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From CMO to CEO: The Journey and the Destination – Synopsis of a Strategy & Leadership (VIP) Interview

Propolis’ Sue Mizera summarises her Ignite London session on the differences between CMOs and CEOs and how you can take the next big leap. Part I.

At this year’s Ignite event in London, our client and colleague, Didier Devaud, and I created a live case study, in interview format, to explore the complicated, important, often-fraught relationship between CMOs and CEOs. The opportunity to do so comes down to Didier, himself, that rara avis who has worn the CMO’s hat for companies in the med-tech industry and now wears the CEO’s hat at FKG, a Swiss med-tech company. Our intention was to inspire our audience of CMOs, marketers, and some CEOS, to think and reflect deeply about themselves and their roles: Are they in the right roles, and in the right places in their lives, or not? 

Full expectations were that we would address classic marketing questions head-on: How can I be a better professional? How can I do a better job? How can I work better with my CEO? Do I aspire to another role, maybe even the CEO’s? Rather, we offered the best way to address these questions was first to step back; to cast the net more broadly, deeply and widely, and ask: Do I love what I do? Do I do what I love? Do I commit the same time, resources, and TLC to myself as I do to my career? Will I be more confident today and in future, in myself and my contributions, as a result of my responses and new-found insights? 

We continued: The word “destination” in the title of our discussion had nothing to do with our destinations, Didier’s or mine, but rather signalled those of the CMO’s and marketers in the audience: How do you define your own, personal destinations? All surely differently. But there is one common truth, we assured them: The “journey”, also a word in our title, begins with you, marketer and CMO, and with what you truly love. As the audience quickly realised, we were in new territory. 

Before beginning in full, Didier offered one key insight from his new role as CEO that would affirm the tone to follow: “I believe we are only the CEO of ourselves, as individuals. After that, we are SEOs, SMOs, SFOs. That is, we are the Servant, the Steward of our teams, organisations, companies. The Servant Executive Officer. Because only being of service brings value and togetherness to achieve higher goals and consistent results.” Prior to the session, we had crowd-sourced a question among the Propolis community concerning what the CEO could do to ensure the CMO’s professional development. Turns out, this is not even remotely the right question to ask.

What follows are highlights of the questions and responses that we explored with our audience who, it is fair to say, genuinely appreciated and vigorously embraced Didier’s insights and approach.

1. I began by asking Didier, based on his unique experience, how he sees the fundamental differences between the roles of CMO and CEO. Are they perhaps different people, with fundamentally different characters, who gravitate to one or the other of the roles in the first place?

Acknowledging his engineering background, Didier offered a formula: 

P = I(t) + E(t) 

Performance (P) is the result of time (t) that you spend internally (I) and externally (E). Vis à vis these dimensions, CEOs and CMOs necessarily perform fundamentally different  jobs. CEOs must lead internally while engaging externally, while CMOs must lead externally and engage internally. CEOs have a shorter (read quarterly) time focus although they still must be “visionary”, while CMOs necessarily have a longer time focus: after all, great campaigns should have staying power to last years; adherents, although they could, rarely sign up overnight. 

Even P for Performance differs by function: P = Profit for the CEO, which is entirely quantifiable and measurable, in time; Performance for the Marketer = Impact, which indirectly contributes to Profit, but is always future-oriented and difficult to measure with precision and timeliness: Did the last ad campaign grow sales? Will it do the same in the future? Is sales more responsible for business success, as sales everywhere is won’t to contend?  Add to this that marketing is often seen as an expense, a large one, whose combined ROI, based on multiple, intangible assets, is future-oriented, very hard to measure and, predictably, when sales objectives fail, the first to be cut. 

If you took the formula a step further and plotted the three dimensions on an x/y/z plane – internal vs. external focus, shorter vs. longer time frames, direct vs. indirect performance measures, the CEO and CMO would permanently occupy different quadrants.  

As for character differences, CEOs and CMOs are at heart fundamentally very different people. On the Myers-Briggs scale, for example, CEOs skew to being ENTJ (Extroverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging) types while Marketers skew to being ENFPs (Extroverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving).This highlights some key differences in the way they see the world; this is true of them as people, and as professionals. Flash: you don’t leave who you are at the office door every morning. CEOs skew to relying on reason, rationales and facts, while CMOs are big on emotions and feelings. They tend to be enthusiastic, expressive, creative and larger than life. After all, as Didier pointed out to the amusement of our audience: “CMOs are CEOs too, that is, Chief Entertaining Officers.” FYI: there are quadruple the number of ENFPs (8.1%) vs. ENTJs (1.8%), so we can assume the same percentages apply to the pool of CMOs/CEOs (US-based.) 

2. Acknowledging the differences between CMOs and CEOs, I wondered how they can better work together? How can the CMO perform all the nice-to-haves that the function requires, and still be ‘chosen for the lifeboat’?

There is little question, CMOs and CEOs could work better together and deliver more and better results. But the CMO must first understand something they may not have considered. Given their complete view of the market through market research and customer surveys, as well as direct, personal interactions with customers, organising events and working with agencies, the CMO can provide the c-suite with unique knowledge and insights into the customer. And this is a source of tremendous power and incredible value. It also provides myriad opportunities to engage with the CEO and the entire Management Team. For example, the CMO is able to tell new, compelling stories about customers, although Didier was quick to add that these stories should be illustrated with data, whenever possible; and supported with facts that CMOs must know by heart, as reading from a script diminishes their impact. Performance is both form and substance, CMOs.

Didier provided further, very pointed advice:

  • Be data- and business-driven, and apply critical thinking to all your analyses; however difficult and specialised these skills, they provide the CMO much-needed grounding, authority, credibility and gravitas
  • Use the same language as your internal audiences, repeating and rephrasing whenever possible, because this demonstrates listening and empathy. Prepare to speak “data” and “business.”
  • Be a step ahead: always have something up your sleeve, know something others don’t, offer a little magic. Think being classically proactive. 
  • Why ever hoard? Make your network and relationships available to your organisation, not only to yourself. Share the wealth, spread the abundance. 
  • Make it real with recommendations that are clear and concise; no jargon-speak that only you understand. 

Consider that with these skills and practices, CMO, you’re building your brand, your professional brand. Who knows brand better than the CMO? Who knows the customer better?  Realise that this combination can be transformative for your role and your impact. As you build your brand, the medium becomes the message: the basis for taking marketing’s impact and respectability and essentialness up many notches. It is not up to the CEO to direct or manage the career of the CMO, nor should it be; it is fully within the power of the CMO to manage the role themselves.

So, how can the CMO be ‘chosen for the lifeboat’? 

Consider that leadership is not only the organisation chart. If the Management Team wants you in the room, this shows tremendous power as well. It is a clear indication that you are becoming indispensable. You also need to stand out. Don’t underestimate your role as CEO –  “Chief Entertainment Officer” – and think of this as a springboard to creating your personal brand. Didier continued: the CMO needs to be “top of the pile:”

  • Deliver consistently and give credit where credit is due
  • Volunteer for difficult projects that are sometimes doomed to fail. If they do, the project was a failure, not you.
  • Actively manage your key stakeholders; you know who they are, and what they want, and how to bring value to them
  • Do something others don’t do – how do you want to stand out? Do you enjoy reading, cooking, travelling or hiking? Steve Jobs loved calligraphy. You don’t necessarily need ghost-hunting, or mooing, or extreme ironing (see visual) as a pastime, but hobbies can be defining, and endearing.

Developing your brand avoids the terrible, common marketer’s trap of “they don’t get me, they don’t understand what I do.” It couldn’t be more obvious. Finally, tear a page from Jeff Bezos’ definition of brand – Is what they say about you when you’re not in the room what you want them to say? If yes, ROI achieved.

Check out part II here.

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