Marketing Organization
Building & Developing an Effective Marketing Team

Hiring a CMO: A Design-Thinking Approach

Kate Bullis
August 15, 2016


Kate Bullis, Managing Partner, SEBA International

Kate Bullis, Managing Partner, SEBA International

It doesn’t matter whether we talk about enterprise or consumer buyers, any marketer today will tell you that their customers are increasingly sophisticated and demanding. Customers want authenticity and value, not a pitch. They expect every interaction they have with a brand to be consistent and genuine. Self-service is essential to them ‒ they should be able to easily access all the information they may need when they need it. How they buy and who makes the purchase is even changing.

Only the most versatile and innovative CMOs can satisfy these changing buyer demands. They have to be marketers who are comfortable with ambiguity and experimentation. In finding these individuals, however, many companies approach recruiting as they always have ‒ they seek a CMO who has done the job before in a similar company; someone with a proven playbook.

If you want to hire the new breed of CMO, you need a thoughtful approach to recruiting. I would argue that one particularly promising approach is design thinking. The five steps of the design-thinking process ‒ empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test ‒ create a terrific framework for a CMO search process and help to increase the chances of zeroing in on the best CMO for your company.

First, empathize. Broadly speaking, this is the step where you learn about the people who will benefit from a new solution or approach. In a recruiting/search scenario, you empathize when you ask yourself open-ended questions about your company, such as:

  • What attributes define our best employees?
  • Who are our customers ‒ and is that changing? How do they buy?
  • Who are the internal stakeholders and what are their greatest needs when it comes to marketing ‒ both short and long term?

Next, define the solution you need. Perhaps you need to differentiate a business within a crowded marketplace, reinvent the brand positioning, pivot to a new market, scale the company internationally, or unify marketing approaches following a merger. You need to be able to define clearly the top priority problem(s) you hope your new CMO will solve.

  • What problems are we solving with this hire?
  • What kinds of experience would help us know a CMO is capable of solving these problems?

Many companies get tripped up here. One software company we worked with recently asked to see heads of marketing with work experience at larger competitors. It was all about pattern matching. But just because someone has worked at a similar company in terms of product doesn’t mean they’ve solved the kinds of problems your company needs to solve.

Another example is a company we worked with that wanted a CMO who’d marketed specifically to the C-suite. While these CXOs were the ultimate buyers, the biggest challenge the company faced was creating a new product category. I convinced them it was probably more important to find someone who’d gained solid experience with new category creation than someone who’d marketed to the C-suite. All things being equal, the perfect candidate would have had both. Nevertheless, being clear about priorities early on is a game changer for executive hiring.

Then, you ideate. This is the brainstorming phase where you think through all the likely places you might find the candidate who fits your definition. One of our clients in the solar industry very deliberately sought a CMO from the insurance industry. Their thinking was simple: if a marketer could make insurance fun and memorable, imagine what s/he could do for solar. Here’s your chance to use your imagination within the loose confines that you developed in the Define phase. Think big picture: audience and strategy vs. market and product.

Next is prototyping. In the case of recruiting, prototyping is the interview phase. When interviewing candidates, you not only want to ask how they went about solving similar problems in the past but also how they  would potentially tackle your company’s specific marketing challenges. How a candidate replies here is very important. When markets, competition, buyer profiles and behaviors are in flux, you don’t want someone who assumes that a playbook from their past will do the trick. You need someone with great analytical capabilities and a willingness to apply a fresh approach to every situation. Rather than having all the answers, you’re looking for evidence that the candidate listens, absorbs and processes your situation before ideating. Are they asking the right questions?  Do they say, “I don’t know,” when they don’t?

Recently, we led the CMO search for a disruptive technology company with massive competitors. We presented a range of individuals and the CEO met with them all. One candidate in particular was a stand-out on paper because he had such relevant positioning and scaling experience. When he interviewed, however, the CEO said he had an answer for every question – and a slide to address every topic. It made the CEO nervous. In the end, the company selected the most thoughtful candidate who, when she didn’t know how to answer, said, “I’ll have to figure that out when I get here,” and had demonstrated a history of doing just that.

As for testing, there is, of course, always reference checking. Giving trusted sources examples of what the candidate will be asked to do and the kind of environment they’ll be required to do it in is a good way of learning whether – in their opinion – the candidate is likely to succeed. Always ask references for advice on how to set the candidate up for success, too. This is a great way to learn what the perceived opportunities for development may be. It’s also a good indicator of what you should be mindful of – good or bad.

Another good way to test whether your finalist is truly a fit is by asking them to complete some small assignment. This gives you a sense of how the candidate works, what their work product is like, and whether you both see eye-to-eye on the subject. An assignment may also give the candidate a chance to try before they buy in and if they aren’t happy, bow out before it’s too late!

When I meet with companies in need of marketing leadership, I always start the conversation by asking them to explain their situation as a company. Why are we here? How did we get here? What’s working? What’s not working? Then I ask for goals and obstacles to those goals. Sometimes the problem isn’t a marketing problem at all. When marketing can solve the problem, however, try applying design thinking to identify the best CMO for your company.

This article was originally featured on Linkedin Pulse.

Refer a Friend