I’ve spent the better part of this past decade recruiting marketing leaders. Most of this time has been in a talent-scarce market, and the balance of power in recruiting was often on the side of candidates. Now the market is tilting and the balance of power is more on the side of companies. This feels like a good time for me to share tips from my search experience, which has entailed thousands of conversations with CMOs and other marketing leaders.
This series has three parts, all related to how CMOs can find their product/market fit in a tight executive job market. We’ll cover:
1. What companies are looking for: the skills that organizations have on their CMO wishlists now more than ever (that’s this piece)
2. What you’re looking for: Do’s (and some big don’ts) for structuring your search, bringing yourself to market, and making networking work for you
3. How to stand out in a talent-rich market: Tips for marketing yourself and de-risking yourself in the eyes of a CEO.
Part 1 — The Wishlist: Skillsets That CMOs Will Need To Demonstrate Most These Days
Every company will have its own wish list, of course, you can’t go wrong showcasing your skills – assuming you have them! — in the following areas:
1) Growth growth growth: Companies can be picky about which marketing leaders they hire now, and their wish lists will likely include something like “experience doing ‘the climb’ from $xMM in revenue to $yMM in revenue.” The strongest marketers I’ve talked with have good ‘from —> to’ stories of starting at some level of scrappiness and scaling from there as they drive revenue.
2) The mindset of “business first, marketing second”: You can show your business-first chops by, for instance, recommending budget allocations to other areas of the business — not just marketing – when it makes sense. This mindset goes both ways. I once interviewed a CMO who shared a valuable lesson: talk about ‘OUR marketing budget’ more so than ‘MY marketing budget.’
This is also a good time to highlight your abilities to be a “Marketing Plus” candidate – marketing plus strategy, marketing plus revenue, marketing plus product. Increasingly, I am seeing these “marketing plus” roles emerge. We are likely to see more of them in the spirit of doing more with less. So be prepared to demonstrate your competence outside of marketing. Some CEOs may simply share a challenge they are facing now and ask you how you would tackle it – even if that challenge is outside of marketing – to see your creativity and agility.
3) Customer marketing: We can’t all be brands like Peloton and Instacart, with skyrocketing demand. Many businesses are finding it hard to convert new customers. So they are more dependent on their existing customer base to hit their revenue targets, which puts pressure on a CMO to optimize renewals, upsells, and referrals. What is entailed here? Creating unexpected customer delight, and tight partnership with the customer support/success organization.
4) Managing expectations with the Board: In the best of times, marketers can struggle to manage the Board’s expectations for the balance of short-term and long-term marketing investments. Now, as many companies are in ‘cash is king’ mode, marketers are being asked to demonstrate value in the short term. The savviest marketers will be able to lead the leadership team and Board about the best way to deploy limited marketing funds.
5) Hiring and leading virtually: We are likely to have distributed work arrangements in some flavor for the foreseeable future. Be ready to share examples of ideas of how you hire, lead, and inspire a diverse team that is distributed in time and space.
6) Organizational agility: If some of your marketing staff is focused more on offline efforts (like offline stores, or a B2B events staff), consider re-deploying and re-grouping those marketers to achieve what you need to now, in a curtailed world. I heard from one retailer that retrained merchandisers into content marketers, for instance.
7) “Bringing in the outside”: I recently talked with Kim Stokes, who just transitioned from Boston Beer Company to running marketing at a biotech startup called GoodCell that wanted fresh thinking and strong consumer marketing chops. I was curious how she had made this pivot, since often organizations want people who come from their industry. Kim said, “Business models are changing left and right – you don’t know how an organization will pivot. Many organizations are trying to be tech and digital-forward, and are therefore seeking talent that natively understands that space . It also helped that I am a change agent, and believe that it takes grit and gumption to build new capabilities. Bringing the outside in is definitely something I saw many organizations looking for.”
Let’s hope you, also, are talking to organizations where innovation is not just needed; it is wanted. You will need to bring fresh ideas and swift execution.
But beware that if you are coming from another industry, you may need to navigate what I call the Peacemaker/Changemaker paradox. That means bringing change without being perceived as making too many waves.
Of course, the key is matching what you’re best at with what the company believes it needs. Note that ‘what the company believes it needs’ may be distinct from what you as a marketer believe the company needs. Too often, CMO candidates will try to demonstrate a skillset that they assume the company needs, without first assessing the needs and selling the need.
Part 2 — Your Personal Go-To-Market Plan
Once you have a grasp on which skills to spotlight, you will need to put together your personal go-to-market plan and start networking. That’s Part 2 — read on.
1) Not so sure on the direction you want to go? Think twice about who you are approaching, and when. It’s OK to have lots of different potential avenues. It’s OK to be a bit scattered; that is a necessary part of figuring out yourself and your path. But be careful about who you share your uncertainty with. Early on, go to friends and former colleagues for help with brainstorming. Consider a career coach. There are even therapists who specialize in career issues, who can help you grapple with the deep issues that may be holding you back.
But realize that there are some people who are engaged to be in evaluating mode, rather than a purely helping mode. Ahem, executive search people come to mind. So do investors. Think carefully about the impression you want to leave with them. Do you want to go in front of one of these people when you are still focusing? Or does it make more sense to delay until your next career direction has more focus, and you can be the round peg in the round hole that that person may be looking for?
Net: be aware of how focused you look, in addition to how focused you are. Know the differences among executive recruiters, career coaches, and therapists.
Another tip: sometimes I suggest to people that if they’re not sure whether they want to go the down Route 1 or Route 2 (for instance the agency route versus the in-house CMO route), to simply pick one of these routes for a month, ‘go to market’ with that focus, and see what results emerge and also how it feels. You can always pivot your approach.
2) Avoid the tendency to be too comprehensive – “what you leave out is just as important as what you put in.”
My dad, whose heritage is half-Italian, somehow finds a way to intone this every time I see him: “In Italian cooking, what you leave out is just as important as what you put in.” And so it is with CMOs who are hitting the job market. One mistake CMO candidates make, I’ve noticed, is being overly comprehensive when talking about themselves.
For instance: “I have 25+ years of doing marketing, and I have done both B2B and B2C marketing, and I have worked in both big and small companies, and I have skills across brand and acquisition and communications, and I could work in either a big or a small company for my next move.” While this may be entirely accurate, saying something like this makes it hard for others to help you. They will wonder what you stand for. Just like products can’t be all things to all people, neither can CMOs.
Your goal, especially early on, is NOT to provide maximum coverage of yourself and your career. (That can happen later, if at all). Your goal is to create a trigger in someone’s mind. Your goal is for that person to listen to you, nod, and immediately say, “Oh, I know a company you should talk with. They need someone exactly like you.”
Again, there’s no need to offer the full buffet; offer just the well-chosen top quality ingredients – the ones that are relevant to the opportunity you are discussing in the moment, or relevant to the person that you are talking with in the moment.
As you know, you are selling yourself. At some point you may be asked for an overview about yourself – either verbally or in writing. Resist the temptation to just talk and talk about yourself. Instead, take the opportunity to talk more about your buyer than about yourself. At the least, start there.
Here are some examples of ‘about me’ overviews that do this well. They come from conversations I’ve had with marketing executives – and are among the most memorable from the umpteen conversations I have had.
- “The companies that gravitate my way have three things in common: they are going into a new tech area, they need partnerships to own the market, and they have to do it fast. That’s what I do and I have done it multiple times in a row.”
- “I am the CMO that joins marketing technology companies that want to get acquired or go public.”
- “I’ve brought 10 different products to market within the unified communications space, and the cumulative value of these products is $500MM. I’m looking to do this again.”
Naturally, you’ll customize and hone your pitch for a specific opportunity or introduction.
3) Make your asks of people as atomic as possible, especially if they are likely to be overloaded with requests. Let’s say you want to meet someone who could be a great networking connection for you… an investor, a CEO, a fellow CMO, an executive search person, or someone who is otherwise very well-connected. Imagine you are the 25th person that has approached that person this week. In many cases, that is the truth. How can you make it really easy for them to help you? Be clear and frictionless with your asks. Shoot for something that they can fulfill in 5 seconds rather than 30 minutes. Maybe it’s not “Can you give me feedback on my resume?” Maybe it’s not “Can we have a virtual coffee chat for an hour for me to pick your brain?” Maybe instead it’s, “Will you look at my LinkedIn profile and tell me the first company that comes to mind that needs to know about me?” Or: “I ghost-wrote this intro for you to send to your friend who I would like to meet; could you forward this along to them please?”
Don’t be that person who imposes undue labor on others, especially now. Make it easy for people to help you by making the most atomic ask you can
4) All that said, don’t underestimate the openness to networking, especially now. In talking with Kim Stokes about her new marketing leadership role at a biotech startup called GoodCell, she observed, “During this pandemic, people are hungry for intellectual stimulation, reflection, and connection. There are a lot of people paying it forward now. I haven’t had one conversation that hasn’t led to another.”
It’s a good point – even when someone is ostensibly helping you with your career, they will often be marshaling their own viewpoints, which is helpful to them.
Megan Heuer, who has advised thousands of CMOs during her years at SiriusDecisions, and recently ran marketing for Engagio, shares: “I’ve found a great way to open a conversation is to be honest about the fact that you’re looking for ideas. My request is simply to learn about what the other person is doing. I seek out people doing things I think are cool or interesting, even if they’re not exactly what I think is my direction. It’s inspiring to talk with people who are doing work they love, and they often have suggestions that help me open my mind to new ways of thinking about market needs and how to fill them.”
5) Make sure that your networking asks are not just about you. Often, people who are well into their careers approach networking the same way they approached informational interviewing when they were coming out of school. They forget that a good networking meeting is a two-way street. Even if you are ultimately looking for a job, offer to share your learnings from something that may help the other person.
Megan Heuer shares an easy way to do this: “As I’m engaging with folks in my network, if I can offer some help in return such as content or feedback, or share a contact, then I make sure to do that. Even just sharing or commenting on LinkedIn posts so they get some positive energy coming their way. Time is precious, and when people I respect share theirs, I do my best to offer some value in return if I can.”
6) Realize that your resume is not the top of the proverbial funnel; your LinkedIn profile is. There is a historical trend towards optimizing your resume. But that’s all it is – historical. When you are introduced to someone in a networking or hiring context, they are much more likely to check out your profile on LinkedIn than to open the attachment of a resume. They want to see who they know in common with you. They want to absorb your career path in a format that is familiar to them.
So, devote as much attention on your LinkedIn profile as you do to your resume. If you think your LinkedIn profile needs a facelift, check out other marketing leaders’ profiles and be inspired by them.
Part 3 — How To De-Risk Yourself To A CEO
OK, your search is continuing and you are in the running for actual CMO opportunities. Huzzah. Here are some things to keep in mind:
1) If your job tenures are short, explain why. Realize that CEOs will look just as much at the white space between your roles as they look at the content of your roles. The number one reaction CEOs have to CMO candidates when perusing their backgrounds is “Hmm… why was this person only at this company for 1 year?” Or “I don’t know; there are a lot of two-year stints. Will they stay long enough to make an impact?” In the absence of a narrative from you, CEOs will fill in the blanks. Far better to get ahead of the message, especially for the situations where there was a relatively innocuous reason for you leaving (for instance, you got recruited out, the company amassed everyone around a headquarters that is in a different city, there was an acquisition). If you were laid off, it helps to explain the context. Being the only one laid off is quite different than being part of a 50% RIF.
2) Inhabit the company’s world; don’t just tell stories from yours. You have a choice when you are asked about your experience. You can either spend 100% of your airtime telling stories from your experience and HOPE that the person you are meeting with connects the dots. Or, you can connect the dots for them. To do that, strike a balance between talking about yourself and talking about them. Ask about THEIR challenges, and paint a picture of a different world for them. That is much more valuable than you spending all your airtime ensuring they have a comprehensive understanding of all of your career zigs and zags. This problem-solving approach reduces the cognitive burden on the person interviewing you.
3) Show, don’t just tell. If there was ever a time to come to an interview prepared with work samples, this is it. Many companies are cautious about hiring, given that their funds are precious and they seldom can meet candidates in person. They will be receptive to any move on your part that helps them feel like they are de-risking the process. Showing your work rather than just talking about it fits the bill.
One of the most memorable interviews I did was with a CMO candidate who proactively shared with me his marketing dashboard. He talked through his metrics, what was working, what could be working better, etc. I have interviewed thousands of marketers, and I remember exactly one person doing this without prompting.
What can you show? There are lots of options.
- A before and after slide on messaging.
- Slides from a recent Board meeting (with key numbers fuzzed out).
- Assets from a campaign that performed well – or even that bombed, with some voiceover on what you learned.
Or, you could take it upon yourself to do an ‘audition’ project for the role, even if you aren’t asked. That’s harder, of course, but it is the ultimate in ‘inhabiting their world.’ And it demonstrates your interest. After all, often the person that gets the job is the one that wants it the most.
4) Learn CEO-speak and investor-speak, if you haven’t already. CEOs and investors don’t tend to care about the number of people that clicked on an ad; they care about pipeline, revenue, profitability, reducing risk.
5) Develop a vocabulary to vet the cultural match, in the absence of meeting people in person. Participate actively in figuring out whether you and the company are a good match culturally.
The great thing about so many people working virtually these days is that we can’t hand-wave or make a gut call on cultural match. Instead, we will need to find words to get into it. Some questions for you to pose during your interviews:
- When someone has had cultural friction, why was that specifically?
- What do you believe in so much to the exclusion of other things?
- What would constitute a cultural add for you, rather than just a cultural fit? What would be a cultural stretch?
[This piece was originally published by the Forbes CMO Network.]