20 Traits Of Successful CMOs
Being a CMO is… well, a lot of things: amazing, hard, exhausting, fun, challenging and about a million other adjectives. While I’ve only carried the title for just over half a year, I have spent those 8 months researching what it means to be a “successful CMO.” It’s been quite the learning curve and an exciting ride.
To help me along the way, I’ve thrown myself into the art of being a CMO. I’ve had dozens of coffee meetings with other CMOs, read books on leadership and management and talked for days on end about the traits that make a CMO successful with my executive team and professional coach. I’ve researched and studied the best CMOs of yesteryear and today — people like Beth Comstock of GE, Philip Schiller of Apple, and Joe Tripodi of Coca-Cola (to name a few). I absorbed their philosophies, approaches, lessons, strengths and more.
Through research and personal experience, I’ve seen recurring traits across the most successful CMOs. I’ve even been able to break these traits into four distinct areas: expertise, leadership, business and personality.
I am in no way saying that I exude all of these brilliantly (I wish!), but I’m aware of how they collide to build brilliant companies, and I am striving for them. For those hoping to be a CMO someday or perhaps those who are just taking on the new role, hopefully, this is a useful list of skills and traits that you too can build out.
Below are the twenty traits that I circle back to time and time again and that I believe make a successful CMO.
These are the marketing-specific traits that set up a CMO to best lead a team of marketers and steer marketing at an organization.
- Multi-Channel. There has been a lot of talk around specialists versus generalists, as well as the T-shaped marketer, all with great points. It’s clear looking at the leading CMOs that while they may be stacked in a channel or two, they are absolutely exposed to and well-versed in all of the marketing channels. This multi-channel expertise helps them lead teams that work better together and combine for beautifully orchestrated marketing campaigns.
- Technical. Hacker. Coder. Technical marketer. Whatever you want to call it, welcome to your new reality. To lead marketing today, you need to understand the technical landscape and its challenges. In addition to understanding the technology behind your product and operations, you should also bring a technical skillset to your marketing efforts, specifically. This helps your team stay agile, build faster and ultimately secure market advantage. Hiring developers onto your marketing team is becoming more and more the norm, and I believe this will continue — making a technical CMO even more likely to lead the way.
- Design-Focused. Another discipline that most top CMOs gravitate toward is design. The more you understand about design thinking and design theory, the more suited you are to tell your company’s story in a way that resonates with the masses. Beautiful design is a differentiating factor in today’s ecosystem as it decides what gets clicked, consumed, shared and loved when it comes to content and campaigns. The best CMOs aren’t just approving designs, they are able to collaborate at every design stage.
- Lifecycle Marketer. Great CMOs know how to acquire customers, engage them and retain them. They consider marketing to be a critical channel in which to improve the entire customer lifecycle. This ensures the customer’s needs are met and exceeded at every stage. This year was the first year that the majority of marketers, when surveyed, stated that “driving engagement is the primary lifecycle challenge” over the acquisition of customers, which has normally won out. I believe this only validates that marketers are given more ownership over the customer lifecycle than ever before. The best CMOs know what tools to use, how to measure and what campaigns drive full customer lifecycle success.
- Data-Driven. This one isn’t new, but it’s also not going anywhere. The best CMOs stress measurement and analytics as a primary reason behind their success. Not only does it prove the value of marketing, which of course makes it easier to make a case for growing the marketing department, but being data-driven helps them evangelize internally the value of their efforts. Additionally, being data-driven has helped top CMOs understand budgets, forecast reports, and operating plans — all of which are critical in growing a company.
Finding your leadership style and intentionally growing in the area of leadership is critical for any executive, and being a CMO is no exception. Great marketing departments are not just comprised of brilliant, enthusiastic marketers — they are led by great leaders.
- Visionary. Marketers know how important it is to be ahead of the market. That ability to see two steps ahead — in hiring, resources, campaigns, market shifts, etc. — seems innate to the top CMOs. You are able to rally the troops and forge into the unknown much more easily. The best CMOs are rarely focused on what is working right now, or current projects, but are instead already planning the next big move.
- Intuition About People. Being a great leader means you need to get people. Successful CMOs are able to staff great teams, and that requires a great intuition about people. It’s more than knowing whether or not a person is qualified — you need to bring together the right people that can play off each other, support each other, push each other and thrive. You need to understand what motivates them and how to best leverage that drive for the company’s success.
- Empowering. This seems obvious, but is so important. Great CMOs know their main job is to empower their team to be their best selves. The machine should be able to operate almost entirely without you — that is when you see marketing perform at its best. Bold moves, calculated risks, big ideas and happy teams.
- Great Communicator. This is important for so many reasons. CMOs need to work beautifully with every team at the company. Communicating well with all sorts of people (all of which have their own priorities that often compete) is critical to a company’s success. Marketing is the megaphone through which the world experiences your company, and the best CMOs use that megaphone to share stories about products, communities, internal core values, the team and the culture. Communicating all of this can be challenging, but incredibly rewarding when done well.
- Facilitator. This one is special to me. I often think a primary responsibility of mine is facilitating others to just rock on. As a CMO, you are often looped in to discuss product roadmaps, prioritizations, engineering decisions and operational challenges; and, I think it is important to help where you can. If I can use marketing budget, resources or campaigns to make another company initiative go smoother, then we all win. Often, the best leaders are actually the best supporters.
A good CMO is not only a well-rounded marketer, but also has a strong business sense. The CMO views the business holistically, working closely with other departments and ensuring that marketing activities are connected to wider company goals and objectives.
- Growth Marketer. I’m probably most passionate about this trait. If you want to be a CMO someday, you have to think outside the proverbial marketing box. It’s not just about growing acquisition, engagement and retention — it’s about “growing whatever needs to grow.” This could be expanding into a new demographic market, building out an internal data house, or perhaps growing your mobile presence. CMOs need to be asking themselves, “What project will have the biggest impact for the business’s bottom-line?” — and then they need to chase that beast down.
- Revenue Focused. Um… obviously. I’m all for marketers that love “increasing engagement” and “building the community,” but great CMOs understand that every marketing function should ultimately increase revenue. No exceptions. We are for-profit companies, so revenue really should be at the heart of everything we do. (If you happen to lead marketing for a non-profit, then you know that donations — aka money — are also at the heart of what you do.)
- Customer Champion. The best CMOs keep the customer front of mind. If revenue is king, then the customer is queen. CMOs that keep the customer as their “true North” tend to prioritize projects better, build more authentic brands and create better marketing. Their teams are united for a common cause: How can we provide more value to both future customers and current ones? How can we educate, delight and inspire them? Great CMOs champion the customer at every turn.
- Cross-Department Liaison. I hear that in the next couple years, CMOs will be in charge of and account for more budget than the CIO. You know what that means? CMOs now have more impact on what systems, processes and software the company uses… all of which are cross-departmental in some capacity. Great CMOs build bridges into other teams. They understand their biggest challenges and their goals. They make sure no silos build, and they make it their job to evangelize the great work other teams are doing.
- Amplifier. Outside of growing the bottom line, building out teams and creating brilliant brands, the marketing team should also be amplifying on the company’s behalf. Amplifying what? The culture, the internal stories and the magic that differentiates your company. Successful CMOs are constantly mining the business for great stories. How did you scale that technology? How did you create those core values? What’s your philosophy on funding? They share these business distinctions in beautiful ways. It’s this amplification that often gives one company a market advantage in the heart of their customers.
You can have all the marketing expertise, business savvy and leadership swagger in the world, but there are also personality traits that set some CMOs up for more success. This doesn’t mean every CMO needs to have the traits below, but it’s almost odd how many times the top CMOs in the world reference these as what makes them great at what they do.
- Curious. The best CMOs are life-long learners, always trying to understand that new channel or platform or process. They are curious by nature and surround themselves with smart people in hopes of absorbing their awesomeness. Curiosity is also contagious, and having that drive to learn and improve spread across your marketing team makes for great marketing.
- Accountable. Top CMOs assume a great deal of responsibility and they own it… fully. They tend to be boat rockers, and they stick out their neck in that group meeting that is going around in circles. They know how important it is to assume the weight of a decision and they stress accountability in those around them.
- Detail-Driven. Call us Type As, obsessive, or maybe we are just usually highly caffeinated. Great CMOs understand the importance of rigor and discipline in marketing. They stress process, tracking, data. They are detail-driven and ultimately look for wards to build infrastructure that helps the entire team move faster with fewer mistakes.
- Humble. Marketing leaders get a great deal of attention. They tend to represent the company and team externally at shows, conferences, events and more. They are quoted in the press and spend a great deal of their day in the spotlight. The most successful CMOs are humble by nature. They realize they are just the microphone for a brilliant team and amazing products. They facilitate a story, but they are not solely responsible for it. Great CMOs know that they are only as good as the brand and team behind them.
- Adventurous. Risk-taking is a must for the most successful CMOs out there. Some of the best marketing campaigns made no sense when pitched, the data didn’t support them, and much of the team probably wasn’t sure about the idea. But great CMOs assume risk and crave the adventure of launching bold campaigns and impacting at scale.
Whhheeewww. That was a lot. While you certainly don’t need the title of CMO to be all of these things, I find it interesting that time and time again the most successful CMOs point to these traits as reasons they are as good as they are. I for one, am always trying to learn from those smarter and better than myself, and this list is a great start for those with their eyes set on leading marketing someday.
What other traits did I miss? Leave them in the comments below, and let’s see what else should be included!
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