CEOs, Executive Recruiters And The Problem Of CMO Tenure
Another CMO was fired the other day. I mention this not because it’s news, but because, increasingly, it’s not. And that it’s not seems to have inured us to the truth that this is not how it’s supposed to be, and we seem to be collectively complicit in accepting a status-quo that’s unsustainable, and bad for CMOs, brands, marketing and the businesses they are engines of growth for.
The fact is, probably more than one was fired that day, but this particular one was fired after only nine months. That’s not much of a marketing gestation period, especially for a role originally described as “transformational.”
With each change in the chief marketer’s chair, it confirms and perpetuates the decades-plus well-worn truth — CMOs have the shortest tenure of anyone in the C-suite. And it’s getting shorter: The consistently refreshed data proving this, including last year’s report from Executive Search firm Spencer Stuart, showed that in 2021, CMO tenure shrank to its lowest levels since 2009: to slightly more than 25 months, this vs. 80 for CEOs that typically hire them.
Of course, as Darden Professor and Forbes contributor, Kim Whitler points out in an article for Sloan MIT, not all CMO departures are firings but CMO-driven decisions to leave for greener or other pastures. But still and clearly, something is broken. Maybe a few things. But what, why, and most importantly what can we do about a clearly chronic condition?
For the moment, let’s put aside consideration of CMO capability and culpability, no small part of the problem and challenge, and focus on two other key stakeholders in the marketing eco-system who share some accountability for this decades- long doom cycle:
1. The CEO, often the CMO’s “hiring manager”
2. The Executive Search firms that recruit for and counsel the CEO
Based on my own experience and observations, and in conversations with over a dozen CMOs, marketers, and recruiters about the roles these two constituencies play, some undeniable patterns emerge.
To be clear, my intent here is not to assign blame. Even if it were, who could be blamed when it takes so many to tango? My intent is, however, to ask what we can do to change a status quo that too often fails to serve those it’s supposed to, individuals and businesses both. Put in another context, if CMO tenure trends were market-share trends, companies would be scrambling to do different in order to reverse same. Why then isn’t that happening here, with the hire often most responsible for driving that market share?
Let’s start with the CEO.
Under the best of circumstances, hiring well is hard. Some data suggests that across levels and industries only only 1 in 5 new hires are considered successful. But hiring well is made harder when you’re less familiar with the role and skill set(s) required for that which you’re hiring, as many CEOs are about marketing.
While the data about the percentage of CEOs with marketing backgrounds varies by source and geography it tends to fall in the 15-25% range, suggesting that at least 75% of CEOs don’t come from marketing. In fact, most come from backgrounds more oriented to cost and liability mitigation–Finance, Operations, Law, Accounting, Engineering–than an orientation to what marketing is and can do.
I’ll offer that unique to marketing as a skill and craft, and also exacerbating the challenges of a CEO hiring well, is that more than a few of them (along with other internal stakeholders) think that because they see marketing they understand it, as if looking at a Jackson Pollack painting and thinking “I could do that” makes you capable of actually doing it. If only.
Indeed, almost everyone has an opinion on marketing and expectations for it– as one long-time CMO put it to Forbes, “rarely do you see colleagues question any other discipline so openly”– even if it’s not an informed opinion. So, when marketing goes awry or flat, as marketing inevitably does and will, when the CEO–and, sometimes, even more cruelly, the N-of-1 focus group that is the kid at their dinner table–thinks it should be done otherwise, its whoops, there we go again.
To illustrate the point, a short tale. Years ago, I was with a client, the Global CMO of one of the world’s most iconic brands, when he got a call from his CEO, letting him know an octogenarian member of their Board wanted an ad starring a global popstar and targeted to girls 12-18 taken down. Why?
Because this 80-something man didn’t “get it,” not of course knowing enough to understand he wasn’t supposed to. The ad, which cost millions and took months, came down. Time, treasure, and impact lost, and a marketer held accountable for not appealing to someone they weren’t trying to.
When chief-marketers are held to account–as they 100% should be–but like my former client above are not given commensurate authority, resources, and internal support they need to succeed — they often fail. As one recruiter put it to Forbes “if there’s agreement on what needs to be done but no alignment on how and with what,” rarely do good things come.
Which brings us back to the average CEO’s career background. Because they don’t understand the different types of CMOs, or that there indeed are different types and roles of CMOs, it’s harder to hire the right one. When they don’t understand and can’t imagine the true challenges and sheer magnitude of the job to be done, the requisite resources for delivering against performance expectations and metrics, how to align the position’s description, responsibilities, accountability and authority, and so on, hiring right can get Alice in Wonderland very quickly. As in Wonderland: “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road (or CMO) will get you there”–or not, as it turns out.
While even among marketers there’s some difference of opinion about what marketing is and does (to be discussed in a subsequent piece), CEOs must work to do better and try harder to understand the fundamental marketplace and organizational challenges facing their new CMO, and irrespective of whether promoted from within or hired from without–so they can recruit accordingly.
In my conversations with Recruiters and CMOs past, present, and future for this article, all spoke to CEOs often having a “shiny-object orientation” and not looking beyond a CV from a shiny-buzzed-about brand to see a set of experiences that have no relevance to what they’re hiring for. While my General Contractor needn’t know how to install the plumbing, she does need to know enough about how plumbing is installed to make sure the plumber hired is a competent one. The data on CMO tenure makes abundantly clear that, too often, this is not the case among CEOs.
Which brings us to the role and responsibility of Executive Search firms, essential partners in this process.
To be clear, as with CMOs and CEOs, there are different types of search firms and different types of recruiters within them. There are those who recruit by industry and those who recruit by specialty, size, or type. There are those with a practitioner’s experience and insight into the craft and those without. But for companies big and small, these firms (also big and small) are an inextricable part of the marketing eco-system, and an essential conduit between a CEO who may not understand marketing and the candidates who should.
The Executive Recruiter’s job is not an easy one, far from it. As one B-school professor who has studied the ebbs and flows of the CMO role over time shared with Forbes, unlike CFOs who relatively speaking have a fairly standard and uniform orientation, recruiting for CMOs is a more difficult because and as discussed above, CMO backgrounds, experiences, training, and types, are far more varied than other C-suite positions (CIOs bearing the most resemblance to the varieties of CMO).
Simply, there is no uniformity of CMO and thus no uniform way to judge, recruit or hire for same, all of which makes the Recruiter’s contribution to process and end result all the more important.
But while the job is hard, and as for the CMO, that’s the job. Certainly, no recruiter looks at the data turnover rates of CMOs and thinks it’s all going well, and several took pains to say that while the turnover drives their business on the one hand, they don’t consider this a best-case scenario regardless. “Our worst nightmare is the hire not working out,” one shared.
Given what’s been pointed out above about the current -state of CEO insight and understanding, it’s incumbent on recruiters to make sure that armchair marketer CEOs, who may be “resume shoppers,” who want to see “a spectrum of candidates because they don’t know what they’re looking for,” get to a point where they can understand what they need and articulate what they want; what one recruiter defined as the “mission- critical challenges the candidate needs to do very well.”
Because while recruiters are gate keepers, to many an aspiring candidate’s dismay no doubt, they aren’t just that. They are counsel and consigliere to businesses, who, in their role, must “speak truth to power” as MediaLink’s Kathleen Saxton told us, helping bridge the gap between what specific businesses need in a CMO and what they may not know.
Of course, hiring the right CMO is essential to business outcomes, and isn’t on the CEO alone. Recruiters play an essential part in shaping the scope, design and architecture of the brief and role so it comes as close to reflecting operational reality as possible. Having been party to it twice myself, I can attest there is no worse feeling than finding out–often very quickly–that the job you have is not the one you took, (reminding us again of the role of the candidate in asking the right questions and listening to the answers. “Hope,” candidates would do well to remember, “is not a strategy.”)
I was surprised by a broad antipathy towards recruiters among the CMOs who shared their thinking with Forbes for this article. In the words of one echoing the sentiment of quite a few, “search firms are failing us.” This is a strong POV, and no small thing to hear an oft recruited, accomplished, CMO say straight up.
Another CMO emailed Forbes writing, “without a doubt there’s an issue, centered around both recruiters and boards thinking that what they want on paper is a big name or poaching from a competitor versus truly focusing on the blend of IQ/EQ of the candidate. Recruiters have a hard position but there’s not enough advocacy for the candidate because let’s face it, we aren’t paying the bills.”
The distinction between customer and candidate called out here merits some consideration because while one may be “paying the bills” it’s the work of the other that helps determine success. Analogously, ensuring product-market fit is a fundamental part of the start-up world’s task and vernacular. Without it, there is no business to build. Ensuring this product:market fit, the alignment between CMO candidate and the job to be done is equally fundamental, which one would think would go without saying, but the data suggests otherwise.
But unlike many a VC backed start-up, established organizations tend to have neither the time nor inclination to pivot, they just fire, which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself when the fit doesn’t fit.
But unless one thinks CMOs are so uniformly bad at what they do that 25-months seems a reasonable median tenure, something(s) is going wrong and something–and someone–else must be at least contributing to the numbers.
None of this is meant to remove individual CMO’s culpability and accountability to this from the equation, to be clear. And at the risk of stretching a bad metaphor too far, when the fit doesn’t fit as often as we’re seeing for as long as we’ve been seeing it, it seems time to consider getting a new tailor.
I’d be inclined to say that the situation the data reflects is unsustainable. Except, we’re collectively sustaining it. So, again, what can we do? What needs to change to change numbers that are neither good for individuals nor enterprises?
What seems clear is we need a convergence of better practices among all involved. If the current state continues to serve as predictor of the future state, there seems little doubt brands will continue to disappear, and CMOs and the marketing they spearhead will matter less and less. And while there may be no uniform CMO I think we can all agree this would be uniformly bad.
If you have thoughts or ideas on what can be done next and by whom, let us know here. Because to quote both Nancy Myers and Camila Cabello, “something’s gotta give.”