CMOMarketing strategies

The 5 Most Important Skills for CMOs in 2020

By Nadav Shemer
Wednesday, October 2, 2019

In the Internet era, few senior executive positions have evolved as much as that of the chief marketing officer (CMO). And CMO skills seem to differ from person to person.

Back in 2007, McKinsey and Co. correctly predicted that CMOs would assume a larger role as the “voice of the customer” across their companies. It also noted the difficulty of finding chief marketers with the full range of necessary skills needed to perform their roles.

Fast forward more than a decade and–on the eve of the 2020s–the role of the CMO continues to expand. The average tenure of a CMO is 4.1 years.

That’s the lowest tenure of all C-suite titles. Why? Largely, it’s as a result of the increasing complexity of the CMO role, which requires the right balance of left and right brain skills, says Caren Fleit, leader of Korn Ferry’s Global Marketing Officer Practice.

Being a CMO requires a more diverse range of skills than being a marketing director or manager. In all likelihood, the requirements of the CMO job will only continue to become more complex in the next decade, as more technologies and methodologies are introduced.

So what skills do you need in order to not only land the coveted CMO title but also be successful at it?

Here are the 5 most important ones:

Skill #1 – Think Strategically

There are plenty of marketing specialists out there but there’s insufficient focus on developing those specialists into “strategic generalists”, says Fleit. “In today’s world of constant change, it is not enough for CMOs to be focused only on the creative side of the [marketing] function or on marketing metrics. A CMO’s performance must translate into creating value across an organization.”

One thing that differentiates the role of a CMO from a marketing director–and indeed any C-suite executive from a mid-level manager–is the importance of strategic thinking, as opposed to just being able to formulate tactics.

A marketing strategy is the sum of every choice an organization makes to win in the marketplace, notes Steve Goldbach, Chief Strategy Officer at Deloitte. 

Goldbach recommends CMOs ask themselves 5 essential questions that define the term strategy:

5 important skills all marketing managers and CMOs must have

Let’s dive in and understand these 5 points:

  • What is our winning aspiration? A good objective is typically market-facing and centers on a company being the best at delivering a product or service. For example, Starbucks’s winning aspiration is “to inspire and nurture the human spirit–one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.”
  • Where will we play? It’s important for your organization to map its playing field—including customer segments, product categories, geographies, and other aspects of the business landscape.
  • How will we win? Why will customers choose your organization over the competitors? How does your company make money consistently over time?
  • What capabilities must we have? Which critical activities will make a difference in delivering your organization’s where-to-play and how-to-win choices?
  • What management systems do we need? What structures, systems, and measures are needed to support your organization’s choices?

Let’s take 2 examples of famous companies who tried and failed because they didn’t follow the cascade:

  • Uber made a distinct ‘Where will we play’ choice to infiltrate China simply because it’s a huge and important market. But if the “where” is not accompanied by a “how will we win”, the strategy is destined to fail–and that’s exactly the case with Uber.
  • Microsoft made a ‘Where will we play’ choice to embark on the smartphone hardware market, simply because it was a growing market. So they bought Nokia for a cool $7.6 billion (A steal, when you consider Nokia once controlled 41% of the global handset market). However, none of Microsoft’s directors wrapped their heads around the “How will we win” question. We all know what the end result was.

Skill #2 – Be A True Leader

C-suite executives must be leaders and this is no less the case for a CMO than a CFO or CTO. In the case of chief marketing officers, the waters are further muddied by the fact that the role contains so many diverse responsibilities.

According to Deloitte’s February 2019 CMO Survey, in more than 50% of companies marketing executives lead the following activities: brand, digital marketing, advertising, social media, public relations, promotions, positioning, marketing research, lead generation, marketing analytics, insight, and competitive intelligence. Since February 2014, the percentage of companies in which CMOs lead these activities has risen for all except one of the aforementioned (promotion).

Increasingly, being a CMO entails cross-departmental leadership and collaboration. In the 2020s, the most successful CMOs will be the ones that are able to build relationships and get the most out of each member of their team.

CMOs are experts at promoting their companies’ brands, but in order to thrive (and survive) they must also promote their own personal brand. Telling your own story is as important as telling your company’s. You must have the ability to position yourself as a thought leader through multiple media channels.

Start with your own personal story and build from there.

Skill every CMO needs to have in order to be a good marketer
Telling your own story is as important as telling your company’s.

Skill #3 – Be Growth Oriented

According to an Accenture and Forrester Consulting 2018 paper titled “Rethink The Role Of The CMO”, organizations have realized over the past decade that providing great experiences drives business growth. 

That’s why in less than 10 years, an abundance of new C-suite titles was introduced. Titles like growth, digital, experience, and customer are all superfluous and the CMO is positioned perfectly to adopt these responsibilities by evolving to become a CMO collaborator. “This new remit enables more control in shaping the organization’s brand whilst actively pulling together different departments to embrace customer obsession as the driving force to develop closer connections and growth across the organization.”

Jennifer Veenstra, head of Deloitte’s CMO program, has named “growth driver” one of the 5 roles of the 21st-century CMO (alongside customer champion, capacity builder, chief storyteller, and innovation catalyst). Creating and managing profitable growth should be one of the main areas of focus for any CMO, she says, but warns there are big gaps between the ideal state and reality.

In interviews Deloitte Insights conducted with C-suite executives–both CMOs and otherwise –half the interviewees said having an enterprise-wide mindset was one of the most important factors in a CMO’s success. Yet only 6% of CMOs described themselves as actively working on growing revenue across all global business activities.

Embrace the empowered CMO collaborator mindset.

Be the voice of the customer and align your organization, agency partners, and tech partners to focus on delivering top-notch user experiences.

Skill #4 – Communicate on a High Level

The need to communicate and collaborate across an organization goes hand in hand with the need to drive growth across all business activities. As Adobe CMO Ann Lewnes says, the CMO is as accountable for company growth and customer loyalty as any other functions and must work cross-functionally–across product groups, sales, IT, and finance–to drive the business.

Going back to that Accenture/Forrester study we mentioned earlier, the CMO is seen as the connective tissue between different lines of business in 90% of organizations. In the words of the CMO of a US-based vision health company quoted in the report, “The CMO needs to be a really great communicator, and collaborator, both internally and externally. The CMO needs to be able to take disparate ideas and data, and build a compelling strategy that is connected across the organization.”

Your marketing department should be a model of cooperation, conducting cross-departmental meetings, bouncing ideas, and teaching everyone at the company the principles of great user experiences.

The average tenure of a chief marketing officer is shorter than for all other executive titles – largely due to the increasing complexity of the CMO role.
Your marketing department should be a model of cooperation.

Skill #5 – Be Data-Driven

Data is everywhere, and companies are barely scratching the surface when it comes to analyzing and using it in business decisions. At the time of writing, the Internet contained around 16 zettabytes (16 trillion gigabytes) of data–a figure which will double in size every 2 years. Forrester Research estimates companies only analyze about 12% of the data available to them.

The 2 main reasons as: 

  • Lack of analytics tools 
  • Lack of knowledge about which datasets are valuable

In B2C organizations, it is the customers who provide the bulk of the data. In order to move the performance needle, the CMO who leads the relationship with the customers must aggregate the data, analyze, and draw the insight. 

As businesses increase their focus on data management and analysis, CMOs will be expected to participate and even lead some of these efforts.

I’m not saying you have to be a BI genius. But you must know what parameters are important, what metrics are just vanity metrics, and–most importantly–hire analysts that can generate the reports you need.


Being a chief marketing officer is about more than just determining how a brand looks and feels in the market. It requires having a broad skill set and being able to collaborate and drive growth across the entire organization.

Going forward, we believe that the challenges for CMOs would include:

  • Creating rich and significant storytelling across multiple channels
  • Helping organizations to become more user-centric
  • Reducing resources and time by employing automation solutions
  • Justifying the new title “Growth” and proving contribution to the company’s ROI
  • Keeping adherence to ever-changing regulation privacy guidelines
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