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Insight/ General Management

The CMO Toolkit: Traits Of Successful Marketing Leaders

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by Karl Gustafson
Director
CMG Partners

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In this third, and final, article based on our firm’s recently completed third annual "The CMO's Agenda" study, we explore the key traits that make marketers successful. As one can imagine, marketing leaders are not shy when it comes to sharing their opinions about what it takes to achieve success. As we looked across the range of answers we received, four common traits surfaced. (Click here for The CMO's Agenda home page.)

1. Business Leaders, Not Marketing Leaders
We were somewhat surprised to hear the number of marketing leaders who stated that thinking and acting like business leaders first and marketers second was a key trait to be successful. As one CMO stated, “The first factor is thinking and acting like a business leader--identifying and delivering business results.” This same CMO went on to state that unless marketing leaders think and act like this, they will never be taken seriously by the senior team. Underlying this sentiment is the fact that thinking and acting like a business leader helps to focus efforts on the critical areas that will significantly contribute operating profit and cash flow, both in the short term and the long term. The additional benefit that this perspective enables is trust with the cross-functional leadership team, an element that is critical for marketing leaders to help their organizations position themselves to win in the marketplace.

2. Breadth Of Experience
Tying into thinking and acting like a business leader was the breadth of experience sets highlighted by our participants. Certainly depth in marketing was a key component, but the majority of our participants felt that having either functional diversity or experience from different industries (and in some cases both) were important traits for marketing leaders. From an operating perspective, many marketing leaders noted experience in sales was critical to success given the closeness with which these functions work. Other CMOs noted that an in-depth understanding of operations was important. A few CMOs communicated that the best marketing leaders come up through the product marketing ranks due to the breadth of responsibilities a product manager owns. Ultimately, this range of experience helps the marketing leader know what it takes to execute, as well as forge, relationships with functional leaders.

In addition to functional diversity, a number of CMOs spoke of the frequently overlooked but important benefit of having experience gained from working in several different industries. One of our participants espoused that limiting hiring decisions to a specific industry not only limits your talent pool, but also limits the degree of fresh thinking that is brought into the organization. The sentiment was illustrated by a CMO who lived this path and explained how her new role benefitted from her past experience. She was hired to bring a strategic approach to her company’s marketing efforts and was able to draw on experiences from earlier in her career in a different industry to better position the relaunch of her new corporate brand. She was able to think outside of her current industry’s marketing paradigms and dislodge a few “sacred cows” from their traditional marketing approach. The result was a far bolder brand positioning than the CEO had expected--an approach that genuinely excited the executive team and helped solidify the new CMO position as a trusted business adviser.

3. Intellectual Curiosity
A number of our participants cited intellectual curiosity as a key factor for success, specifically as it related to the customer. It is this curiosity and the willingness to explore unchartered waters that arms marketing leaders with the information needed to differentiate from their competitive peers. This intellectual curiosity enables marketing leaders to innovate and challenge their existing marketing models. Additionally, intellectual curiosity is not just limited to the customer, but also applies to experimenting with a host of new tools available to marketing leaders. To effectively leverage these tools requires both the desire and willingness to explore and experiment to understand what is best for one’s organization.

4. Leadership
The words courage and confidence were frequently used by our group of marketing leaders and spoke directly to two traits successful marketing leaders need to have. There are multiple elements to this, but one we heard quite often from our participating marketing leaders was the ability to set a vision, motivate, and mobilize the marketing organization in an effort to improve value delivery and capture. An additional element is the willingness to represent the true needs of the customer, which in many cases requires swimming against the internal biases that exist within an organization. Just this seemingly simple act requires the courage to fight this battle, along with the confidence that this is the right decision for the organization. Finally, the majority of the time marketing leaders are acting on imperfect or incomplete data, requiring a high degree of confidence to place a few big bets.

Certainly these traits are not exhaustive, but rather are representative of what was top-of-mind from our participants. In our opinion, thinking and acting like a business leader, developing broad experience sets, fostering intellectual curisiosity, having the courage and confidence to stand up for the customer internally, and setting a vision that mobilizes your team are solid building blocks that lay a foundation for success and, by default, help to elevate the role of the marketing leader.

Back to Special Report: The CMO's Agenda home page

About Karl Gustafson

Karl has more than a decade of experience in helping product lines and businesses grow profitably. As a director with CMG Partners, he has helped companies with their growth strategy, positioning, strategic partnerships, due diligence, marketing effectiveness, and segmentation across a range of industries. Karl is a graduate of Bradley University and holds an MBA from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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