Marketing often feels like an outsider in the C-suite of most organizations. Less than 5% of the CMOs and marketing leaders interviewed last year for the book said that their role enjoyed “status” among leadership or felt like they were part of the inner circle. The vast majority indicated that they were constantly having to prove their worth or value.
One of the big reasons for this is that marketers tend to have an optimistic outlook that clashes with the disposition of the leadership. This isn’t the sole reason marketers feel out of place on their leadership teams (other examples cited by CEOs were not understanding marketing, use of marketing jargon, and lack of alignment to business goals). But marketing’s sunny disposition is causing some discord with their colleagues.
Marketers Are Optimists
We make our career choices and stay in a career because of philosophy and outlook. While people may try marketing and move on, those who stay and thrive in the profession are optimists. The discipline of marketing requires those acolytes to think of a bright future where their programs lead customers joyously to the product. The role requires an outlook toward a better future. Every activity is meant to be a catalyst for the customer. This doesn’t mean that marketers are naive or lacking in business acumen, but they lean toward best-case scenarios. There aren’t too many gloomy, Eeyore-like pessimists in the marketing ranks. Marketers are great at parties but insufferable on long road trips.
Optimism Is a Luxury in the C-Suite
The rest of the leadership typically has a pessimistic attitude. They can’t afford to focus on the absolute best-case scenario. These leaders can be charismatic and upbeat, and they can inspire greatness, but they are all planning for worst-case scenarios. CEOs, CFOs, and CIOs are exceptionally focused on what-if scenarios where things go horribly wrong. Their organizations are counting on them for direction, money, and security. The pressure of those expectations alone leads them toward worst-case planning.
If we go back to the idea that your outlook decides your role, these leaders tend to be risk analyzers. They assess risk and look to minimize risk at every turn. It is challenging to be optimistic by nature and to look at risk mitigation at the same time.
Sales teams are especially optimistic in their forecasting, but sales leaders have been burned with optimistic forecasts and tend to be more measured in their outlook. The other major disciplines in an organization (operations, engineering, etc.) all tend to plan for and approach realistic plans with a good dose of worst-case analysis built in. But none of those roles have anywhere close to the level of optimism that marketing has.
Tensions in the Ranks
Marketing’s sunny side has a natural tension with the rest of leadership. The other departments are planning for their possible futures and looking to mitigate risk at every turn. They will make bold moves, but it is with a clear eye on the risks associated with those moves. Most marketers’ exuberance and excitement overshadow any risk mitigation they perform and result in discussions around the possibilities, the upside of marketing.
For leaders who are looking to mitigate risk, marketing often comes across as either not acknowledging risks or looking for ways to increase risk with their programs and activities. One team is tuned to growth, while the other is homed inon protection. This should cause some natural tension, but marketing tends to discount risk and focus on growth.
Make the Tension Healthy
Marketing can take a true leadership role in the organization and help create a healthy tension with their peers and ultimately help the company make informed decisions about their future. But marketing needs to take the lead on these activities. Since their optimistic outlook makes them a minority on the leadership team, marketing will need to find a way to work within the team dynamic.
1. Seek to Understand
CMOs often focus on building great teams. In fact, most of them see this as one of their top priorities. But CMOs should be focused on relationships external to their marketing teams. They need to build strong relationships across the other disciplines and let a trusted VP focus on the inner workings of marketing. CMOs should not only look at the goals and objectives of each discipline but also understand the philosophy of their peers in leadership. For instance, knowing that a leader has a legal background might be a clear signal that their default outlook is to scan the horizon for danger and actively look for risk—even annoyingly so. Knowing how they view the world will tell you more about how to collaborate with them than knowing their top three business objectives.
2. Align to the Nomenclature
Marketing leaders should focus their language to mirror that of the rest of the C-suite. Marketing tends to use its own jargon to talk about programs and activities. “Eyeballs” or “impressions” don’t speak to the business objectives of the rest of the organization. Translating the value of marketing activities into their language—using words like revenue, risk, churn,etc.—will make marketing more relatable and viewed as part of the C-suite, not some outsider.
3. Show Your Work
Marketing should showcase the worst-case scenarios for teams and leaders, even if the end result is taking a risk. Marketing most often presents the final scenario to their leadership peers, falsely leading them to believe that risk was considered. Simply altering your proposals to include and acknowledge risk and worst-case scenarios will go a long way to building trust and supporting marketing’s role in helping protect the organization.
4. Scout the next steps
Odds are you will take a few detours along the way. Every founder talked to the book Beyond Product had at least 1 major pivot along the way. Many have 2-3 over the years until they finally ascend to their successful marketplace. As the leader, keep looking for what that next right place may be for your company. Unless you as a leader set it, the company has almost no chance of finding it by itself.
No Bullet of Silver
As with most of life, there is no one single quick solution to complex problems. The dynamics of leadership teams are too multifaceted to think that a few conversations will correct them. But marketing has an inherent challenge in aligning to the rest of the organization, and it is marketing’s job to fix it. You need to put yourself in the seats of your contemporaries and acknowledge their point of view—or you can find another line of work. Firefighters and pediatricians are generally the happiest in their professions.
The author gratefully acknowledges Kevin Smith, as the cartoon is a clear mimic of his very funny scene in Chasing Amy.