Hiring a Startup CMO: Part II. Traits

April 13, 2018


Congratulations!  If you're reading this post, you've reached a point in your business where it's time to take your game to a whole new level.  In my previous post I talked about the different types of chief marketing officers: The Quant, The Storyteller and The Wizard.  Today, I'm going to talk about what makes a great CMO and what traits you should be looking for when you're interviewing candidates.  


The Big Picture.  Strategic


I'm always amazed at how many founders and CEO's confuse strategy with goals.  Just because you have a goal for your company, that doesn't mean you have a strategy.  Your strategy (as I mentioned in post on Brand Bibles), is 'how' you drive your Mission.  Great CMO's get this.  They are able to rise above the noise, take a 30,000 ft view, look at where the industry is going, what competitors are doing and what the market wants.  More importantly, a great CMO undersands how each component of marketing ties back to delivering on this strategy (product, brand, content, communications & social media, growth & user acquisition, pricing, distribution) and how they need to work together for maximum effect.  


Some sample questions you might ask:


1.  Tell me about a company who's marketing strategy you admire and why?


2.  What was your marketing strategy at your previous company?  Why did you decide to go in that direction?


3.  Describe your target audience at your previous company? Why did you go after that audience?  How did you position your product / service?


4.  What are the most effective strategies you've seen for acquiring customers at scale?  What's worked for you in the past and why?


5.  How do growth marketing, content marketing, comms and product marketing work together to effectively deliver on a marketing strategy?  


These questions not only challenge your CMO candidate to think about the strategies they've implemented in the past, but they also go the extra step, which is critical, of asking him or her to describe how they use different parts of a marketing team to work together to execute on that strategy.


Hell yeah, I can do that - Adaptable


This is one of the most important skills for a startup CMO.  Things change.  Markets change, competitors do things you don't anticipate and all of a sudden you're in a whole new ball game.  Great CMO's are versatile, quick thinkers and embrace change.  They are able to roll with the punches and adjust their strategy if your product upgrade is 6 months delayed.  They are able to switch target audiences if you realize that your product is resonating with mothers 35-45 rather than young women 18-25.  More than that, they love a challenge and will embrace this change with a positive mindset, energy and confidence.  



Some sample questions you might ask:


1.  Can you share a time when you had to completely change strategy in light of changes in business conditions?  What happened?  How did you do it?  What was the result?


2.  What's the most unpredictable thing you've ever done?


3.  What do you do to push yourself outside of your comfort zone?


4.  How did you make the transition from company or industry X to company or industry Y? (if they've been 10 years in the same company / industry you shouldn't be interviewing them in the first place).


Follow me! Leadership


Great CMO's should be able to take center stage, motivate, inspire and lead people.  In many cases (Hubspot's Mike Volpe, Netflix's Kelly Bennett, Coke's Sergio Zyman), CMO's are also the public faces of the company.  When things get tough and people are fearful, great CMO's are able to rally the troops, assuage their fears and fill them with the purpose needed to carry on.  


Some sample questions you might ask:


1.  Tell me about a particular crisis your company / team faced.  How did you handle the situation?  What did you learn?


2.  What's the most unpopular stance you've ever taken? Why?


3.  What was the most challenging conflict you've ever had to manage between two people or two teams?  How did you handle it?


4.  How do you toe the fine line between giving tough feedback but also keeping people motivated?


For more questions on leadership, have a look at this post on Cogurbanks.


Do they 'get' people? Emotional Intelligence


The best CMO's usually have high levels of emotional intelligence. These CMO's display a high degree of empathy, self awareness, ability to influence others, conflict resolution, self confidence and optimism (for an in depth look at skills related to EQ see my previous guest post by Robyn Ward here).  They are not only very aware of their own feelings and able to control these feelings as needed, but they can read the emotions / feelings of others either in isolation or in groups.  The best CMO's know exactly who to talk to and how to talk to them, and can diffuse the most challenging situations through skillful mediation.  They are not only great leaders, but also ambassadors and diplomats.


Some sample questions you might ask:


1.  What's the most difficult situation you've ever had to manage regarding someone on your team?


2.  What would people say are your greatest strengths?  Areas of improvement?


3.  Describe a situation where teams you managed struggled to collaborate with another team.  How did you handle the situation?


4.  Have you ever had to let someone go?  How did you handle their exit?


Can they scale? Management Ability


The CMO role is one of the most complex roles in management today.  The CMO has to manage large teams across multiple disciplines from brand management to user acquisition to communications to product marketing.  This requires them to do 2 things superbly well:  1)  Identify and hire great people and 2) Manage and retain those people.  A CMO's ability to be successful means they must able to build great teams to execute on their marketing vision (see Strategic) and surround themselves with people who are better than they are in every marketing discipline they are responsible for.  This is particularly challenging in fast growing startups where the CMO has to execute AND build and manage a team as the company scales.


Some sample questions you might ask:



1. How would people who have worked for you describe your management style?  The good?  The not so good?


2. What do you look for in the people you hire?


3. Would you ever hire an amazing employee knowing that they might not work well in a team environment?


4.  What's your philosophy around individual development?  How do you grow your people?


5.  What's the most difficult hire you've ever made?  What did you learn?



Do they trust their gut? Intuition


We live in a data-centric world.  The challenge for most CMO's isn't data; it's too much data.  There are estimates that indicate that for every $1 spent on marketing, $.42 goes to marketing tools that help us deliver campaigns and measure them.  Great CMO's know which questions to ask and which matter but also trust their gut when they have to make a decision amidst ambiguity.  In a data centric world, it's easy to get stuck in "paralysis analysis".  Great CMO's cut to what's important, ask smart questions, look at the data and then decide partly based on what their gut tells them.  


Some sample questions you might ask:


1.  Can you describe a situation where the facts and data brought to you by your team could have led you to make a decision either way.  How do you make a decision in situations like these?


2.  Have you ever made a decision that went against your gut feeling?  What was the result?  What did you learn?


3.  Describe a situation dealing with a more analytically minded peer /colleague where the data went against your recommendation.  How did you handle that?


4.  How have you handled situations where someone on your team wants to do something, backed up with sound data, but your intuition tells you it won't likely work?  





Great startup CMO's have to be able to simply get out there and Get **it Done (GSD).  This skillset is very different from corporate CMO's where diplomacy, collaboration and strategy are paramount.  The startup CMO not only has to have those corporate skills (or be able to grow into them) but has to be able to roll up his / her sleeves to do what has to be done when it needs doing.  This is particularly true in high growth environments where the CMO has to hire new people to fill holes in marketing.  It's also important since the CMO is a key member of the leadership team and people will expect him / her to set an example.  As a CMO, I've written blog posts, sent email, sold in ad campaigns and even created graphics (let's forget about that last one!).  That said, this should NOT be their primary function and if you're hiring a CMO expecting them to do a lot of mud slinging and grunt work for the next 2-3 years, then you probably aren't yet ready to hire one.   


Some sample questions you might ask:


1.  Have you ever had a situation where someone on your team simply couldn't deliver and you needed to jump in and help them finish a task?


2. Would you rather leave something important pending while you hire a great person to do it or would you risk doing it yourself, learn from the experience and then hire someone better to do it in the future?


3.  Describe a situation where you had to roll up your sleeves and help someone on your team get something done?


4.  A member of your team approaches you with a problem which you know you could easily and quickly fix for them.  Do you dive in and do it for them or do you help them figure out how to do it themselves?


The last question is a trick question ;)  Your ideal CMO should be willing and able to dive in when the task is time sensitive but if they micromanage too often they will 1)  De-motivate their team and 2) Not give their people the opportunity to grow and develop themselves to take on these tasks in the future.  Great CMO's always try to help people figure things out on their own, but, when the situation warrants it, they are ready to assert control and roll up their sleeves.




How does SEO work?  How does content marketing work with social media?  How can we optimize conversions?  Why are consumers churning?  Great CMO's have a "growth mindset".  Though they might not be best in SEO, UA or content marketing, they want to understand how things work, why they work the way they do, how they fit into the bigger picture and how they can be improved.  They're always looking for ways to improve themselves, their people, their tools and their processes.


Some sample questions you might ask:


1.  Tell me about a time you went out of your comfort zone to try something new.  What happened?  What did you learn?


2.  What was the most profound book you've read lately?  Why?


3.  If you had the time, what marketing skill would you love to improve?  Why?


4.  Describe a situation where you had to push members of your team to try something new to improve on something that was already working.  How did you do that?  What did you learn?  What was the outcome?



Show me da Money!  Sales


In this day and age marketing is all about sales.  Great CMO's get this and constantly think about how every tool in their arsenal either ties back to getting more customers into the top of the funnel or results in reducing the loss of customers in the middle  or at the bottom of it.  They are natural salespeople who sell without selling.  They seek to create programs that build relationships with customers based on deep seated needs so that when a contract needs to be signed or a product purchased, it's simply a formality.  


You only need one question here:  Are you fired up and jumping up and down about hiring this person after meeting them?  


Best for last: Experience.  A CMO is more than simply a title.  It's earned through experience.  While this doesn't necessarily mean you should only hire a CMO who has been a CMO before, it does mean that person needs at least 10-15 years experience, a deep proficiency in one or more areas of marketing and a thorough understanding of how all the different pieces of marketing fit together.  A great CMO can take your company to a whole new level and should be one of the most important hires you make.  I wish you luck!


Is your marketing delivering the level of sales you want?  Does your marketing team feel like a well-oiled machine?  Is your marketing career path exciting, clear and headed in the right direction?  If you're a senior level marketer or CEO and feel challenged by these questions,  feel free to book a FREE coaching session today and we can discuss how to get you to where you want to be!


your sincerely,


Mad Mork







Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on Linkedin
Please reload

Featured Posts

How to Create Great Stories in Business

February 9, 2019

Please reload

Recent Posts
Please reload