5 Rules for a More Productive CMO-Manager Relationship

Woman jumping between two large rocks

CMOs are perennial optimists. Marketing managers are professional realists. How can they bridge the distance?

As a recent Gartner survey confirmed, CMOs are optimists, even in the face of significant setbacks. A CMO's job is about looking ahead to a successful future and figuring out how the organization will get there. They exist to disrupt the status quo in the firm belief that doing something radically different will result in a quantum leap forward. To achieve their aim, they need to constantly ideate, innovate, and test the boundaries of what's possible.
 
Marketing managers, on the other hand, are tasked with keeping marketing operations running smoothly and optimally. They resource, deploy, monitor, and analyze the effectiveness of marketing campaigns and channels to ensure that the organization is seeing the very best ROI for their marketing dollars.
 
When a "disruptor" meets an "optimizer," the potential for friction is high. But when these two roles learn to work with each other instead of against each other, it can have a truly transformative result on marketing operations and outcomes.
 
Take the famous example of Elon Musk and Gwynne Shotwell, his COO. He throws out impractical, impossible ideas and she catches them and translates them into a workable plan. Visionaries and realists may seem like natural adversaries, but in fact, they are better together.
 
To strengthen the relationship and unlock the true potential of the CMO-manager relationship, follow these five rules for strengthening the engagement and supporting your marketing manager's success.

1. Pace Yourself

Most CMOs get where they are by having great ideas—a lot of them. And as an executive with a shorter-than-average tenure, they are under greater-than-average pressure to implement those ideas pronto. This is especially true of CMOs who are in their first year with a new organization. CMOs are never hired to maintain the status quo: they are brought on to change things up and demonstrate a measurable impact in as short a period of time as possible.
 
However, having the vision to know what needs to change and the courage to effect that change are two-thirds of the success equation: the last third is to understand how much change can be absorbed by the marketing function and the wider organization. If you push all that pressure downhill at once, you will most likely overwhelm and alienate your team. Get a sense of how the team operates and what their bandwidth looks like before sharing your action plan.

2. Think Inside the Box

CMOs are there to think outside the box, but that doesn't mean they can ignore the box. Your people do their work within the limitations of organizational structures, processes, and technologies, and those boundaries need to be understood and respected unless you have the power to rewrite them. 
 
Every time a CMO starts a new role, they bring a history of success and a body of knowledge with them, but those elements are not necessarily "plug and play." Every role is surrounded by a different context and different limitations related to the industry, market characteristics, organizational politics, technology stack, and more.
 
When you ignore those realities or make assumptions based on past experience, you risk diminishing your credibility with your team and causing friction by refusing to acknowledge their experience. Be judicious about what you present to your team, especially during those first, critical few months of your tenure, and listen carefully to any push-back. While you may ultimately find ways to bypass those obstacles, it's important to acknowledge them. Remember that your value lies not in imposing your knowledge, but in presenting the big picture and working with your team to translate organizational strategy into marketing operations.

3. Create "Innovation" Time

At least 80% of the time, marketing managers are focused on alternately keeping the lights on and putting out fires. For some managers, it's 100% of their time—and then some. When your manager struggles to claw back time for anything other than managing and fire-dousing, they are going to be resistant to requests to find new solutions or work on strategic goals. For a CMO who isn't paying close attention, it can come across as resistance to change: from the manager's perspective, it's a simple act of self-preservation. 

The best way to break this adversarial pattern is to free up space in the manager's calendar. Easier said than done? Sure, but the alternatives are to watch your ambitious plans wither on the vine because your manager stonewalls or because they burn out and quit, forcing you to lose months to rehiring and retraining.
 
By helping your managers find creative ways to delegate, eliminate, or automate some of the workload, you can give them back a percentage of time to focus on growth projects and smash through the roadblocks.

4. Support Leadership Development

One of the best ways to strengthen the relationship with your marketing manager and help them become more effective in their job is to support their leadership development.
 
Keep in mind that most marketing managers have risen to their current position not by being great managers, but by being gifted practitioners. A promotion to a managerial role in marketing is often the result of having valuable skills in other areas, such as technology, design, or social media, but those skills don't translate into managerial excellence. In fact, it can turn them into micro-managers who tend to do the work themselves because it's easier than learning how to delegate to and empower their team members.
 
Ensuring your managers have access to management and leadership training can help them shift the work onto their team and free up the bottlenecks that occur when managers spend more time doing than managing.

5. Manage Up as Well as Down

To stay focused and motivated, people need to feel connected to the organizational mission and see that what they do has an impact on organizational goals. That's why it's so important for CMOs to manage up by communicating what they are doing and why it's important to the executive level.
 
When you achieve cross-functional business alignment and organizational buy-in for your marketing strategy, it enhances morale across your department and benefits the management layer specifically by making it easier for them to free up resources and coordinate with people outside the department where necessary. If your marketing initiatives require support from IT, sales, product, brand, or other departments, make sure you're laying the groundwork for a smooth collaboration. So much of the manager's job relies on interdepartmental goodwill: how are you facilitating those connections and supporting their success? 
 
As CMO, you hold the vision for the customer experience. But that vision is only valuable if it can be operationalized by the marketing team. By working more closely with your marketing managers, recognizing their strengths and limitations, and supporting their needs, you can develop a relationship that unlocks their true potential—and yours.
 
For a perspective on the CMO-manager relationship from the other side, read Part 2 of this article: How Marketing Managers Can Work Better with Their CMOs next week.

About the Author

Eric Hollebone

Eric is DemandLab's Chief Services Officer. He is a three-time Marketo Champion, a two-time Revvie Award winner, author of “Change Agents: The Radical Role of Tomorrow’s CMO,” and an early advocate of marketing automation, measurement, and analytics. Eric has experience leading all facets of global marketing and product management, including customer acquisition/retention, brand awareness/development, corporate/content marketing, product management for large public sector enterprises, early-stage ventures and private organizations.

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