“What’s the market like in executive search for SaaS CMOs now?”

I’m getting this question a LOT these days. (The only question I get more is from my husband, and that’s: “Will you PLEASE not start a conversation with me from three rooms away?!”)

Here are my latest observations from my executive searches. You can also check out my last trends update, much of which still holds true too.

With many CEOs and CMOs emerging from unsatisfactory prior matches, executive search processes have become a race to learn and de-risk for both parties.

How this shows up:


  • “Was it the market or the marketer?” That’s a question CEOs and investors are trying to ferret out as they talk to good CMO candidates who are coming off stints where their companies struggled to grow.
  • Earlier reference-checking: Early reference checks – not just rubber-stamp references — are becoming common practice to mitigate risks while maintaining speed.
  • Companies can focus so much on finding just the right fit that they can forget to sell! Companies are hoping for their marketing leaders to be magicians! And they are scrutinizing candidates carefully. Maybe too carefully in some cases. I’ve had a few candidates tell me things like, “It felt like they were doing me a favor in meeting me when I was so clearly a good fit and could do this job with my eyes closed.” Remember to sell and evaluate in equal measure.
  • Meanwhile, CMO candidates are focused on careful due diligence, which poses a time and access challenge. The strongest marketing leaders have specific criteria for their next role. They will be evaluating the market, the product, customer reviews, the culture, how long it took to build up the current customer base, the gross and net retention rates, how much product market fit there is REALLY, financials, investors, the CEO’s view of marketing, sales motions, the caliber of talent on the team, the cap table… and so much more!  They are doing a dance: trying to find out all these things, but doing so efficiently, without dragging down or dragging out the process too much. Oh, all while continuing to demonstrate their skills and their interest in the role. They are threading the needle between being seen as too ponderous or too rash.


Some tips to navigate these dynamics when you are hiring a CMO:

  • Learn first, recruit second: I coach my clients to, as much as possible, first define what we are looking for, align internally, and learn about the market, and THEN recruit, so that when they find strong candidates, they can recognize it and move fast. Of course, we learn while we recruit, so this is more iterative than sequential.
  • Realize that interviews can be a high-pressure stew of learning from the CMOs you are meeting, evaluating them for the role, selling them on the opportunity, and responding to the questions they have. So, think of how to apportion your time and how to choreograph the experience so both sides can get what they need as efficiently as possible. For instance, consider what you can provide ahead of an interview to inform and accelerate the process of information-sharing. Anticipate what information CMO candidates will want. I’ve done videos with CEOs for my last few searches – quick and dirty overviews to sell the opportunity. My personal style is to write job specs that are more detailed than not, and often my clients provide to candidates a deck on the investment rationale, key financials, etc. One client offered up people who had worked for him in the past at other companies as proactive references for top CMO candidates to meet.


Some broader observations on the market:

When hiring marketing leaders, opportunistic downshifts are becoming just as common as opportunistic upgrades. Some companies are in upgrade mode on marketing, looking for new CMOs to help chart the company’s course in a way that less seasoned or more tactical-oriented marketing leaders have not been able to do.

There’s also, gulp, the opposite: some companies doing opportunistic downshifts in marketing. Those companies are shifting from CMOs to VPs or Heads of Marketing with strengths in demand, in an effort to focus on near-term boosts and cost-savings.

Shifting GTM motions can change the game mid-stream for what type of marketing leader a company is looking for. A candidate for one of my searches said it well: “We CMOs aren’t just competing against other candidates; we are competing against “substitution” GTM and business levers, like partnerships.”

Candidates prioritize defensible, differentiated, data and AI-fueled businesses. Candidates are attuned to the moat that a company is building, and want to make sure that there is real differentiated and defensible value being offered to customers. This of course isn’t new, but feels more at the forefront lately. So if you are asking your candidates to market the true value you are providing better, make sure that candidates see that value themselves. The candidates in my orbit tend to be particularly interested in businesses with an AI or data component. One of my CMO candidates said recently, “I’m not just looking for a product that makes a process easier with workflow automation. I’m looking at products that offer data and insights and real outcomes.”

The best CEOs will provide support and air cover to new leaders to help navigate what I call the ‘peacemaker/changemaker paradox.’ As companies are upgrading their executive teams and looking to scale from point A to point B, they often have a mix of ‘been there til now’ executives and executives who are seen to hold the keys for the next stage of growth, based on their experience in larger companies. These new incoming executives are expected to drive change while bringing others along. It’s a delicate balance!

It’s a strategic choice to look at Bay Area candidates or not, if your headquarters are outside the Bay area. I discuss with clients whether we want to include Bay Area based candidates in the search proactively or not. Partly that’s because there are just so many people in that area – including of course many stellar people – that it will simply take more time to include them when scouting. Separately and more interestingly, Bay area companies tend to know how to hire fast. So companies who are not used to that pace risk losing their Bay Area candidates midstream to local opportunities.

Need a de-stressor after all of that? My pups to the rescue! Here’s the latest:

Cavalier dogs