The New CMO’s First Hundred Day Playbook

In a 2014 study, IDC found that 51% of CMOs at tech companies have held their position for fewer than two years. We predict many new CMOs again this year. How can a new executive start right? IDC interviewed 10 wise, seasoned, CMOs for a glimpse into their first hundred days playbook.

Transitions are vital moments when even the smallest executive actions have a disproportionate effect on outcomes. It’s a risky time for a new CMO who starts with neither the knowledge nor the alliances necessary for success. Fail to build momentum during the first hundred days, and a CMO will struggle for the rest of his/her (probably short) tenure. Job loss is not the only blow that may be suffered by a poorly conducted start. Many more CMOs fail to reach their full potential in their current position, thus putting a promising career on a slower track.

Success in the first hundred days, on the other hand, sets the stage for a brilliant performance. The 10 heads of marketing interviewed by IDC collectively recommended these six plays.

Play #1: Understand your real job.

Marketing is very closely tied to business context. A new CMO must assess quickly what work is really needed. Does the company need more awareness, a brand refresh, or a full product portfolio transformation? Each of these strategies requires a radically different approach from marketing.

Peter Isaacson, Demandbase: “What are the business goals of the company and the expectations for marketing? What are the business priorities and where is the company going? Get this straight from the mouth of the CEO. What is expected of you? Are there any unrealistic expectations that you need to set straight [such as] build a new category in the first two months? Get on the same page right from the beginning.”

Elisa Steele, Jive Software:  “There is a big opportunity and a big problem. No CMO in any company has exactly the same responsibility [as another CMO]. You know what a CFO does, what sales does, HR, etc. CMOs are different. Are they responsible for communications? Strategy? Product? Customer service? CEOs can create a spec of their own definition. But that requires a very mixed pool of candidates and it’s difficult to understand what any candidate’s power skill needs to be.”

Greg Estes, NVIDIA: “Building an executive team is like building a sports team. Different players are good at different things. [CEOs] might find they hired a great shortstop when they needed a good first baseman.”

Play #2: Speed up your learning curve.

The amount of information that needs to be absorbed in the first hundred days is prodigious. It’s best to approach learning in a direct and methodical way.

Paul Appleby, BMC: “To remain relevant, our number 1 priority must be to drive a new level of engagement with our customers. We are headquartered in Houston, Texas. However, our customers are based globally. As such, we need to engage with them globally. In my first three months, I travelled the globe and met with over 500 of our largest customers to understand the dynamic impact of digital disruption on their businesses. I also met with our teams in every major city where we operate. We listened and pivoted our engagement model, market positioning, and service delivery model based on what we heard.”

Play #3: Get the right people on the bus.

Waste little time in building a crackerjack team. Make tough decisions on whether existing team leaders should stay, go, or be repositioned. Make great hires quickly, too, as leaders will need people to achieve early success.

Christine Heckart, Brocade: “First, get the right people in the right job. I meet everyone on the team if I can. For key people, it’s one on one — all direct reports, all top talent, all people in key roles. I meet the rest in group reviews at least once. [In these group reviews] everyone gets two to three hours to present — What are you proud of? What’s working, what’s not working, what’s broken? Think of the future, what does success look like? In parallel, I run a change management process. The result is a new org structure, roles described, a people plan (gaps, promotions, etc.). You would be shocked at how often I’ve found that attention to the right organization has been ignored.”

Jonathan Martin, EMC:  “The first few weeks in any role should be spent assembling a new team and listening. In the first conversations, nothing makes sense, but after a while you see the same challenges. You need to be creative about finding solutions. With a large global team, it’s likely that someone somewhere has solved those problems. Use the scale of the organization. Raise up the super capable in the regions. I found a social expert in India and a guy in Italy who used Twitter to set up CEO meetings. Then, overcommunicate. I tweet. I blog internally. I hold a TV town hall once or twice a month.”

Play #4: Make a visible difference.

Early wins create momentum. Promote early wins widely and loudly so that the CMO and the marketing team are seen as the heroes.

Andy Cunningham, Avaya: “You need a few small wins. Before you can get the big jobs done, you need to earn your credibility. During the first hundred days, you are mostly focused with getting the organization to a place where they will follow you. The small things must be meaningful. Earn your way into the fold. Then you have a chance to get the big jobs done. The more the organization sees you having an impact, the more likely they are to take you under their wing.

“You have to pick the right initial wins. For example, building the funnel or repositioning might be really important, but it will be months before the company sees the impact. At Avaya, I focused on the corporate narrative first because it was really needed, progress could be made fast, and having it would be transformative. It was and now I can focus on longer-term issues.”

Play #5: Expedite key initiatives with operational rigor.

Identify the five-to-eight must-do initiatives that will create the needed business value that the CEO really wants. Institute a culture of operational rigor. Overcommunicate. A mantra, such as “Jive Forward”, can to be a container for the change that is coming and will energize the company.

Christine Heckart, Brocade: “You’ve got to think big — most companies are looking for a new positioning. But you need to start small. It’s hard to get the whole thing done on the first turn of the flywheel. Identify the small number of things that will establish marketing as the growth engine. Establish a rolling two-quarter plan and keep relooking at how it’s working.”

Play #6: Develop critical alliances.

CMOs will never be successful without forging alliances and coalitions to support initiatives. The CEO is the most important, alliance. His/her support will make or break the CMO’s success. Alliances are also needed with the CFO, the head of sales and, especially in this era of digital transformation and data-driven marketing, the CIO.

Lynn Vojvodich, Salesforce.com: “Build relationships with key stakeholders. What are the common objectives? Where is the ROI? These are the areas that need transparency. Everyone feels they don’t have enough resources. It’s important to be up front about marketing investment and performance so that people understand why necessary trade-offs are made.”

More recommendations for the road ahead.
IDC believes that great CMOs will continue to seek, and to be poached, for plum opportunities. These shifts will set in motion a domino effect. Therefore, CMO turbulence will continue. Turbulent environments favor the brave, the persistent, the resilient, and the lucky. While there is no checklist for success, IDC recommends that CMOs and CMO wannabes keep their eyes on the changing landscape and their resumes and networks current.

Kevin Iaquinto, JDA: “The turnover issue is all because of the pace of change. As I look at my own career, I have been in seven different tech firms. I’ve been acquired four times! This type of change inevitably means change in the management team including the CEO and, following that, other C-suite executives.”

Lisa Joy Rosner, Neustar: “This is the golden age of marketing. With the constant innovation of new technology the focus has centered on the CMO. Some CMOs jump to a different company because they want to continue to innovate. ‘I’ve just built out my stack and I want to do it again based on what I learned and with newer/better tools.’ This is how they get recruited away. There are very few CMOs who really ‘get’ digital — so they are in demand. If you are really, really, good, your work is visible and the headhunters call — then each time you move, you get a new opportunity to build a better team and you get ‘more tools in the sandbox’ to build the perfect marketing machine.”

The Smartest Marketers Don’t Want Straight “A’s”

If tech marketers as a group were to be identified as a persona, one of our attributes would be “over-achiever”.  While in school, we strove mightily to get A’s, win awards, be the champions.  Our drive to be the best is our great strength.  But its over-application can also be a great weakness.

Under today’s conditions getting straight A’s is impossible.
 Tech marketing has never been the kind of job you can leave at the office at 5:00 (and who leaves at 5:00 anyway?). On the positive side, you get to work on the exhilarating cutting edge, with fascinating problems to solve, with smart, interesting, people all over the world. But the C-Suite and sales people are never satisfied. Results from our work are often ambiguous. You learn to just accept that your work will never be done. 

However in recent years, that persistent mania has kicked up a notch. To the day-to-day, add the time it takes transforming marketing to the self-educated buyer and the digital world.  Add the pressure of doing more with less budget (IDC’s Tech Marketing Benchmark shows that marketing budgets have never really recovered from the 2008 bust).

Let’s face it, as human beings we have limits.  With so many demands, you physically do not have time, energy, or attention to get “A’s in everything. This is not school. Attempting straight “A’s” in real life gets you mediocrity and failure.

I’m here to tell you that it is okay to get a “C” sometimes. It’s not only okay – it’s better
The secret is to deliberately choose when to get a “C”.  Here’s a little tool to help you decide where getting a “C” is okay.  I adapted this decision tool by flagrantly stealing from Stephen R. Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Habit 3: Put First Things First) and Geoffrey Moore’s model on core and context from Dealing with Darwin.  A decision grid like this lets you compare tasks by considering their relative risks and rewards.

Quadrant 1: High Risk, High Reward – Focus your “A” efforts here. Now.
You decide what really makes a difference (to your customers? To your revenue? To your career? To your family? To your happiness?)

Quadrant 2: High Risk, Low Reward – Settle for a “C”.
 You can’t avoid these tasks without penalty but there is no upside for being exceptional – so why put in the extra effort?  I put admins-trivia in this category and I’m sure you will find other things (wink).

Quadrant 3: Low Risk, High Reward – Focus your “A” effort, but you can take more time.
I call this category of things “the gifts to your future self”.  Life will keep getting better if you put at least a little time into these things.

Quadrant 4: Low Risk, Low Reward – Why put any effort into these things?
We all have some dumb tasks on our plate. Here’s the litmus test.  Pick a task you find tiresome. Stop doing it for a couple months and see if anyone screams.

We are all human. We must make choices about how best to spend our limited time, energy, and attention. If you don’t make those choices strategically, then you risk failing at the important things.  You’ll get best results if you give up the school-kid attitude of feeling like you have to be great at everything. Get a few “C’s” and you will be more successful.