A senior marketing executive can revolutionize a company’s growth, but choosing the right candidate requires asking three key questions to understand first what the company needs, and then if the candidate can deliver it.
There are times when a Chief Marketing Officer might not feel like a necessity, especially for a middle market company that has managed to grow well without one. But what worked for years can falter: growth stalls, a competitor begins to dominate the market, or new investors arrive with a more ambitious vision for the enterprise.
And that can prompt the hunt for a new marketing leader. Like any talent search, the process can seem obvious in theory, but much more daunting in practice. People might have the right names on their resume and glowing references, only to still prove a bust when faced with the unique circumstances of a given business.
That’s why my experience, both as a long-time marketing leader, and as the CEO of a fractional CMO business that has placed CMOs into more than 1,100 companies, has led me to conclude there are three key questions to ask. First, what do really need from your marketing professional? Second, how does that marketing professional think about their discipline? And third, how did they translate that strategic thinking into concrete initiatives that made a difference?
If a CEO knows exactly what they need from their marketing group, or are quite happy with the company’s growth rate, and simply want someone to keep that growth engine purring, they can tap someone who has the tactical background and skills to fulfill that role. This is for the company that’s content with its progress, as it beats competitors and enters new markets. In this circumstance, it may be a matter of tapping the right outside agency to launch a specific campaign or program.
But more often than not, the hunt for a CMO is prompted by a new owner or new leadership with greater expectations than the status quo. If the company needs a big change, it’s time to bring aboard a C-suite level talent, because that’s someone who can build a brand-new engine for growth, not just maintain the old one.
There can be a tendency to prioritize the wrong qualities in such a candidate. Marketing experience in the same industry might not be key, with the exception of certain third-party payer enterprises in healthcare. In our case, we’ll occasionally deploy two fractional CMOs to a client, one with industry experience, and another CMO who has experience more directly linked to the business needs or problems the client is seeking to solve, like lead generation or channel development, if that’s the case.
The real factor to consider in prioritizing industry experience is the existing leadership team. If everyone else are sector veterans, it’s less crucial to have the CMO match their background. Remember, the best CMO won’t be siloed away from the rest of management, but act as a key collaborator, helping every function by deploying their insights and initiatives.
What we look for is a marketing executive that moves beyond talking about this technique or that program. Instead, they talk about the business holistically, considering how their market insights and actions plans will inform and lead operations, new products, and budgets. And this leads us to the first major question for the candidate.
No CEO should be trying to discern if a potential CMO has the technical competencies for the job. Instead, they should be vetting how the CMO thinks about their role, and if their approach is truly comprehensive, in that it gathers insights about the market, competitors and customers and uses them in such a way that informs the whole organization. They may not have such insights in hand about the company in question, but they better be able to explain how they gathered and deployed those insights during their last engagement.
In a way, it’s about asking the candidate for their process, not their conclusions. They shouldn’t be trying to sell what they did in their last job, or rattle off the generic “tasks” that the company should do next. A great candidate won’t give an exact prescription, because they know they have to gather the intelligence first. And their reluctance to offer quick, pre-packaged solutions demonstrates that they understand that every business has unique needs.
If the Company simply requires the marketing professional to execute a preconceived strategy, that’s different. When the candidate talks about their strength in lead generation, and what the company needs is more leads, this might be fine. But for a business that needs a new, more sustainable growth engine, it shouldn’t simply be paying for the hours a CMO spends at work. Rather, the business should be paying for the decades of learning that a CMO can bring to bear to the business. That education might be demonstrated by something they learned at a prior engagement, that might not apply to the business at hand, but it will show that they understand how marketing shapes the rest of the company.
CEOs should be listening for marketing expertise that is rooted beyond tactics and into the broader strategy of the business. A good follow-up would be to ask how they knew a particular insight was worth heeding at a previous engagement. It’s all about digging into how they think. But that leads to the next and final question.
Marketers tend to be great talkers, which means they’re quite accomplished in explaining, at a high level, what they’d do, or what they did, and why that was a success for their last company. But the CEO needs to test those conclusions by asking for concrete examples of how they gathered that insight, how they transformed that insight into tactics, and how they made sure the company executed those tactics.
If the solution was that the executive simply “pushed” them through, that might be fine if the business is one that operates with sharp elbows and unfiltered candor. But that attitude might falter in a culture that requires more buy-in and prides itself on a more collaborative atmosphere. The examples should help the CEO discern if their approach fits with the culture. I’d add the caveat that if the CEO is new, or say, a private equity investor has arrived with a new visions for the company, the question is not if the CMO fits with the current culture, but if they fit in the culture that’s being built.
If a candidate has references, it might good to vet some of those examples with that former colleague or mentor. Did the executive do what they say they did? A major red flag is if that candidate can’t offer any specifics. If they can’t cite an example of turning an insight into a strategy and then into initiatives, it’s unlikely they actually did that.
These examples are critical to build the case that they have the right thinking and the right approach to the company’s situation and culture. And without these examples, without looking into a connection between them and how they think about strategy, there’s every chance that candidate will eat up time and resources at precisely the time they need to be designing an engine that can take the whole company to the next level. The best candidate will understand that they’re not being hired to improve the marketing per se, but improve the marketing in a way that genuinely improves the company.
About the Author:
Art Saxby is the founder and CEO of the nation’s leading fractional CMO firm. His 75+ CMOs have worked on the management teams of over 1,100 client companies. Chief Outsiders is extremely selective in the hiring of their own CMOs. Last year alone, the firm entertained more than 700 marketing VP-level applicants but found only 9 who met their specific qualifications. www.chiefoutsiders.com
Topics: CEO Choices, Hiring, Fractional CMO, CMO, Interim CMO, Part-time CMOThu, Mar 25, 2021