The Insights Blog

What Makes A Great CMO

What Makes A Great CMO


We have been lucky enough to have worked with many exceptional CMOs and other senior marketing and agency leaders. What have we learned? Senior marketing and agency roles have never been more demanding and challenging. The keys to being successful in these roles have changed in the past twenty years. The most successful senior marketing leaders have learned how to maximize their efforts – and their teams – by simplifying their roles to focus on five specific areas. And the most effective senior agency leaders recognize the challenges that the CMOs face and proactively help them succeed.

What are these five key areas that great CMOs focus on?

Great CMOs…

The best senior marketing leaders focus their energy by:

  1. Crafting a strategic vision
  2. Partnering with the C-suite
  3. Creating a culture of commitment
  4. Aligning resources
  5. Purposely developing the organization

Crafting a Strategic Vision

The best CMOs lead the creation and evangelism of a customer-centric strategic vision.

The vision for their brand(s) and product/service offerings is holistic and considers the customer, competitors, and their own brand/company.

“The right strategy holistically connects the dots across the brand model, brand, and company strategy with the business model.”

– Selma Postma, CMO, Stop & Shop

Goals are clear, progress is tracked and adjustments are made. The starting point is a deep ongoing knowledge of the target audience. A lack of differentiation and competitive disadvantages are viewed as crises. They pay for additional innovation by driving sales and profits from their strongest offerings.

“Your vision and goals should be aligned with clear hypotheses and testing, so you are checking and adjusting along the way towards achieving your vision.  This way you assure you end up where you in fact wanted to go.  Unless you are careful and have this alignment, you may plan on going to the moon, but end up just orbiting the earth 32 times.  Said another way, you’ve gone the distance but are nowhere close to where you wanted to be.”

– Aimee Johnson, CMO, Zillow Group

Partnering With the C-Suite

Effective CMOs are great C-suite teammates.

They align themselves with the C-suite and the overall company’s goals. They proactively “sign-up” marketing to contribute to overall company success. Effective CMOs have a clear point of view regarding overall company goals and actively engage in topics beyond marketing. They develop deep relationships with the CEO and their peers – especially the CFO and heads of sales, R&D, and IT. They champion the voice of the customer and view their marketing organization as a key contributor to the overall company’s success.

“I think the trickiest part is really finding how to have the right relationship with the CFO. A key part of your job as a senior marketer is to make the CFO smile. If you can do that, you’ve done your job.”

– Tim McDonough, GM, Intel

Creating a Culture of Commitment

Successful CMOs recognize people as an organization’s primary strength and culture as an effectiveness multiplier.

They create a culture that supports the company’s teamwork, vision, business, customers, and overall excellence. Successful CMOs embrace diversity and inclusion and champion its importance across all aspects of their organization. They foster an environment of “disagree and commit” and set high expectations that their team members commit once decisions have been made.

“Creating a culture of commitment begins with operating with a high level of emotional intelligence (E.Q.)  Theodore Roosevelt once said people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care and this is one of the mottos I live by.  Simply being self-aware of your own actions and the impact on others has the ability to produce and support a significant level of engagement. Role modeling and operating in this manner ultimately extends to the consumer…. as teams hone their EQ they will ultimately embrace their roles as not just a job, but a mission to satisfy the consumer and that’s really what it’s all about.”

– Verchele Wiggins Roberts, VP Brand Management , UScellular

These CMOs are a rare combination of visionary and operator – resulting in daily behaviors that role-model culture and commitment. They get personally involved in solving important problems. These CMOs personally embody servant leadership principles and ask questions, help remove obstacles, make decisions, and support the decisions of their front-line team members. They are on top of data and results and clearly know their customers, products, and competitors.

Aligning Resources

The best CMOs ensure that marketing resources are aligned with overall company goals.

All marketing resources (people, partners, capital, and operating investments) are routinely prioritized and adjusted to match the evolving needs of the organization.  These CMOs understand modern marketing processes and technologies and appropriately blend those new capabilities with the best traditional skills. They partner with cross-functional teammates to ensure the adoption of best-in-class marketing processes and technology.

Marketing-specific knowledge and processes (workflows, briefing, agency management) are well defined and trained to ensure investment efficiency and effectiveness. The agency roster partners are strategically chosen, managed, and a source of competitive advantage. Resources are earmarked for areas that provide the opportunity for the company to gain competitive advantages through marketing. Marketers recognize the value of test and learn and ongoing optimization, and unproductive resources are fixed or repurposed.

“Defining a clear picture of who you are marketing to, and more importantly who you are not, gives you a path for decision making that can align resources and guide even the most chaotic organizations. Anchor your resource decisions to what is always true and the path forward becomes straighter and success more likely.”

– Liz Ross, CMO, Bright Health Group

Purposely Developing the Organization

The best CMOs build marketing organizations that are fit for purpose, capable of delivering on marketing’s commitments and aligned with C-suite goals.

With that clarity as a starting point, the best CMOs take an active role in recruiting and retaining the best talent. They take talent so seriously that they oversee marketing’s annual personnel review processes rather than delegating the job to department heads or HR. They set high-performance standards and make the tough calls needed to upgrade their organization. Each year they have better managers in critical spots. They ensure the best talent is in positions that can have the optimal impact. They quickly address managers that are off-culture or bad actors – regardless of talent.

CMOs approach their people, structure, and processes through the lens of the organization’s goals. CMOs ensure their teams represent, understand, and relate to their target customers. They exemplify marketing’s commitment to company goals by identifying the key capabilities and skills needed and ensuring there are active plans to urgently make sure those are in place. They simplify their organization: fewer layers, more authority, bigger jobs.

Putting the 5 Keys Into Practice

A focus on the 5 keys works! Yet, it is so hard to do. The many competing challenges of managing large organizations in tough competitive situations require clarity and constancy of purpose for a CMO to succeed these days.

The key to success is the ability of the CMO to focus on the precious few most important items in each area.

“Firms need both the right strategy and a focus on fast execution – aligning resources and goals across the company, fostering a culture of commitment, accountability and learning so that the organization can adapt at the speed of retail.”

– Selma Postma, CMO, Stop & Shop

The best CMOs do not delegate away oversight of these critical strategic areas; rather they leverage their organization’s best minds and most productive executives to ensure the five areas are addressed with excellence. Successful CMOs avoid distractions by delegating anything that isn’t mission-critical and won’t contribute to the achievement of the big five.

Steve Boehler, founder and partner at Mercer Island Group, has led consulting teams on behalf of clients as diverse as Nokia, HP, Microsoft, Sprint, Nintendo, Abbott Laboratories and numerous others. He founded MIG after serving as a division president in a Fortune 100 when he was only 32. Earlier in his career, Steve Boehler cut his teeth with a decade in Brand Management at Procter & Gamble, leading brands like Tide, Pringles, and Jif.