Bravery: An Underrated Virtue for Chief Marketing Officers


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My last CustomerThink column was B2B Marketing’s Role in Driving Revenue With Integrity. I’m not surprised that it received a ton of views because the subject of integrity resonates with both marketers and the CEOs they work for. The same is true for another essential CMO trait, bravery. In fact, without the attribute of bravery, it can be very difficult to enforce company integrity.

If you are a CEO about to hire a new CMO, or evaluate your existing CMO, a YES person is the last thing you should be looking for. However, if you are, just skip the rest of the article. Likewise, if you are already a CMO or aspire to be one, then you will want to consider which type of CMO you wish to be. You will be faced many times with a decision to be brave, or rubber stamp something that you know is not in your company’s best interest. To put it another way, you can “go along to get along” or you can take a stand and perhaps suffer unwanted consequences.

I’ve spent a good part of my career as a B2B CMO, first on the client-side working for some outstanding software companies – then as a fractional or interim CMO as a services provider. As such, I’ve worked with CEOs who value the input and candor of their marketing leader as well as those who just want you to go along with their perception of what is best. I regret the few times I have bowed to pressure to do what I knew to be wrong, without at least putting up a mild protest.

With all this in mind, bravery requires a level of discernment. You don’t have to question everything, challenge everything, or make a nuisance of yourself to be effective. While you (hopefully) control the marketing domain, the CEO is the ultimate decision-maker and deserves a great deal of latitude. Most of the time your best option is to salute and carry out the plan. You want to save your brave stances and speak out about the things that really matter, like:

  • Outright falsehoods in your promotional materials.
  • Abuse of employees by a superior.
  • Financial shenanigans (e.g. kickbacks or non-payment to a vendor).
  • Pursuing a marketing path that you strongly feel is not in the best interest of the company in financial or reputational terms.
  • Behavior that violates the company’s values statement.

In addition to candor, courage can be expressed by your willingness to take risks. I read a great article about marketing bravery written by the U.K. based Emma Crofts, who stated, “Developing bold and original ideas in B2B marketing is difficult. On the one hand, we’re being told by our industry, our peers, and the creative beast that lives in our guts, to take more risks. ‘Be brave!’, they all shout; fueled by their imaginings of thrilling activities that pay no heed to budget, targets, or timescales. On the other hand, there’s a client (or a c-suite, if you’re in-house). The client will have a set of expectations and a budget. There might also be a CEO who expects the budget to deliver very tangible results, and it might all add up to a profound fear of trying something new and getting it wrong.”

Emma Crofts makes a great point. It does indeed take guts to practice the type of innovation that will get you to the next level. Your marketing title doesn’t come with a crystal ball and none of us is sure about how a given promotion, campaign, or product launch is going to work. If you’ve been practicing your profession for some time, you probably have a good track record and this hard-won experience is what makes you more valuable. But if you want the best results, you will need to step out of the comfort zone and test some fresh ideas.

Bravery in 60 Seconds

There is a scene in the Paul Newman film Nobody’s Fool (made back in 1994) where the Newman character is trying to get his young grandson to do something that requires a lot of bravery. Newman pulls out a stopwatch and tells the grandson that it is magic and will give the one who holds it the courage to do anything for 60 seconds. Naturally, the boy takes the watch, does the brave thing, and learns a valuable lesson.

I find this equally applicable for B2B marketers, and for that matter, anyone who has to face unpleasant business scenarios. However, instead of delay or avoidance, in just 60 seconds you can:

  • Dial the number to make that unpleasant call.
  • Write the first paragraph of the tough email.
  • March to your boss’s office to deliver unpleasant news.
  • Start to report the breach of etiquette/policy.
  • Say a quick “no” instead of a long and agonizing “maybe”.
  • State an obvious, yet uncomfortable truth.

Like Mark Twain said: “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” More often than not, when you take brave actions, the consequences are not as painful as you imagined. Naturally, this applies to your personal as well as professional life.

An example from earlier in my career illustrates this point. While working as a VP of marketing at a large software company, I noticed that a VP colleague from another division was wasting his budget on unneeded items and spending virtually all his time on “empire building” instead of company-building activities. I wasted a lot of time and energy worrying about what to do because the other VP had more tenure and I thought he was well-liked by the CEO. However, after talking to my colleague and not even getting acknowledgment about the issues, I did speak to the CEO and discovered that he had similar misgivings about the individual. I should have exhibited bravery a few weeks earlier and saved a few weeks of angst.

Here’s to the brave B2B CMOs (and their B2C counterparts) that move the marketing profession forward!


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