Companies are increasingly organizing with a Chief Revenue Officer (CRO) role, recognizing that someone should be responsible for every aspect of revenue, including sales, marketing, and customer success.

While one could argue this area is the CEO’s job, that structure implies the CEO isn’t focusing on product, strategy, hiring, or managing investors. Keeping the revenue organization harmonious and aligned turns out to be a full-time job, so a CRO is quickly becoming a necessity.

The Need for a Chief Revenue Officer

Throughout history, product-oriented CEOs have succeeded most when they partner with a revenue leader. For Microsoft’s Bill Gates, this partner was Steve Balmer; Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg had Sheryl Sandberg; and Google’s Larry Page & Sergey Brin partnered with Eric Schmidt.

When seeking a CRO leader, companies typically tap successful sales leaders for the CRO role. Unfortunately, these leaders have never run marketing, nor are they familiar with customer success. Both of these areas contain thousands of details, and marketing/customer success employees aren’t as financially driven as many sellers are. Most of the time, it takes these companies a few months to realize their new CRO is in over their head and split the role again.

A high quality CRO needs to view the organization holistically. They must both ask the right questions and execute on topics ranging from internal talent to growth to customer issues. Clearly top-quality CROs exist, but how do you find them?

Hire a Student CRO, Not a Savant to Lead

Like great athletes, sales savants are beautiful to watch. They improve incredibly rapidly, never a clumsy move. Absolutely hire them as incredible individual contributors – they’re especially gifted at figuring out how to penetrate a new market or introduce a new product.

However, these savants are often not effective teachers and managers. Because the process comes naturally to them, they can’t tell others how they knew what move to make: they simply knew because they’re a savant. Your team should absolutely hire sales savants: give them a quota and watch them work their magic. You should not, however, hire them to lead your revenue team.

Instead, your CRO should be a student – someone who seeks and understands the why. In contrast to a savant, a student learns through conscious analysis, making mistakes and reflection. They are empathetic listeners, secure and comfortable saying things like:

  • “Why does this work?”
  • “How does this work?”
  • “Teach me.”  

Because they learned consciously and intentionally, they can therefore explain: 

  • Why one process works while another does not
  • How others can learn most effectively
  • Complicated topics to non-savants

These abilities enable them to make a reliable, humming organization rather than one tailored around their skills. For example, a student will deeply understand what new hires need to get up-to-speed and close their first deal within 90 days.

There is the possibility of finding a savant who has become a deft student – one who has unpacked their instincts and can teach and coach others effectively. Asking probing questions about specific coaching successes in both interviews and references can help identify a savant who has become a student.

Finding a CRO

While every CEO would benefit from a talented CRO, the market currently contains too few high-quality CROs. Businesses encourage people to specialize early in their career, then economic forces keep them in their specialty: 

  • How many sellers spend time working in marketing or customer success? 
  • How many marketers spend time in sales carrying a quota? 
  • Once an employee becomes proficient at a particular skill, how likely are they to take the necessary pay cut to move elsewhere?

A true CRO has a huge amount of responsibility. Many don’t know how much they need to learn about the areas outside their expertise until they start. I’ve seen multiple sales-backgrounded CROs for whom marketing made them so crazy that they gave marketing back to the CEO. (Of course, the same applies to CROs with limited backgrounds in the other areas too.)

The best CROs have great intellects and strong emotional intelligence that they use to learn from varied experiences. Just as training programs for entrepreneurs have boomed over the last few decades, perhaps the world is increasingly in need of training programs for CROs to teach sales-oriented CROs about marketing, marketing-oriented CROs about sales, and both about customer success.

Going forward, savants will continue to be great individual contributors. They will remain so disproportionally good at their domain that their magnetism pulls them that way. But as the CRO function grows, expect to see its top performers be excellent students, not savants.