3 Ways To Build A Strong CEO-CMO Relationship

A CEO and CMO working together can be one of the most powerful forces for positive change and growth in an organization today. Just listen to the CMO of Philips Healthcare talk to McKinsey about what he and the Philips CEO accomplished together, or read about how the CEO and CMO of Caesars collaborated closely in the charge to drive the entertainment company forward. It’s clear that we’ve come a long way from the days of excruciatingly short CMO tenures and low CEO confidence in marketers.

This shift isn’t too surprising, when you look at some of the major changes in the business environment of late. Markets are changing dynamically. The customer experience — long the domain of marketing — has become a key differentiator for companies. And analytics has made marketing results more measurable than ever. Is it any wonder the Harvard Business Review has argued for a more central role for marketing at the executive table? Or that a top consulting firm’s chief data scientist is predicting the CMO will be sitting next to the CEO at that table?

Whether you are a CEO or a CMO, it’s clearly in your company’s interest to build a strong relationship with your counterpart. But how exactly do you do it? Here are three specific strategies I recommend.

Be more like each other.

This is a theme I’ve run into again and again in comments from business experts about how the CEO-CMO relationship is changing. For brand and management consultant Martin Roll, it’s about a role reversal in which the CMO becomes more closely tied to business objectives while the CEO gets closer to the customer experience. However you characterize it, I think it speaks to the need in today’s business environment to see and respond to business challenges and opportunities from your counterpart’s perspective.

How does that play out in the day-to-day work of driving a company’s growth? For CEOs, that can mean finding ways to connect more closely with customers and their experiences – an undertaking CMOs can help facilitate by providing relevant customer insights from marketing initiatives. For CMOs, it may be about demonstrating more sensitivity to ROI by finding ways to bring more efficiency to marketing efforts.

Set fair expectations.

As CEOs and CMOs learn from each other and collaborate more closely, there’s always the risk of both expecting too much too soon from their relationship. Yes, it’s fair for CEOs now to expect CMOs to deliver “concrete, understandable marketing metrics and fact-based decision-making,” as CMO magazine describes it. But it’s not fair to expect them overnight. I’m inclined to think that kind of impatience on the part of CEOs may be one reason CMOs never lasted very long at companies until recently. (A partner at Spencer Stuart brought this up years ago when he blamed “excessive expectations” for short CMO tenures.)

Similarly, CMOs need to be patient when they look to CEOs who didn’t come out of the world of marketing to think more like marketers. While we may be seeing a trend today of CEOs rising out of the CMO ranks, that’s a relatively recent phenomenon that’s by no means widespread. As CMOs set their expectations for CEOs to support a stronger role for marketing in setting and executing on business strategy, they need to be patient. It’s worth keeping in mind that most CEOs come from a background other than marketing (among Fortune 100 companies, 75% of CEOs come from operations).

Keep your eyes on the prize.

Given that CEOs and CMOs haven’t always been the closest collaborators on the executive team, it’s perhaps inevitable that you won’t always see eye to eye on how to achieve critical goals. That’s why it’s so important to stay focused on the goals themselves more than on the means you use to achieve them. I like the way B2B marketer Brian Hansford puts it: “If the CEO and CMO are synchronized with strategy, customers, innovations, and the market, everything else will fall in line. That’s not to say there won’t be healthy debate and contention during the journey.”

I really believe that in today’s business environment there is far more that ties the CEO and the CMO to each other than separates them. Understanding and exploring those connections empowers both these executives to achieve transformative changes for their organizations.

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