How to hire a CMO that lasts

With an average tenure of only 18 months, the Chief Marketing Officer is the most difficult executive role to fill for most B2B Tech companies, with the potential to derail the success of the company. Time and money spent to find, integrate, and subsequently off-board CMOs impacts value to investors. 

I’ve been a CMO for almost 20 years. Recently, I had the opportunity to reconnect with two of the CEOs with whom I partnered as CMO for 3.5 and 4.5 years, respectively, to explore why some CMO-CEO combinations work and why others fail. These discussions illuminated the challenges CEOs face creating space for their CMO to succeed; determining if they are hiring a long-term business partner or a functional expert and understanding what they need most from the CMO in the next 18-24 months.

Many founders are righly passionate about their product and their brand. Many of them were the first marketer and first salesperson for the company and they have more market experience with their product than any new CMO can bring. It’s difficult, painful and uncomfortable to allow someone else to take your creation in new directions. It’s impossible that a CMO will do exactly what the founder/CEO would do because they are different people. So the first question – are you ready to let go and give your new CMO autonomy?

CEOs also struggle with assessing a potential CMO’s strengths. The CEOs with whom I lasted all sought a business partner who could execute through marketing. The CEOs with whom I flamed out wanted a marketing expert with specific frameworks that aligned with their thinking and would apply to their business. Neither of these desires is wrong – but they necessitate different types of people who will bring different strengths to your team. The CMO scope is quite extensive and very visible throughout the organization. Second question – what’s most important to your company for the next 18-24 months of it’s growth?

Every CEO should prioritize the CMO scope (four circles above), with their leadership team and Board, based on the needs of the business over the next 18-24 months before creating a job spec or interviewing candidates. No one is expert in all four circles. Virtually every early stage start-up gravitates to demand gen – think hard about how much time and money you may waste in demand gen if you don’t know your target customer and differentiators that matter to them (Product Marketing).

Of course, demand gen is a terrific vehicle to test messaging and verify if target prospects respond. Operations is key to scaling and is the right priority if your business is taking off and you need to ensure you grow smart. Brand is how your customers will discover and remember you. Brand is also how you can establish higher value for your offering. You need all four capability circles, but not in the same order of priority at the same time.

Most CEOs bias towards hiring a functional expert. The experience of the CEOs I interviewed who hired functional experts is that once they solve the problem the business is facing right now, they often don’t have the “expertise” to solve the next problem – hence – 18 month turnover. Business partner CMOs have, by definition, less functional expertise. They may know the space in which you compete and have an impactful reputation. They may be an avid problem solver who can partner with you to deploy marketing tactics differently based on the changing needs of the business.

The CEOs with whom I lasted found more durability through a business partner who can deploy marketing because their business changes and in the CMO role, they needed an executive who adapted with it.

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