Mary Lee Sachs  by MaryLee Sachs, Founder & CEO, BrandPie Inc

The rapid pace of change is creating the need for a new breed of CMO. One who is able to demonstrate strength in communication and collaboration, fully understand both the business and the customer, and be agile and flexible – and yet decisive. Above all else, today’s senior marketer needs to demonstrate curiosity and an eagerness to continue to learn. As Caren Fleit of executive recruitment firm Korn Ferry International calls it: “learning agility”.

Intellectual Curiosity

To launch the book, What The New Breed of CMOs Know That You Don’t, a panel was led at last year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. One of the panelists, Julie Woods-Moss, CMO of $4 billion technology company Tata Comunications, claimed that learning agility, or as she called it “intellectual curiosity” is a paramount quality she looks for in rising marketing stars.

“Intellectual curiosity is about being the one in the room saying: why, what about this? I think it’s a combination of intellectual curiosity and intellectual honesty,” she said. And she added, “Don’t be afraid to say, even if it’s not in your interest, that this is not in the interest of the business. It’s this combination of intellectual curiosity with intellectual honesty that works best.”

Call it what you like – learning agility, intellectual curiosity, staying ahead of the curve…it all adds up to keeping an open mind and continuing to innovate whenever and wherever you are able to create positive change.

Collaborative Communication

When Woods was asked by the board to build a “global marketing function that included corporate communications right through”, she was conscious that she inherited a group of highly optimized, local teams that were unaccustomed to working in a collaborative way. So instead of saying: “Okay, guys, we’re going to do a top-down plan, here we go”, she said: “Everybody continue to build your own plans. But then we’re going to have a donor and a recipient. And I’ll be looking for those who steal the most from other people’s plans and those who donate most to be stolen.”

Woods-Moss rewarded her team members with a 20 percent bonus on achieving that dynamic, which meant that instead of forcing the globalization, she was able to build a plan from the bottom-up with incentives. In that way, she was able to celebrate the champions who gave the most, as well as those who were humble enough to actually share and re-use the most.

Restless Discontent

When Douwe Bergsma joined privately-held FMCG company Georgia-Pacific as its first CMO (from Procter & Gamble), he also inherited a disparate group of individuals. He focused on creating what he calls “restless discontent” in order to achieve innovation. “First, you need to have some discontent with the current situation. Second, you need to have a vision of a better state. And a third is to believe that there’s a reasonable path to get there,” he explained.

Innovative Empowerment

Setting lofty goals to be achieved by innovation in practice seems to be a common thread across change-making CMOs. SP Shukla, who is president of Group Strategy as well as chief brand officer of the Mahindra Group, described a policy for empowering the Group’s teams in order to get the best ideas.

Shukla’s Office of Strategic Management is responsible for the conduct of “war rooms,” a concept pioneered by Mahindra Group. All 18 operating businesses present their three-year strategies in one-, two-, or three-day meetings which are attended by the chairman, group CFO, group strategy head (Shukla), and several other senior colleagues from HR, finance, accounts, IT, as well as of course the business company or sector team presenting. These meetings take place from mid-October through end-December. Then, strategy is not re-opened again for one year. Shukla says, “So they’re left alone to operationalize the agreed strategy in peace. That is true empowerment.”

The Future CMO

The CMO challenge goes way beyond the marketing function. Given the ambiguities of the role, a CMO often has the toughest job of educating both the internal community as well as the external world about marketing and its primary role in building business, contributing to growth of the organization. And in order to do so, the CMO has to have one foot in the business leadership area, being a true C-suite player, and the other foot in the marketing leadership area. This presents a set of “dual challenges”.

While there are many differences in the job descriptions, the marketers taking on new CMO roles or looking to up-level current roles need to demonstrate some remarkable characteristics. The CMO who thrives as a member of a senior leadership team will be a team player who can lead without rank and has built an organization that earns the respect of the rest of the business, not just the members of the marketing department. The skills that are increasingly in favor are strong communication, willingness to partner and strategic thinking.

For CMOs to thrive and survive in a collaborative C-suite, they will have to adopt a general management mindset and earn the respect of the others with fact-based analyses. They will be accountable for the brand strategy, driving the organic growth agenda and positioning the business for the future. As the acknowledged voice of the customer and consumer, they will ensure the strategy is built and executed from the outside in. They can no longer be passive service providers, content to oversee market insight activities, coordinate relationships with key marketing partners and ensure compliance ‘reasonably’ with brand guidelines.”

What this means for CMOs’ teams is a need for creating a support network that excels at both the analytic as well as the creative requirement, marketers who bring a new level of business acumen and fluency to the practice of marketing in their organizations. Other required strengths included the strong desire to collaborate across the enterprise, a fearlessness to experiment and learn from both success and failure, a dedication to soliciting creativity and innovation from all employees—not just those in the marketing department, and a passion for recruiting, developing and retaining the best talent.

Interestingly, successful CMOs are remarkably aligned on the importance of culture in the organization, and the role they can play in helping to shape a positive and productive mindset. But the CMO role is increasingly not for the faint of heart. According to Caren Fleit: “What we hear consistently from CMOs is that the world is changing, what they’re facing is changing, and as a result, their role is changing. Nothing is the same as it was a couple of years ago.” And as much as it has changed today, it will continue to change tomorrow.

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MaryLee Sachs is a Consultant, Author, Speaker and recently published “What The New Breed of CMOs Know That You Don’t”