The CMO’s First 100 Days: A Guide for Success from Leading CMOs

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With so much pressure to make an impact right away, your first 100 days on the job are essential for setting the tone for your tenure and laying the groundwork for success.

As a CMO executive search firm, we understand how important it is to navigate your first few days as a new CMO. You must pay special attention to opportunities for early impact and use this chance to demonstrate your value. There are company objectives to understand, team members to meet, and a new culture to learn, all while making sure you make a good impression.

We were able to discuss how to make the most of your first 100 days as the Head of Marketing with two leading marketing executives – Rob Collins, former CMO of Tropical Smoothie Cafe and Partner at MarketPro, and William Koleszar, CMO of American Family Care. In our discussion, Collins and Koleszar gave some extremely insightful advice on how CMOs can get their marketing program up and running and establish long-term success in the first 100 days on the job during our discussion:

A Discussion with a CMO Executive Search Firm and Two Leading CMOs

Q: What is the most important first step for a CMO to hit the ground running, get up to speed, and show his or her value in a new role?

Rob Collins: It’s really understanding your role and the expectations of the company. Are you brought in to be a change agent or are you just there to keep things running smoothly? It’s critical to know the metrics that you’re going to be measured on, along with what authority and resources you have to carry out the mission. There’s nothing worse than finding out those things don’t align. Also, making sure there’s an alignment with the CEO and the board, if there is one, is important. From a value standpoint, listening to and understanding the perspective of your peers, cross-functional teams, and the board is critical.

William Koleszar: In order of importance for me, it’s certainly understanding the expectations of the CEO and the board, and building a rapport with them so that you can have candid conversations and you can truly understand their expectations. I’m primarily focused on the CEO, where alignment is everything.

I also suggest assessing your team, assessing what talent you have, and what their capabilities are. Do you have the right people? Are they in the right seats? How are they relative to the expectations of your role – can you get there with the team you have? I’m not suggesting by any means, that you should rush into personnel decisions in terms of hiring and firing in the first 100 days. At the end of 100 days, you might be in that position. However, you need to give people the opportunity to regroup themselves and understand their capabilities relative to what you’re charged with.

When I think of a CMO role and the research I’ve done, the role, more than any other role in the executive suite, is about managing up, down, and sideways. The CMO is dependent upon resources and people that are not in their domain. Whether it’s technology, operations, or sales, you need to build really good cross-functional relationships with the leaders in those areas. Investing time to engage with them and build a rapport, and understanding their perspective is important. This is assessing marketing’s reputation in that regard because you’re walking into a situation that has legacy issues, and understanding those issues through the eyes of your peers is the first step to proving your position.

Who Is the Super-CMO and Why You May Need One (or Need to Become One)

Q: What departments must a CMO closely work with to ensure that marketing is aligned across the board and is cross-functional?

Rob Collins: Information technology, especially in the way that the marketing world has changed and continues to change. In marketing, we have moved from finding customers to being found. To be found, I need the marketing technology infrastructure integrated with our corporate IT infrastructure. So, the key cross-functional relationship for me is whoever’s in charge of IT. The lines blur every day between marketing technology and information technology. There are some companies where IT reports up through the CMO and that’s not a surprise given the tools that we need.

William Koleszar: For us, it’s operations. People come to us when they’re at their worst – when they’re in pain, are injured, or have high anxiety about their condition. And that’s when we need to be our best; not only on an individual level but as a team. So, we want our brand to be represented as a kind and caring environment by the best healthcare possible. Our people need to represent that brand in everything we do, and not just in the way they interact but their proficiency in operating. It’s important for my team and I to understand operationally how complex healthcare can be and have thought-through programs with operations in mind. Part of that starts with credibility. It’s a constant journey.

One of the first things I’ve done that have helped is starting Frontline Friday, where my team and I are out in the clinics once a quarter. I’m wearing scrubs and learning how to sterilize medical instruments in the backroom, escorting patients, and throwing loads of gowns in the washer machine. I’m experiencing operationally what people are doing so I understand the context of what I’m asking them to do above and beyond their operational duties. Job one is to establish rapport and credibility. To do that, you need to understand what it’s like to walk in people’s shoes. The second thing I did was recruiting people to the team. As I recruited people to the team, I worked hard to get as many people on the team that had operational experience. I have someone on my team now that was a team leader and ran one of our clinics at a very high level. She has retired as a team leader and now represents marketing, and is part of our team.

Q: How do you effectively go about building relationships with the marketing team and other executives to learn about the culture and internal processes, and assess what other functions in the business need from marketing?

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Rob Collins: For me, it’s face time. It’s about getting out of your desk and walking around. Build those relationships with your team and your peers through personal relationships. I was previously at a company where for me to interact with my peers, I had to go up a floor. And someone a floor away can feel like a block away from you. But instead of just sending emails, I would swing by to have a face-to-face conversation. Even if I didn’t have a specific agenda item, I would swing by and try to understand their pain points and how they interact with marketing.

I find that when you’re open to others, they’ll be open to you in many cases. It’s also important to go about it in the right way – it only works when you’re authentic and sincere about it.

William Koleszar: I prefer phone over email, and I prefer face-to-face over the phone. I do a lot of walking around the building. There isn’t anybody in this building that I don’t say hello to in the hallway and ask how they’re doing; whether they’re in the C-suite or claims processing. I work hard to engage people and bring energy. Whether they’re in the C-suite or not, I work hard to walk around and meet with people face to face. People in those roles are going to help keep you out of trouble, are going to help you be successful, and keep you from doing stupid things. Understand their role and respect their expertise. I could not be successful without understanding their role and going to them for help and expertise. Humility, authenticity, sincerity, and curiosity are critical.

Q: How do you balance coming up with a long-term plan versus putting a few quick wins on the board?

Rob Collins: It takes time to build the foundation, to assess the team, and if you’re going into a different vertical – to understand the different landscape. I’ve worked for CEOs who are impatient with that, who agree on a philosophical level about the needed strategy and process but who also are so wired with getting it done now, that you have to have the quick wins. Part of it goes back to the alignment with the CEO.

I remember having a conversation at the 100-day mark with a CEO. We were building the foundation for the team, had made structural changes, and were doing some great things. I asked if there were things he expected that I hadn’t addressed. He expected me to change the media plan and media agency, and fire our creative director within the first 30 days. This was a misalignment, and there was no way I was going to come in and change something that could have been improved but was actually working. I had to show him the benefit of establishing the right foundation and the right team. It would’ve made a big statement for me to come in and make those decisions but absolutely the wrong thing to do for the business on that timeline without a proper foundation in place.

However, it’s important to find those smaller quick wins that show action, movement, and an understanding of the business— solving early pain points establishes early credibility.

William Koleszar: You have to do both. I did a couple of things really quickly in the first 60 days that turned out well. That gives you the credibility to keep going. I’ll use Jim Collins’ Flywheel Effect – get some quick wins, make slow and steady progress, and don’t overpromise. Have a vision. They all go together. It is making the little wins constantly and consistently and trying to get people to climb on board the bus.

Q: Is there a specific framework you use that enables you to set expectations proactively and ensure you are taking the time to thoughtfully craft a plan, rather than reacting or putting out fires?

Rob Collins: The framework is that you have to maintain focus on the vision but realize that you are going to be doing both concurrently. Your days are going to be filled with listening, reacting, putting out fires, assessing your team, building relationships, and looking for those quick wins. Most of my strategic thinking and planning— especially in the first 100 days— comes after hours when you can get away and process all of the inputs and think about the future vision.

William Koleszar: The first 100 days are going to be really intense and it helps to have an understanding spouse. In terms of a framework, I am a huge fan of Jim Collins’s Good to Great. One of his key concepts is getting the right people on the bus. I spoke with Jim Collins a few years ago and asked him about his interactions with chief marketing officers from some of the big firms. He confirmed that those teams were leaders of leaders. It wasn’t just that the CEO was a great leader, but those companies had Level 5 leaders in all of the C-suite positions. I work to apply that same concept to the marketing team.

The process of getting on my team is rigorous – you’ll go through at least three rounds of interviews and talk with people from different functional areas. We want to see them manage up down and across the organization to see how they build relationships and work within the team structure. Then there’s getting the proper people on the bus, and figuring out who’s in which seats are number two. That’s the formula: get those two things right and keep making tiny, incremental progress toward your objective.

Conclusion

As a CMO executive search firm, we understand how easy it is to feel overwhelmed by the role’s demands and expectations, especially in a new environment. To have an effect in the fast-changing world of the modern CMO, marketing professionals must take complete control of their roles.

A new CMO must get off to a strong start by recognizing what to prioritize and what to do proactively for the business in a timely way. You cannot, however, go there on your own. The first 100 days are for listening, learning, and urgently leading. Maintaining open lines of communication with the CEO, important stakeholders, and enhancing your team’s abilities will boost your chances of success.

You will meet problems and hurdles along the road, but developing a strategy for your first 100 days will make a significant impact. Establishing a solid foundation in the first 100 days allows you to grab this critical time to present amazing ideas and bring your vision to life!

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