Being A CMO: Day One
If you’re stepping into any functional role on an executive team, it’s because something wasn’t working before you got there.
You may have a superficial understanding of that problem before you begin, but it’s usually impossible to tell what’s really going on from the outside, let alone why. Once you’re on the ground job one is to make sure you REALLY understand what was so broken they needed to drag your ass into the party, and you need to get that knowledge PRONTO.
Being an executive is first and foremost about setting priorities. In those first few days of drinking through the firehose, withhold judgement about where you should be applying yourself. If there’s water up to your knees grab a bucket, of course, but if you start off reacting to everyone else’s priorities instead of setting your own, you’ll be doomed to fail right off the bat.
I spent my first few days in the office meeting with the other department heads, and asking a simple question: What do you most urgently need from marketing, that you’re not getting today?
Once I had that list, I met with our CEO to ask a related question: How will we measure the success of marketing a month, a quarter, and a year from now?
You might ask why I didn’t ask our CEO about the priorities of the business as a whole, to determine for myself what marketing needed to focus on. The answer is that you I didn’t know shit about this business or the people in it, and they didn’t know shit about me. It was important to build up a reserve of some goodwill before I started trying to cut a new path through the jungle.
Trust your partners, and make some friends, by showing the skills in solving the problems they already understand and couldn’t solve before. It’s fine to give them what you know they really need later on, but do it after you’ve delivered what they know they want, especially when it comes to the person running the business as a whole.
Step three was to match the long list of asks, near term deliverables, and long-term aspirations up against the criteria for success identified by the CEO. Among the 10 or 15 things that popped out, I picked 3 I thought were most important, and set the rest aside for later. Then I put my head down and got them fixed, even where it meant doing so by brute force.
What about the rest?
In Walter Isaacson’s trench-deep biography of Steve Jobs, Isaacson recounts a story from the beginning of NeXt that really stuck with me:
Once a year Jobs took his most valuable employees on a retreat, which he called “The Top 100.” They were picked based on a simple guideline: the people you would bring with you if you could only take a hundred people with you on a lifeboat to your next company. At the end of the retreat, Jobs would stand in front of a whiteboard (he loved whiteboards because they gave him complete control of a situation and they engendered focus) and ask, “What are the ten things we should be doing next?” People would fight to get their suggestions on the list. Jobs would write them down, and then cross off the ones he decreed dumb. After much jockeying, the group would come up with a list of ten.
Then Jobs would slash the bottom seven and announce, “We can only do three.
Everyone agrees focus is important, but most people don’t really understand what it means. Focus is NOT the decision to work extra hard on things A, B, and C. It’s deciding not to work AT ALL on things D-Z. Effective people understand this. Most people don’t.
In parallel with this process, of course, I met with each member of my team to understand who they were, how they got here, what they wanted, what they were good at, and what they weren’t. I made a personnel change my first day on the job, switching out someone whose work product was so obviously not up to my standards, there was no point in delaying the inevitable. It was the right thing for him and for me, and had the added benefit of sending a signal there was a new sheriff in town.
In my first few weeks at Actifio I was able to put out a few fires, make some progress in the areas that mattered, get to know my team, and solve some problems for my partners. I felt like it was working, and so did everyone else I needed in the tent. That’s a huge step in any new gig, and after you get there you can take a breath.
I was still spending time trying to learn what it meant to be the top marketing guy, though, seeking advice from other folks in town who did the job well. I’ll share the single best piece of advice I got in my next installment, click “Follow” and stay tuned...