The CMO’s Guide to Managing the Board

Earlier in my career, I had the opportunity to present to Boards in my capacity as a marketing agency lead.  It can be daunting to stand up in front of a dozen accomplished, diverse, seasoned leaders and talk about marketing strategy, competitive landscape and consumer trends. Often the diversity can be the challenge. Without shared context, an understanding of the kind of information that may be important and the agility to field a variety of questions, any presentation can go south.

More often these days, I am one of the Directors around the table listening to the CMO’s presentation and I often really want to help them get greater response and engagement.  The CMO is at the crossroads of marketing, culture and yes, risk.  And risk mitigation is at the core of every Director’s duty.  With technological advances and greater collaboration with other departments’ functions, the Chief Marketing Officer is positioned to work closely with Boards on the organization’s strategy. 

In my role as a Board Director, I would like every CMO to understand the following: 

  • Good Directors understand that we should have our ‘noses in and fingers out’ of the operation. So, we expect that you will provide presentations that highlight what is driving value. Go too far into the details and you will lose some of us and get yourself in a rabbit hole, go too high level and you will cause us to be skeptical. This balancing act can be tough to navigate. I want a cross-functional, collaborative lens that is focused on priorities. Provide me with quantitative and qualitative information. Assume that I am trained to deal with ambiguity and am always thinking about risk.
  • Have a PLAN and ensure that we understand it. Break down the roadmap, key investments, impacts and contingencies. Board meetings are not pitches – don’t spend too much time updating us and focus more on helping us understand key strategic choices/decisions and how your team is fine tuning the execution. I expect that you will frame your presentations in terms of understanding key value drivers across the business.
  • Educate and train your Board members. The average age of a Board member in Canada is 62 years.  Many don’t understand digital technology to the level that you might think. Depending on their background and expertise, many may have a very limited understanding of marketing in general. Spend time getting to know your individual Directors and their comfort level with marketing terminology.   Invite experts into your presentations as a way of increasing knowledge around the table. Research shows that Boards with marketing-experienced members tend to have better total shareholder return.
  • Connect me with the link between marketing and financial performance. As a business unit, the marketing department’s connection to revenue performance is important to me. I want to know that you understand this importance and share it.  In other words, I expect you to own the growth agenda.
  • Please connect me to the voice of your customer. If you can’t do that, you have lost your way and I have lost confidence.  We’ve all seen the demise of businesses that did not understand what their consumer valued.  What metrics are in place for measuring and tracking customer loyalty?  What data, technology and models are you using to gain the deepest and richest customer insights? How are you tracking brand health?  Please don’t come with anecdotal information, it makes me doubt that you understand the importance of knowing your audience. 
  • Own and build the talent and tech needed to demonstrate value, contribution and impact to the business. Tell me who you are grooming to take your place and why.

It is true that Board members should actively learn the organization’s marketing capacity and capability and ask questions about the competitive ecosystem, consumer perspective, regulatory bodies, vendors and in-house skills. So, please don’t feel discouraged when we do.

Finally, remember that the Board’s most important role is succession planning. We are evaluating you, not by the position that you currently have, but by the position that you could have.

If you have career aspirations beyond the CMO position you will need to demonstrate that you have a holistic picture, you can bridge silos in your organization, and that you are cross functional.