t make your CEO, or anyone else, have to ask you for the status – supply the update yourself. CMO dependability is always appreciated because it leaves the CEO with one less thing (of many) to worry about.
Overdeliver, don’t overpromise. We B2B marketers tend to be optimistic and believe we can generate lots of awareness and leads and make sales leaders and the C-suite sing our praises. However, if not held in check, this overly-optimistic mindset can be detrimental. It is better to under-promise at the beginning of the cycle and share good news when you beat expectations than it is to have to explain why you failed to meet your estimates at the end of the cycle. This is a mistake I have made more than once in my career.
Produce solid results. Okay, folks… this one is for table stakes. You can be full of all the best qualities, but if you fail to produce credible results, your career will be in constant jeopardy. There are many categories of results, including awareness, website traffic, leads, opportunities, and so forth, but it is how you are perceived as a Revenue Marketer that will gain you kudos from the C-suite and boardroom. If what you do is seen as an investment and not an expense, this will also provide budget and job security.
Practice discretion. As a member of the executive team, you will hear many things that are not meant for others in your company, let alone a public audience. If you have any doubt about whether something should be shared, the rule is simple: don’t share it. Not even once. Trust is easier to lose than gain so guard it jealously.
Accept responsibility. There is an expression about “having a monkey on your back”. This means that there is something for which you are willing to accept complete responsibility. Leaders appreciate when others accept the monkey and not try to pass it off.
Speak the truth. If you are like me, you’ve had CEOs or other senior leaders make pronouncements, or ask you to do things, that range from ridiculous to outright harmful. This can be your moment to practice a little bravery by speaking up and giving your best input. If the captain’s course is steering the company into an iceberg, you need to sound the alarm. It might cause some temporary friction but, in the long term, you will have earned your stripes as an honest broker. More about this in my CustomerThink column titled, Bravery: An Underrated Virtue for Chief Marketing Officers.
Be likeable. Earlier, I talked about the importance of a loose and fun atmosphere. You can do your part by letting your humanity shine through. This can mean learning about what makes your CEO boss tick as a person, or by injecting a bit of humor – assuming such humor is not denigrating anyone or violating company policies (or common sense). One caveat is to avoid trying to be likable by appearing to be what you are not. Most often, this will backfire.
Examples of a Positive and Not-So-Positive Relationship
One high-tech CEO that I worked for was a brilliant individual. Unfortunately for me, he was a former CMO and as such, had strong opinions about B2B marketing. Since I too have well-formed opinions, I resented his interference (my perception) into my department. When he continued to demand more control than I was willing to relinquish – instead of being forthright about the situation, I became resentful and failed to practice the listening skills I mentioned above. Result: frustration for both parties and a lack of effectiveness.
On the positive side, I entered another new work relationship with trepidation because of the vast experience and impeccable reputation this CEO had earned in the software industry. When I had the urge to speak and show off my acumen, I held back and used the first month-plus to learn everything I could about the company and industry. I deliberately under-promised and worked hard to meet each commitment. The result was a long-term productive and pleasant relationship with great benefits to the company.
There are situations that following the above practices will not repair. If you find yourself in a position where you work for a CEO that does not respond to your best attempts at competence or humanity, my advice is to “run Forrest run”. The CEO and CMO relationship is crucial to the health and success of the organization, and it should be treated accordingly.