A Discussion with CMOs: How Effective Marketing Leadership Has Evolved Over the Years

From managing an ever-growing martech stack, brand storytelling, attributing to ROI, optimizing the customer experience, getting buy-in from the C-suite and encouraging cross-functional collaboration, today’s CMO has a lot on their plate. And not to mention leading and managing world-class teams to support these critical objectives.

As marketing increasingly becomes a valuable asset to a company’s bottom-line, CMOs must learn to navigate the rapidly-evolving digital landscape. However, digital doesn’t just impact the marketing strategy or processes – it affects how leaders engage with and manage their teams. Just as the CMO has had to adapt to a digital-first mindset, they must guide their teams in doing the same.

How exactly have marketing leaders had to change their leadership styles over the past five to ten years with so many changes amidst the digital evolution? To find out how CMOs can guide their teams toward success, we asked three veteran marketing leaders.

Alana Burns, CMO, Southern New Hampshire University

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Great leaders adapt

Over the last ten years, I’ve had a variety of the type of talent on my team and varying levels of expertise, from deep and specific to very broad generalists. So, each of those required something different and for me to flex a different muscle.

You want to surround yourself with people that you can learn from, and to make sure that your team has strong character and that you’re very clear in your expectations.

You have to focus on what your core success factor is and your key KPI. For us, it’s getting as many students as possible to successfully graduate. So, it’s about- how do we drive the marketing behavior to deliver against that?

It’s deeper than technology

When it comes to effective collaboration tools for employee engagement, it depends on the tools. Ours happens to be a highly face-to-face culture and that is very effective. In my previous role, it was a highly remote culture and we collaborated differently, but effectively. It’s not about the technology, it’s about taking the time.  

Make sure that the message you’re communicating is clear. It’s not about the channel; it’s about the message and who it’s to and who it’s with.

Be bold and be ready to learn. Ask lots of questions and know that the little things matter. To me, the personal connections to my team matters.

Teresa Caro, Senior Vice President, Marketing, Atlanticus

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An in-depth understanding of digital is key

It’s interesting because I went from a digital-first situation to more of an offline-led situation. Digital was something that people needed to put into place and to organize, but then we ran into a rational exuberance. Part of the reason why I didn’t put digital in place when I first got to my company four years ago is that it was so expensive because you had the big guys bidding up all of the channels. I would have loved to have done digital but looking at the cost to do it, ROI and all of those kinds of aspects, it didn’t make any sense. Direct mail made sense.

Change in organizations in this digital world is important. But the biggest struggle with that is understanding that not just anybody can do digital. There’s this amount of complexity that goes into that. It’s also- do you really need it, how much of it do you need, and where and what channels? It’s understanding what are you trying to accomplish and then looking for the tactics in which to accomplish it.

One of the key pieces that I believe a lot of senior leaders who aren’t in marketing don’t quite understand is the level of understanding that goes into each of the channels. You may think that email is just a matter of pushing send when there’s actually a lot of understanding of how spam and blacklists work, and how the email needs to get developed in a responsive environment. Just because your brand is showing up in a certain way with SEO doesn’t mean that Google’s going to allow it to show up the way you exactly want it to, in the right order.

Your employees are your biggest asset

The depth of understanding necessary for each of these digital areas is amazing so you can’t wing it and expect to do a good job. You need the right people in the right place. As you’re growing, you can develop people alongside that growth or you can outsource it to an expert, bring them in, train them and push their growth.

Then, there’s that discussion between outsourcing versus in-source. I would say that’s the key thing, especially for organizations that have been around for a couple of decades, that are still struggling to understand the level of knowledge that needs to go into deploying a digital method in a particular channel.

Organizational culture determines the best channels for employee engagement

The best channels for communication are really culturally-driven than anything else. What is the best way to make sure that your team is set up for success to move as efficiently and effectively as possible? I’ve been in a lot of different companies taking a lot of different approaches. I’ve been on the agency side that was constantly testing all kinds of collaboration tools so that we can make the recommendations to our clients. I’ve also been on the brand side where there are remote offices and where you have people all in one office. So, you figure it out and then you come up with the best solution that works out for everybody.

Organization and culture play a big part. In a younger kind of organization like a startup, some kind of collaboration tool may make more sense but in other organizations where you have people that have been there for a decade and are used to communicating in a certain way, you do need to push.

We are currently pushing more collaboration tools like version control and those kinds of things. We’re trying to push harder on that to introduce a new way of thinking. But then again, you don’t want to push too hard because communication breaks down.

Encourage face-to-face interaction

One of the things that I’ve had to teach employees is when to actually get up and have a conversation.

The one thing that never changes is to know when to pick up the phone, or actually get up and walk upstairs to go and talk to someone face to face. Have that face to face interaction. It’s so easy to misunderstand people when you’re typing and it’s so easy to come off as rude. So, nothing replaces that face-to-face interaction.

Jessica CorreaMarketing Strategy Consultant

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Acknowledge the shift in marketing

If you look at how marketing has evolved over the past 15 years, it used to be about the brand, communicating out what you wanted, and hoping that people understood it and got that message breaking through. Then, you started to see a shift into the experience and toward making sure that the product or the marketing was connected to it, and that the delivery was what you were advertising. With that, it wasn’t just about the creative idea but also the collaboration with the operational team – the people who were delivering. That collaboration was interesting because in a way, it brought upon better marketing but it brought each group – the creative group and the execution/operations team – to really provide a check and balance on each other. This ultimately made people think harder about marketing. That reality pushed marketing people into a more operational mindset and to think “is this something that we can deliver on?” That changed how leaders managed their teams and themselves.

Digital impacts speed to market

If you layer the advent of digital on, it adds on an entire dimension to what the product or experience is because you can create a full relationship with your customer, whether they are with the product or outside the product. That digital layer ensures that everything is magnified and that everything moves more quickly.

A huge change I’ve seen over the past five to ten years with the advent of digital is that people are now more than ever challenged to not be as plan-centered as they were before. Ten years ago, you would set a plan in place, map out every contingent thing that may happen and make sure you had it 100 percent thought-through before you executed. The shift now is really toward test and learn, get it out there quickly, and fail or succeed quickly. So, instead of waiting for something to be 100 percent before you put it out, now it’s more so get those ideas out there at 60-70 percent and iterate to that closer to 100 percent. If you don’t move quickly, other people will and you won’t be the first to market or the first out there. For me, that has been the biggest transition – moving from thinking everything 100 percent through to testing and learning.

Learn from failures

From a management style standpoint, you have to teach your team not be afraid to fail. Failure is good – that’s where you learn and get better. This is a big shift from what I experienced in my twenties and early thirties. You wouldn’t ever put something out there that was broken and could possibly be a mistake. Now, people need to be comfortable with that and be able to adapt from it.

It’s important to leverage that data piece. You really have the ability now to establish some benchmarks and what success looks like, and you can look at that really granularly, whereas you couldn’t 15 years ago. So now, you may put an idea out there and in the end, it didn’t sell as many XYZ’s as you wanted it to. However, you did get a piece of learning from it that got a lot more clicks than you did before. So, you can look at your analytics in a much more granular way and use that to think better about whatever you execute later on.

Make employees feel valued

In the marketing world with Millennials coming of age now and being such a huge percentage of the marketing workforce, make sure that you have an open door policy and are willing to hear ideas from all levels of your organization – not just from people who directly report to you. Make sure that people feel more valued than maybe what you were used to as you were coming up.

Years ago, there was more of a feeling of hierarchy and a need to pay your “dues” before you move onto a new position. That’s changed a lot.

What’s great now about people that are in the Millennial generation is that they’re pushing everybody else to see the value of hard work, but that hard work can happen anywhere and doesn’t need to happen in the office. You don’t necessarily have to be chained to your desk for eight hours a day to do your job well. The Millennial generation is teaching everyone about the value of life outside of work – that you will do your job better if you have a life outside of it.

I embrace it because I think it’s right. The more you can embrace people giving their all to all elements of their life, and the more you can support that within the workplace, the better work your employees are going to provide. I’ve done so before myself and because I did, the employee was way more dedicated, thankful, appreciative and productive than if I had said no.

When I was in my late twenties, I did not have balance at all. Looking back at it now, I wish I was doing some of the things that people I work with now are doing. I wish I had a boss to support that. 

That’s an important lesson that I believe everybody should be learning. Too often, people aren’t learning it, and are short-sided ultimately. Long-term, it will prove, especially with the job market being good and people being able to go anywhere, that treating adults like adults works for you in the end. They’re more productive, more loyal and less likely to job hop.

What Great Leaders Actually Do

Video by Brendon.com


2019 is the year CMOs need to step up and demonstrate transformative leadership (if they haven’t done so already). Level 5 leadership will move to the forefront of great marketing, where every marketing leader who wants to drive business success must commit to the success of their employees.

How has digital disruption impacted how you lead your organization toward growth and success? We’re interested in hearing how you’ve had to adjust your marketing leadership style. Let us know below!

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