What’s the most important skill a CMO needs? Cross-functionallty

  •   October 4, 2019

The role of the CMO has evolved massively over the past 15 years. In fact, at some high-profile companies, it seems to have evolved itself to the point of obsolescence. As reported in Ad Age this past July, “Several big-name companies have recently done away with the CMO position altogether—including Johnson & Johnson, Uber, Lyft, Beam Suntory, Taco Bell and Hyatt Hotels, accelerating a trend that began a few years ago.”

My experience leads me to a contrarian point of view. The CMO role has evolved so significantly that a number of alternative titles are emerging – Chief Growth Officer, Chief Commercial Officer, Chief Experience Officer among them. (Whether or not any of these monikers stick, they certainly express our unrepentant love of C-titles!)

However, this advent of new titles is driven not by the diminished import of marketing or need for marketing leadership, but rather a trend that actually does warrant consideration and exploration: integrating marketing functions with sales, commercial and even product functions – in effect broadening the CMO mandate in the quest for growth.

What’s far more noteworthy to me, though, and much more the case at the many companies I come into contact with is this:

With key imperatives spanning customer insight, customer experience, digital transformation, data and analytics, brand, demand, purpose, creativity, content and thought leadership, marketing technology, sales alignment and enablement, etc., the vast majority of companies are not only maintaining the CMO position, they are expecting more from their CMOs than at any time in the history of marketing.

So, provocative headlines aside, CMOs at the helm of large, thriving multinational brands remain integral members of their respective businesses – and with expanded roles and greater complexity to manage. Their success is buoyed by a number of factors – company cultures that are pro-marketing, fit-for-purpose budgets and strong, multi-dimensional teams. Their challenge is to achieve differentiation when the world is so awash in innovation and disruption that the risk of “innovation fatigue” and rapid commoditization is great. Most importantly, their mandate is to master the ability to operate across a business: cross-functionality in fact may be their most priceless asset.

The roadmap to CMO used to be predictable: work your way up the ladder within a marketing department, eventually heading the department. But not today. Being a great marketer is simply not enough. Cross functionality is a necessity as is evident in the most successful CMOs. Beth Comstock of GE went from CMO to Vice Chair.

The importance of cross-functionality is apparent in three separate conversations with marketing leads at some of the world’s most consequential brands: Rishi Dave, CMO of Vonage, Victoria Keese Morrissey, Global Brand and Marketing Director (CMO) at Caterpillar and Toni Clayton-Hine, CMO at EY Americas. Resoundingly, cross-functionality is a key part of how they define their roles and their day to day:

CMOs today are responsible for more than marketing alone. The role requires liaising effectively with departments and functions across a business, sometimes even acting as facilitators or a buffer. 

“Building relationships with rest of organization and other C-level executives to drive company strategy is the most important skill,” according to Dave. Within marketing and across a business, the need for “excellent operational execution” as Dave puts it, is critical.

Caterpillar’s Morrissey echoes Dave’s sentiment but with a slightly different spin: “The ability to truly listen to your customers, in real–time…and being able to socialize those insights across all groups within your company is key to preventing a ‘marketing only’ view. In one way or another, every person touches the customer and needs to understand them…to best serve them.”

As such and as noted previously, the resumes of today’s CMOs look vastly different than they did even a decade ago. Technology is the biggest propellant of that change.

“Technology and information infrastructure, and how these significant investments must work in a unified manner, is an entirely new set of skills that marketers must not just understand, but quickly become proficient at,” advises Morrissey. “Marketers must possess a unique blend of art and science when it comes to using technology as a means to drive more personal engagement, not simply for the sake of technology.”

Understanding the latest technologies, and how they can be leveraged to achieve a business’ objectives, also means CMOs must adapt quickly.

“As the pace of change accelerates, CMOs need to keep on top of alternative business models, how that affects the marketing mix, and be able to flex their investments to accordingly,” says Clayton-Hine. 

This often plays into cross-functionality, as these decisions tend to reverberate across departments. It’s why many CMOs, as Dave says, “spend most of their days managing the team and relationships with the rest of organization.”

This requires a deeper understanding of every part of an organization, and the role each plays in achieving a common goal.

“About half of my time is spent internally, working with the strategy team to understand future plans, the business units to understand short and midterm priorities, sales enablement to align marketing efforts to sales efforts, and with the field to connect brand with demand generation,” said Clayton-Hine. “The other 40-50% of the time is spent externally: listening to clients, analyzing the competitive landscape and connecting with peers to understand what marketing trends and innovations others are leveraging that may apply to our business.”

It is in understanding the various functions of a business, and integrating them into marketing efforts, that sets today’s best CMOs apart. No matter the industry, it’s clear that the ability to operate across a business is crucial to success.  It’s why when asked what their titles might be, if not CMO, Dave said “Chief ‘Everything Else’ Officer,” Morrissey said “conductor,” and Clayton-Hine responded “Chief Dot Connector.”

Cross-functionality – connecting the dots to achieve differentiation and internal-to-external impact – is at the core of what makes CMOs successful in their roles and what makes that role as important as it has become.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

Tom Stein is chairman and chief client officer at Stein IAS is a founding partner of the agency and a leader and innovator in B2B marketing for more than 30 years. In 2017, Tom was among the first group of inductees into the ANA B-to-B Hall of Fame. Tom is part of the leadership team that has propelled Stein IAS to B2B Agency of the Year designation by ANA for an unprecedented five consecutive years and eight times over the past ten years (2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2013, 2011 and 2010). Tom also was inducted into the Creative Excellence in Business Advertising (CEBA) Hall of Fame in 2008, and was named to the “Who’s Who in B2B Marketing” list for 13 straight years. Tom and Stein IAS are Modern Marketing pioneers and leaders. Today, he works with clients and the industry to achieve Modern Marketing mastery as the entry point into B2B marketing’s post-modern era. In this era, powerful, iconic creative and content experiences will be combined with transformative data- and technology-driven Interactions approaches — seamlessly connecting brand to demand to business results. Tom is closely involved in the Agency’s strategic relationships with clients. He has helped establish and strengthen such relationships with such brands as Merck, HSBC, Oracle, Weight Watchers Health Solutions, Brother, ABB, ETS, Covance, Ingredion, Tetra Pak, Trelleborg, Gympass and many others. He also is author of the award-winning “Blog Post Modern.” Most importantly, as much as Tom loves the amazing B2B agency he has helped built, he treasures his wife Gina and their amazing twins, Will and Maria, even more.

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