CMOs saddle up

Open Letter to CMOs: Saddle Up for the Long Haul

Why are CMOs leaving our CEOs at such an alarming rate (average tenure as low as less than three years)?

This article was written in response to Shama Hyder’s An Open Letter To CEOs: Why Your CMO Is Thinking About Leaving, originally published in Forbes.

Like many of us, I had a strong reaction to Shama Hyder’s Open Letter to CEOs: Why Your CMO Is Thinking About Leaving. If you haven’t read Hyder’s article yet, start there first. I need to expand on this important conversation.

Dear Fellow CMOs,

I understand your frustration. You have a tough job. The responsibilities of marketing leaders have changed and grown drastically over the last decade and continue to evolve at a rapid pace. Few understand how many vastly different disciplines are under your management. But there is one person that can empathize with you: Your CEO.

Your CEO has the potential to be your strongest advocate, most trusted counterpart, and the one who may have the ability to understand you and your challenges better than anyone else in the organization.

Hyder sought to address the following in her article: Why are CMOs leaving our CEOs at such an alarming rate (average tenure as low as less than three years)?

Hyder posed the following questions: Is micromanaging the cause of the mass CMO exodus? Is frustration with “sales enablement” and “account based marketing” a driving factor? Do CEOs not understand the time horizons required for return on investment?

My take: Short CMO tenures should not be the norm. CMOs should be saddling up with their CEOs for the long haul. I’ll expand on my thinking below and where applicable, refer back to Hyder’s original article to add my POV.

Trust Takes Time

Drawing from personal experience, it could take a couple years for a CMO to feel comfortable saying exactly what they’re thinking — full transparency, no filter, with absolute vulnerability, and care — to their CEO. It also requires having a CEO with great leadership skills — skills which you can nurture, together..

Trust and radical candor take time. A fine Barolo from Piemonte, Italy, can’t be rushed or faked. If you try, you end up with sour grape juice. When you partner with a new-to-you CEO, saddle up. Years of aging makes a beautiful wine and a dynamic partnership with your CEO. Talk to your CEO about what it means to have a transparent, vulnerable, trusted relationship. Invest in that relationship at every opportunity you have, especially in your 1:1’s.

You’re on the Battlefield, Together

Business can be like war: Hard, sometimes impossible, ridden with failure, longer and more-costly than anticipated, and often results in casualties that you’ll regret forever. This is the heavy burden we bear as integral members of the E-team.

As a CMO, you are marching straight onto the battlefield with your CEO. You’d better have each others’ backs. When victorious on the battlefield, the outcome can be fantastically rewarding (intellectually, professionally, emotionally, and financially).

As Hyder noted in her article, which I could not agree with more: CMOs and CEOs should be best work friends and trusted allies. You are soldiers on the same mission.


There is a line between micromanaging and being passionate about the details that matter most to achieving outstanding business outcomes.

If you feel like your CEO is micromanaging, look at the things they’re tuned in to. Are they digging for details that matter most to your targeted business outcomes? From my experience, CEOs that micromanage are not doing so because they don’t trust their E-team. They’re doing it because they care more than anyone else in the business about the outcomes.

Also, ask yourself honestly, are you well-prepared and on top of your stuff, all the time? Should you have read the report in full before going into that meeting? Should you have put more thought into the bullet points you outlined in your 1:1 document with your CEO? Should you have spent more time understanding why a certain KPI is off-     track? Was the business case in your proposal fully thought through, risks, mitigating factors, and all?

You are the maker of your context. Hit the battlefield running, well-prepared, on top of all your stuff, alongside your CEO. When you do, your CEO is far less likely to trust in your leadership.

Sales Enablement and Account Based Marketing

There is nothing wrong with your CEO asking you what more the business can be doing to better enable sales, to accelerate and find efficiencies in the pipeline, to end up with a pipeline that has stronger integrity stemming from top of the funnel, etc. These are questions go-to-market leaders should be asking one another on a regular basis.

There is also nothing wrong with your CEO asking you how the business might be able to employ an ABM program. ABM might look different at every organization, but so does product management, sales, HR, and so on. If your CEO asks about ABM, start by proposing a question for discussion with your CEO and go-to-market team: If we knew [some information] about our prospective customers, how could we use that information to deliver hyper-personalized, relevant content that supports our positioning, differentiation, value propositions, etc., and how could that affect our pipeline?

If the answers to those questions turn into a strong business case for investing in something new, figure out what that program could look like for your business and get to work. It doesn’t matter what you call it (i.e., ABM, hyper-personalized marketing, targeted thought leadership, whatever).

Time Horizons to ROI

CEOs work on long-term strategy for enterprise value creation and at the same time, worry about the things that will drive results in the next quarter. That is a difficult thing to ask anyone to do. As the CMO, you have to focus on the same things, through a go-to-market lens.

Help your CEO understand which go-to-market investments support long-term strategy for enterprise value creation and which of those will be hard or impossible to quantify in the near-term (i.e., monthly, quarterly). Look at the investments going to programs, such as demand generation or ABM, that you will be able to track with KPIs, report on progress regularly, and assign a value/ROI to outputs (such as the value of a Market Qualified Lead, or “MQL”) within a near-term time horizon.

Agree upon investments that go into each of the buckets above and when. Make sure to get stakeholder alignment across your go-to-market leadership team (Sales, Partnerships, Customer Success, etc.) and with your CEO, first. Then start investing, tracking, reporting, and improving.

The Multi-Year March

A big, strategic vision, could easily have a five-plus year time horizon to mature. This means you and your CEO will need to agree on go-to-market milestones for years one, two, and three, and think about what milestones could look like at years four and five. And then reassess every year. Given the best hatched plans rarely go according to schedule, it also means you’ll likely need to stick around for at least five years to see the plan through.

I implore you to wholly understand and get alignment on 1) the vision your CEO has for the business, 2) how marketing will enable that vision, and 3) the commitment your CEO needs you to make, before joining her on the battlefield. Otherwise, you could be doing yourself, your CEO-to-be, and your team-to-be, more harm than good.

Aaron McLean is CMO at Stuzo, a provider of unified loyalty, payments, and CX technology for everyday spend retailers.
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