The Most Dangerous Job in Corporate America: CMO

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I recently re-read an article in Fast Company (June 2007), entitled, "Most Dangerous Job in Business–It’s the Chief Marketing Officer" by Ellen McGirt. As an executive recruiter with executive onboarding services, I was especially interested in what was going on in the revolving door of the executive suites across the country. The article cited a few interesting statistics from a three-year SpencerStuart study.

Average Tenure at Top 100 Consumer Branded Companies

CMO average 23 months
CEO average 54 months
CMO–Telecom 15 months
CMO–Food Industry 12 months

Although the SpencerStuart study does say that "every departure has its own story," McGirt suggests that CMO tenure is declining because pressures on the CMO have increased relative to quarterly Wall Street expectations. CMOs are said to now need job experience not only in advertising and promotions, but also in PR, finance, IT, manufacturing, customer service and branding. I know this, in part, is true—marketing executives must have a much broader job experience base to effectively carry out their jobs. However, I believe that declining tenure is also an indicator of how these businesses are run and how clearly cross functional expectations are defined/aligned relative to the desired customer experience and business model objectives.

Certainly there are poor hires, job expectations expand beyond an incumbent’s skill level, and some CMOs don’t deliver on agreed upon job expectations. But I don’t believe that the CMO departures that have happened over the last year can be universally attributed to these reasons.

Most successful CMOs hold accountability for the numbers and also lead product development, promotion and advertising, retention/loyalty and sales. These CMOs know the numbers, why they are the way they are and who is responsible for pulling that particular lever in the business. Based on that, they drive action in targeted areas when we needed to build on momentum or close gaps.

Accountability for Business Results

What happens when these measures and accountabilities aren’t in place—or are owned by multiple leaders—is that havoc and bad behavior reign. We’ve all seen situations where CMOs have been held accountable for numbers outside of their control—where poor numbers are blamed on advertising. I don’t think I’m alone in believing that it’s impossible to advertise your way out of a product or distribution problem. Or, if it is possible, it’s really expensive and will kill your margins. Unfortunately, facts don’t always matter and executives can be caught off guard by fear-based distractions and attacks that work to get the attention off of poor performing areas of the business.

I understand that there are always political maneuverings between functions in the business—it's human nature. What I’m advocating is for the CEO/COO and executive teams to empower themselves and their teams by setting up transparent performance measurement systems and processes that enable people to work well together and focus on the customer to deliver business results. The cross functional team that has incentive to work together to bring the results in for the business will. It’s not easy to create processes and systems that function throughout an entire organization, but well worth the effort for everyone—employees, shareholders and the executive team.

The SpencerStuart study showed that the tenure of CEOs is just a little longer than that of two CMO cycles (not counting the months of vacancy). It would be interesting to study longer tenured CEOs of successful companies whose CMOs also have a longer tenure to understand what is in the "secret sauce" of their best practices. We just might find that a CEO with a CMO tenure problem may not have a people problem, but a relatively easy to solve process problem.