How to Retain Talent in the Highest Turnover Position in the C-Suite

By Kim Stiver

Pre-hire role alignment is only the first step to retaining your C-Suite talent and empowering their impact and effectiveness.

I’ll never forget the feeling in the pit of my stomach while sitting in my first executive team meeting for an established high-tech manufacturing company. As the newly hired CMO only four days into the role, I had reason enough to be at least slightly nervous as the rookie in the C-Suite. But the usual level of fresh-faced energy most new executives experience lasted less than a minute for me when I realized the palpable somberness on the faces of my new colleagues. I didn’t have to wonder what was going on for long because the CEO entered the room with a grim face and simply said, “Take one, pass it along. You all know what we need to focus on today.”

Um, I didn’t. There was no customary welcome banter with the new hire. No warm wishes for a successful start to my new adventure with a company that’s on fire to drive results, change an industry, or diversify a growing customer base. No, there would be none of that. As the stack of dwindling handouts reached me, and I glanced down at my copy, the light level of butterflies in my stomach turned into somersaulting elephants. Without so much as a glance at each other, my fellow department heads began circling names and my throat went utterly dry.

Layoffs. It was all I could do to keep my lunch down and my butt in the seat.

The situation I now faced was hardly the rosy picture painted for me during the hiring process. In the weeks and months ahead, the layoff surprise was only the first of many disappointments, miscommunications, and misalignments about my role. Our CEO, while certainly a force to be reckoned with, was not a proactive mentor, nor particularly adept at guiding expectations and driving alignment among his senior executive team. I found myself having to go well beyond a healthy level of “managing up” with my CEO, not only in terms of my authority and role at the company, but also stealthily working behind the scenes with my fellow C-Suite leaders to keep the needed level of communications and collaboration flowing. My four years at the company began tumultuously, turned around magnificently, and then ended with an anemic departure after our tight-knit executive team slowly dwindled following the company’s acquisition.

My exit was predictable according to the statistics, and my story is typical of most CMOs, regardless of industry, company size, professional background, or experience. The details of the story and the circumstances leading up to each CMO’s resignation certainly vary widely, but the statistics for retaining talent for about this fleeting C-Suite position are consistently similar. 

The greatest irony about the high turnover of the CMO role is the runway required to generate an ROI on marketing initiatives, especially for brands with more complex customer behavior patterns and decision-making variables. When the role accountable for shepherding the brand, driving product demand, and nurturing long-term customer loyalty is a revolving door, virtually every aspect of the company is negatively impacted, from product development to customer service.

To further complicate turnover factors, the biggest contributor to most CMOs’ frustrations and disillusionment with their positions is misalignment with the CEO’s expectations.

“Something is going very wrong in the relationship between CEOs and CMOs,” said the authors of “Why CMOs Never Last,” an article from Harvard Business Review. “CMOs also sense a serious problem. In our own surveys, 74% of them say they believe their jobs don’t allow them to maximize their impact on the business,” said the HBR writers, concluding that most CMO turnover could be prevented if the role was more clearly defined, aligned with the CEO’s expectations, and communicated clearly in the C-Suite before beginning the talent search.

Author and CEO of HireBetter, Kurt Wilkin, agrees. “Many CEOs have a wish list of things they think a CMO should do. They get ideas from fellow executives in their professional networks, consultants, and board members. Oftentimes, they turn a wish list into a job description and then ask their recruiter to go out and find this dazzling and multi-talented unicorn. Long before the job posting is published, create a realistic position description that is based on what you truly need versus what sounds buzzworthy. If you want a CMO who will exceed your expectations and make a real impact, you must develop a list of realistic, clear responsibilities tied to attainable and measurable goals.”

Having served as the head of marketing and communications for more than six different corporate and non-profit organizations over the last 22 years, my tenure at each has ranged from nine months (a dot-bomb job I should’ve never accepted) to seven years. My best experiences and the jobs I loved the most were those where the CEO and I were able to build a partnership of trust, clear communication, and alignment on expectations—especially regarding the extent of my role and authority—performance level, and overall company impact. Although the categories of typical CMO responsibilities differed with each position I held, the most significant strategic challenges arose when one of these foundational areas of understanding and shared commitment with my CEO was out of balance.

“Oftentimes, they turn a wish list into a job description and then ask their recruiter to go out and find this dazzling and multi-talented unicorn.”

Kurt Wilkin
CEO of HireBetter

Development Opportunities in CEO & CMO Relationships

“The CMO role is often unique in the C-Suite because no one really knows what the standard job description should really be,” says Wilkin. “In our work as recruiters, the team at HireBetter typically has to help our clients navigate the myriad of roles CMOs can play in an organization and help them craft a job description tailored to the organization’s current needs and future trajectory.”

While some companies need a strong communicator to be the company’s culture architect and brand leader, others need a numbers-driven strategist capable of forging a strong alliance with the sales team and bridging the gap between the voice of the customer and product design. Some CMOs take on the mantle of company futurists to champion innovation, industry disruption, and growth by cultivating partnerships and making acquisitions. Although the authors of the HBR article say there are three types of CMO roles, I’ve seen variations and roles that are far more diverse and don’t fit nicely into a single category. From my perspective, there is no right or wrong list of responsibilities as long as they help to drive the organization’s long-term vision, provide measurable definitions of individual and enterprise success, and are mutually agreed upon with the CEO, leadership team, and board.

“Only 22% of the job descriptions we studied mentioned how the CMO would be measured or held accountable, and only 2% had a specific section that clearly articulated job expectations. While 90% made some mention of expectations, they typically were vague,” said the HBR authors.

Companies have a steep price to pay when responsibilities, key performance indicators, and role parameters are not clearly defined in the hiring process, which lampoons their “how to retain talent” efforts. While it is commonly understood that talent retention is less costly than recruiting, many organizations severely underestimate the hidden costs of a poorly defined and misaligned CMO position. Without consistency of leadership in the CMO seat, the fragmentation of the brand and inconsistent oversight of marketing-related aspects of the business model can undermine the company’s growth for many years, particularly for those with a long sales cycle.

The framework and guidelines for developing a solid job description recommended by the HBR authors provide an excellent roadmap for hiring a CMO — or adjusting the role of a current CMO — who will thrive in your company’s environment.

“Although CEOs express disappointment in their CMOs, they typically don’t realize that they may have played a role in creating the problem. By making sure that the CMO job is designed and staffed correctly, they can increase their own satisfaction with their top marketing executive,” the HBR experts said.

As a CEO, if this Insights article has triggered familiar pain points for you, then it’s time to invite your CMO to join you in re-evaluating their role in light of the company’s mission, vision, values, and long-term strategy. A sincere and honest series of conversations about what’s working, what isn’t, and how things should change for the good of the enterprise will significantly increase the likelihood of retaining a brilliant and motivated CMO.

Seeking the help of a highly skilled leadership coach with experience in partner coaching can be particularly effective when two members of the C-Suite or board need to work through role adjustments and expectations management. And as you work through the process of redefining a role, adding individual coaching for your CMO can help with rounding out the slate of required competencies that may lie outside of traditional marketing skills and talents.

Although making a change in a leadership position is never easy, as author Brené Brown is famous for saying, “Clear is kind.” And when clarity comes sooner than later, the health of the organization and the well-being of your CMO are simultaneously elevated.

Alignment as a Key to Recruiting and Retaining Your CMO

Here at Transcend, we have seen the following techniques work time and time again to generate alignment, strengthen trust, and refocus leaders on the most important commitment of all — putting the enterprise first, before personal agendas or departmental goals. When both the CEO and the CMO are aligned, communicating clearly and frequently about near-term and long-range strategies, and committed to doing what’s best for the health and growth of the company versus themselves, the continuity and connection between them will drive better, sustainable outcomes — and ultimately, a longer tenure for the CMO.

Create and Strengthen Alignment with these Action Steps

  • Spend time reflecting on the company’s mission, vision, and values (MVV), and develop a three-category list of critical, desired, and optional qualifications, skills, and talents required to support and grow your organization. Ideally, this exercise is completed before the hiring process begins, but it can also be used as a collaborative reflection process with your current CMO.
  • Utilizing an enterprise-first mindset, establish KPIs and measurements for the CMO job role that attract the type of person who will make critical decisions for the good of your company before themselves or their team.
  • Based on achieving both your long-range strategy and intermediate goals for the business, map out both the vertical and horizontal responsibilities of the CMO position, focusing not only on the marketing activities, but also the requirements of highly competent C-suite leaders. The HBR article mentioned earlier provides an excellent framework for defining and scoping the fundamental roles specifically for CMOs. When you’re ready to begin the candidate evaluations, download this key role-hiring tool we use with our clients. This comprehensive workbook will lead you through the candidate review and comparison process based on the essential competencies of elite-performing leaders.
  • With these foundations in place, you’re now ready to crystallize the scope and level of authority required for your CMO to be an elite performer who generates reliable impact and influence for many years to come in the job. As you reflect on the other members of your C-Suite, be sure to empower your CMO with a similar level of authority as your CFO, CIO, and CPO. 
  • To ensure a seamless and comprehensive onboarding process that flows into a long-term, healthy relationship with your CMO, establish and rigorously maintain a communication and meeting cadence, that reinforces your mutual commitment to partnership, a shared enterprise-first mindset, and transparency expectations. Meeting every week using an effective structure like our connection template for direct reports is an excellent way to stay abreast of near-term projects and critical issues. A monthly meeting to review progress on the short-term primary business objectives, supplemented by quarterly meetings to focus on progress toward annual goals, are essential for staying focused on the company’s MVV without losing traction on both mid-term and immediate action items.

Executive coaching for you, your CMO, or both of you together, is also something to consider as you work toward building a motivated, enterprise-first C-Suite of elite performers capable of making continual progress on the big goals as much as achieving excellence in the day-to-day workload. If this sounds intriguing, this previous Insights article discusses what to look for when considering executive coaching for yourself or your leaders.

  1. Source: SpencerStuart 2022 research study, “CMO Tenure Study.”
  2. Source: Harvard Business Review 2017 article, “Why CMOs Never Last.”
  3. Source: Adverity research study, “CMOs are drowning in data and distracted from consumer behavior.”
  4. Source: Boathouse 2021 CMO Insights Report

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Kim Stiver

Senior Brand & Business Strategist

Clear and engaging communication with the right people at the right time is one of the most critical aspects of lasting success for executives and the organizations they lead. Without it, workplace cultures crumble, talent look for greener pastures, customers become confused and frustrated, and innovation wanes. As a champion for communication, I am passionate about helping our clients articulate mission and vision, create meaningful and inspiring dialogue, guide expectations, drive change effectively, and execute their strategic roadmap with excellence.

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