CMOs: How to Build a Better Relationship with Your Board

Cammie Dunaway, current board member for Planet Fitness and Red Robin, and Sue Bostrom, current board member for ServiceNow, Nutanix, Cadence Design Systems, and Varian Medical Systems, led the most recent CMO Club Virtual Roundtable, How to Build a Better Relationship with Your Board.
Cammie Dunaway CMO Duolingo
Cammie Dunaway
CMO
Duolingo

CMOs communicating with their organization’s board members should be a voice of strategy, innovation and growth.

Cammie Dunaway, current board member for Planet Fitness and Red Robin, author, and CMO at Duolingo, and Sue Bostrom, current board member for ServiceNow, Nutanix, Cadence Design Systems, and Varian Medical Systems  as well as three private companies, and former CMO at Cisco, led the most recent CMO Club Virtual Roundtable, How to Build a Better Relationship with Your Board.

Takeaways from the discussion and questions from participants included a number of tips to maximize the relationship.

Sue Bostrom, Board Member at ServiceNow, Nutanix, Anaplan, Cadence, Varian Medical Systems
Sue Bostrom, Board Member at ServiceNow, Nutanix, Anaplan, Cadence, Varian Medical Systems

What is the board looking for in a CMO?

“Companies are realizing now we can’t just win by driving cost savings and productivity,” Dunaway said. “The board frequently looks to the CMO as a real voice of strategy, innovation and growth.”

Dunaway further explained, the board needs to understand changing consumer and customer needs, how to use technology in smarter ways to understand consumer journeys, and better ways to reach their consumers.

Remember your audience and its role

Frame the conversation and be clear about what you need from the board, Dunaway said. Rather than asking for their feedback on everything, give them specific areas in which you need feedback. Asking the board’s opinion on every detail can sometimes lead to the board getting weighed down by topics with which it doesn’t need to be concerned, she said.

“Focus on those topics where the board really has the background to give you meaningful feedback and just keep the conversation there,” she said.

Set expectations

It’s important to discuss what it’s going to take for the company to lead the industry and be world class, and to set expectations, Dunaway said.

“Boards want everything done yesterday – it’s important to set expectations for the pace at which change can happen while also getting some short-term wins,” she said.

Embrace a symbiotic relationship with the board

Seek out those board members who have a marketing background or are more engaged in marketing efforts – though do so with your CEO’s permission, Dunaway said.

“As a board member, I’m going through the marketing presentation with the CMO in advance of the board meeting,” she said. “So when the rest of the board members look to me, and ask what I think, I can be supportive and constructive.”

Follow-up is important as well. If there are questions that come up during the board meeting, or a board member emails the CMO, that CMO should be responsive, Dunaway said. “Board members are important stakeholders in your careers,” she said.

A few other important takeaways from the discussion include:

  • Marketing presentations should be business operations-oriented to provide the board with a big picture view as to how marketing fits with organizational goals.
  • Understand your audience among board members, their backgrounds, and their understanding of marketing as you plan and make presentations.
  • Remember your board only sees you every three to six months and may need a refresher. 

Interested in serving on a board? 

In closing, CMOs may benefit from the following advice if interested in serving on a board:

  • Expand your network and let people know that you have an interest in serving.
  • Gain experience through board service. Working with a non-profit board will give you governance experience. Or participate on a private company board if you have the opportunity.
  • Tell your CEO. Let your CEO know you’re interested in serving on a board and help him or her understand how it could benefit you in your current job. Chances are they are getting asks and can’t do them all, they may pass one to you.
  • Be a rockstar in your job. Dunaway said she never set out to be on a board but ended up there because she built a reputation in the work she does. “Focus on your job and build a reputation there,”she said. “The calls will start coming.”

When you get that first offer to serve on a board, don’t just jump on whatever comes your way.

“Try to make sure there is good alignment between your real functional excellence and what the business challenges are because you will be able to learn over time about compensation and governance,” Dunaway said.