What Makes a Great CMO?

When assessing talent, whether we are recruiting for executive positions within our portfolio or conducting due diligence on potential investments, we rely on objective frameworks and questions that help us diagnose the quality of the person sitting on the other side of the table.

Drawing on her experience helping grow the brands of now household growth company names like Xero, Medium and Twitter, our Operating Advisor, Kathryn Apte, reveals in this blog post what key attributes we look for in a great CMO.

For CEOs, a CMO is one of the more challenging roles to hire on your executive team. When it’s done right, a skilled CMO becomes a concrete competitive advantage for your company. So why is it so challenging to make a great hire?

Marketing has evolved more quickly than any other business discipline in the past three decades. That means the current generation of CMOs has witnessed several simultaneous ‘sea changes’ in every aspect of their role; across marketing channels, creative development, research, tracking and measurement. Their career paths have also been shaped by marketing’s fragmentation into different specialisations – product marketing, brand marketing, growth and lifecycle marketing, marketing analytics, marketing ops, and more.

As a result, there are dozens of different types of CMOs today, each with their own specialised experiences collected over 20+ years. This can place tremendous pressure on the hiring process for CEOs – not helped by the fact that every CMO is a great storyteller.

So how do you find a great CMO who is also an great fit for your growth company? Despite their unique career paths, every great CMO has four traits. I’ve outlined those traits below, along with the interview question guide that I give CEOs as they embark on the hiring process.

A Great CMO is…

…A Passionate People Analyst

The best CMOs are passionate about people – both externally and internally.

Externally, great CMOs start in the same place: deeply understanding the target audience. They’re looking to uncover a need or desire that your audience holds close to their heart. By focusing your marketing on your audience’s needs and desires, it can create a new and powerful market space where your competitors aren’t currently playing.

To understand your audience, great CMOs immerse themselves in the customer’s world. They are eager to experience what customers do and to truly empathise with them. This also means going deep into the customer journey. Are they able to identify critical moments that make or break a purchase decision? From initial appraisal to building loyalty and driving upselling opportunities, this holistic thinking reveals that they want to create great outcomes, not great ads. If your CMO candidate begins the conversation with channel-specific ideas, that’s a red flag to me – TikTok is not a strategy in and of itself.

Internally, it is also crucial that CMOs are passionate people analysts. A great CMO is a connective force within your executive team. They are a team member to the Chief Revenue Officer for integrated go-to-market strategy, execution and measurement; to the Chief Financial Officer for marketing performance and budget allocations; to the Chief Technology Officer for tech stack strategy and implementation; and to the Chief Product Officer for product market fit and user feedback. So, a great CMO plays a powerful role in aligning different leadership team members, and different parts of your organisation accordingly.

If a CMO could only do one thing, it would be this: represent the customer to the executive leadership team and the Board. Every great CMO I’ve worked with does this very well. In strategy days, they speak up for the customer, they bring customer insights and perspective, and they cause other executives to question their thinking, all in the name of the customer. They recognize that the path to great outcomes weaves a maze of challenges and opportunities that are not neatly organised by job title and division. As new challenges arise and the context of business shifts, a CMO understands how to harness the right insights to influence change across the executive team.

Get to know if your CMO candidate fits this trait by asking:

  • What is the single most surprising audience insight you’ve uncovered in your career? What did you do with that insight?
  • How would you explain the value of your current brand in one sentence? What about our competitors? How does that set you apart from them?
  • Tell me about a time when you had a strategic disagreement with another member of the executive team. How did you resolve it? And what did you learn that evolved your approach?

…A Creative Problem Solver

One of the most common phrases that you’ll hear about marketing is that it’s ‘part art, part science’. Creativity is the glue between these two parts. As a growth company CEO, you’re used to setting ambitious goals, breaking category rules and taking down incumbents. This is the exact mindset of great CMOs: they have a genetic disposition towards problem-solving with creativity.

The CMO, more than many others on the executive team, operates in a daily environment of ambiguity. Data, while plenty, is never complete. Plus, they face a constantly evolving marketing landscape, while being tasked with driving never before achieved outcomes. Great CMOs embrace that ambiguity and apply daily creative thinking to navigate it effectively.

As a CEO, this provides you with a unique superpower on your executive team – a leader who is comfortable making decisions with imperfect data. Because great CMOs understand that making no decision is still a decision, and risks the business being left behind.

A great CMO loves the hunt for a big creative idea that can transform an entire organisation. That’s especially powerful for B2B and SaaS categories where every competitor tends to follow the exact same playbook. Great CMOs understand that there are no boring companies, only boring marketers.

Here are a few examples to illustrate:

In the world of SaaS, category rule-breakers like Dropbox, Slack and Calendly used the power of network effects to topple incumbents. They took advantage of the natural behaviours involved in customers using their product – like sharing a product link or sending an email – to drive brand awareness and business growth in extremely cost-effective ways. 

In the health tech space, Levels has repositioned blood tests as a lifestyle choice for high performers.

In gaming, Epic Games changed the game with Fortnite by offering all the features of a video game for free. 

In your CMO interviews, watch for whether a candidate puts too much emphasis on requiring large budgets and headcount for impact. While great CMOs need sufficient resources to operate, they will also see resource constraints as opportunities to experiment and explore new creative opportunities.

Get to know if your CMO candidate fits this trait by asking:

  • What is the most effective campaign you’ve ever done? What was the key factor that made it successful?
  • If you had no constraints of budget or resources, what would be your dream campaign for our brand? Then what if you only had $10,000 and one team member?
  • In your opinion, what are we doing wrong with our current content marketing? How would you fix it?

…A Prioritisation Machine

My first marketing job was writing newspaper ads. A single newspaper ad often took two weeks to produce, because we had to painstakingly glue each word and image individually onto a giant piece of cardboard. That’s a far cry from the lightning-fast pace of marketing today.

Gone are the days when we could count the available marketing channels on one hand. We now have hundreds of fragmented, digital-first platforms at our disposal. In this world filled with infinite marketing possibilities across markets, audiences, channels, and products, a great CMO can streamline the chaos into a unified direction. Rather than fragmenting efforts across dozens of activities, they integrate the team’s efforts into specific high-impact initiatives tied back to business objectives. They make rivers from droplets.

At the pointy end of every CMO’s role, prioritisation often comes to life when defining your marketing messaging. Generally, the more messages that are considered as ‘priority’, the less actual priority those messages have; a case of more is less. Great CMOs are willing to fight for focus and bring the executive team along in that process.

Get to know if your CMO candidate fits this trait by asking:

  • What are your three biggest priorities for marketing this year? What is the most significant problem that only marketing can solve?
  • Which channels have you found to be the most effective, and which ones have you tried that simply aren’t effective?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, rate your current team’s speed of execution. What does your team need to achieve a perfect 10, and why?

…A Lifelong Learner

The final trait of all great CMOs is an insatiable drive for improvement: in their marketing strategy, their people leadership, and themselves. With the rapid evolution in marketing, continual curiosity is one of their most valuable personality traits. For your company, that means they’re far more likely to understand and stay ahead of consumer trends, platforms and cultural shifts that could affect your audience.

This is more than idle curiosity or jumping on the bandwagon of the latest fad. For great CMOs, curiosity permeates through every facet of their roles. They are big on asking ‘what if’- introducing systems for experimentation and optimisation strategies that continually improve effectiveness. Done well in growth companies, experimentation creates a culture with space to take bold actions, test new approaches, and challenge the status quo.

Great CMOs also take their people leadership responsibilities seriously. The changing nature of work requires them to remain curious about effective leadership and team management strategies. They champion lifelong learning for their team, pushing them to development opportunities, sharing honest lessons, and mining passions amongst all team members. And importantly, they regularly seek – and read – feedback on how they operate as a leader.

Get to know if your CMO candidate fits this trait by asking:

  • What channels are you currently using across paid, owned, and earned media? Which channel are you most excited to introduce next?
  • How would your ideal manager bring out the best in you? Conversely, how would they bring out the worst?
  • In your team’s opinion, what is your biggest area of development?

In closing,

On the Executive team, the CMO is a unique beast to hire for your company. To succeed, they need a wide range of leadership, commercial and creative skills. Like all executive roles, it pays off to take your time in the recruitment process. None of the above timeless traits relate to the cultural addition that this key leader must become – and that after all, will often be the key determinant of their long-term success.

For more of our “What Makes Great” series, including our assessment frameworks, read:
What makes a great CEO
What makes a great CFO
What makes a great Non-Executive Director
What makes great Investor Relations

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