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How to Not F*** Up Your First 90 Days as a CMO


Colorful stripe with a dollar sign in the center

You’re taking over as Chief Marketing Officer at a company with a mission that excites you and a story you think you can refine and sell to the world. You’re excited to help this company grow.

What do you do first as a CMO?

The blank page is the hardest part. Before you begin, let’s dive into some critical tasks you need to nail in those first three months to start off right.

Month One: People and Processes

1. Go Through New Hire Orientation

Even Henry V wasn’t too busy to experience first hand how his troops trained and lived. It’s important to see what the people you’re relying on go through, especially how they start. Go through your new hire training as if you were a new marketing associate. If possible, go through the sales team’s new hire training, as well.

Whether you’ve been with the company 10 years or 10 minutes, it’s probably been a while since you went through new hire training.

2. Get to Know Your Peers

Get to know your key stakeholders both up and down the management chain. You should probably do this before you accept the job, but make sure you meet everyone in the C-Suite, as many board members as you can, and (if discretion allows) everyone who will be reporting to you in your new role. Give them a chance to interview you and use that as an opportunity to reflect on the company you’re joining.

There are already people doing work here. Are you a good fit for this team?

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3. Get to Know Your Team

As Jim Collins says, your first and most important task isn’t the direction of the bus, but who you’re bringing with you and what seats they’re in. Talk with your team and find out who’s “on the bus” and what skills they have. What have they tried? What’s worked? What hasn’t? Why? Keep these meetings informal and light.

Don’t make people feel like they’re interviewing to keep their job. Give them a chance to pitch their pet rocks and tell you their honest thoughts.

4. Get Aligned With Your Managers

Set up your one-on-ones with direct reports. These meetings should be owned by your team members rather than you. They’re not status updates, they’re people updates. A 1:1 belongs to the employee — not to you.

The frequency will vary, but make them regular and STICK TO THEM. Cancelling or rescheduling one-on-ones sends the message that you value other things more than your team. The VPs and Directors who report to you are people, too. They will make you successful. Or not.

5. Align Your Structure With Your Goals

A marketing organization should be designed around the marketing strategy — not vice-versa.
If you plan on a content-heavy inbound marketing strategy, you may need to build a creative production powerhouse with a vertically integrated team that handles writing, design, video, and promotion on one team.

If you need a very flexible team that has to respond to rapidly changing requests from around the company, an elastic organizational structure may make more sense.

If you have a complex funnel and sales process that’s well tested and needs to scale, a funnel-oriented team may be the best structure.

Marketing teams have often grown ad-hoc in the past, adding competencies as needed and sharing resources with other teams or using external agencies. Ensure that the organization you design is well adapted to dealing with the demands you’re about the place on them.

6. Clarify Responsibilities

Assign DRIs (Directly Responsible Individuals) to own the opportunities you’ve identified (site traffic, SEO, social media, CRO, marketing automation, sales enablement — whatever). Give them each SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely). If they don’t already have them, generate waterfall graphs using your analytics software so that each team or DRI knows how they’re performing throughout the month.

It’s fine to have many cooks in a kitchen — but there can be only one chef.

7. Get Everyone to Agree on Metrics & Goals

Roadmaps are only useful if you know where you are.

Get everyone to agree on what the funnel looks like now. What are we tracking? Where are we tracking it? What’s the source of “truth” for our metrics? No two analytics systems ever agree. Make sure everyone knows what’s being tracked and how. If you’re making marketing decisions from subjective lead ratings that your sales reps forget to complete, your data is useless. What data in your system is missing or inaccurate?

8. Tightly Align Sales and Marketing

According to a study by the Corporate Executive Board, 87% of the words used by sales and marketing to describe each other are negative. But companies with strong sales and marketing alignment get 20% greater annual revenue growth. As the new CMO, you have a unique chance to start fresh with the sales team.

Create a tight SMarketing (Sales+Marketing) alignment plan with the VP of Sales. Your success (and, frankly, your happiness) as CMO is going to be determined more by the VP of Sales than anyone else — including the CEO. You should set and agree on an SLA with sales. Set up a monthly SMarketing meeting with the sales and marketing teams (or each business unit, depending on your size). Keep everyone accountable.

At the meeting, openly discuss the big ticket items. How’s the funnel? How are we performing on metrics? How do we improve? Particularly in the first meeting, identify any open issues that exist between Marketing and Sales and explain how you and the leaders plan to address them.
Do this right and you’ll go from negative grumblings to getting gushing love letters from the sales team, like this email an SVP of Sales sent to his company’s entire marketing team:
“We had another great month that doesn’t happen without you. Thanks for building trust and credibility with our prospects before we engage with them — makes every conversation a pleasure rather than a fight :)”

Month Two: Start to Grow

9. Develop and Understand Your Buyer Personas

Find out who your buyers are and place them into groups of similar buying and usage behaviors. Develop buyer personas that everyone at the company gets to know. You can give these personas fun, alliterative names such as Stay-at-Home Stanley or Road Warrior Wanda to make them easy to remember — but never lose sight of the fact that there’s a unique person on the other side of that persona.

Focus deeply on the why instead of the who. While great advancements have been made in customer and marketing analytics that allow you to better understand your customers, it’s still difficult to translate that into specific guardrails for marketing. Buyer persona stories may sound corny at first, but they allow your team to draw on the most sophisticated customer analytics system in the world: the human mind. Stories allow people to fill in the blanks by drawing on their past experiences and answer questions like “is what I’m writing relevant to Wanda?” or “am I focusing on product features I like but that Stanley doesn’t care about?”.

Agree on objective characteristics with the sales and services team. You can get this information from the customer (what do they tell you about themselves?), outside data (such as lead enrichment services), or behavioral data (page visits, past sales, etc.).

10. Start From the End and Work Your Way Back

With the sales team’s support, start at the bottom of the funnel. Make sure sales reps are properly trained and motivated to work inbound leads. Believe it or not, I’ve seen companies where sales reps refuse to call inbound leads because they don’t know that process—and it is fundamentally different from outbound prospecting.

There’s no point pouring fuel into a leaking engine.

11. Do the Hard Math of Customer Centricity

Figure out Marketing’s role in the company’s unit economics. The CAC (customer acquisition cost) is shared between you and the sales team. Your company’s LTV (Lifetime Value) will determine how much you can spend on customer acquisition, which will define the restrictions on the size, scope, and type of marketing campaigns you can run.

12. Find an Area of Focus

Not all cash is created equal. Segment your company’s unit economics by buyer persona. Sure, the major accounts team working Fortune 1000 companies may land the highest dollar amounts in deals. But you need to add up the marketing and sales (salary+commission) costs to determine if those deals make sense.

For example, in the graphic below you can see that investing a dollar in acquiring a valuable inventory manager persona may enable you to close more deals, which is exciting for Sales, but have a less efficient funnel meaning less growth value for the company:

Marketing revenue funnel and costs

You can download this as a spreadsheet to play with the underlying data: Click here.

Your finance team may change these numbers to account for other variables and accounting methods. But these are numbers you and your new best friend (the VP of Sales) can control.
Run this exercise for each buyer persona to find your growth opportunities. A higher LTV:CAC ratio doesn’t necessarily mean that’s where marketing should focus. It’s often too simple to focus only on reducing CAC. But the answer to growth may be that you’re not spending enough. There may be unexplored leverage on the LTV side of the equation.

13. Customer Retention Is Everyone’s Job

Get with the customer services and success folks. In a pure eCommerce environment, your own marketing team may be responsible for customer LTV handling up-sell, cross-sell and re-sell. But in a multi-channel operation, this responsibility is probably with another team. Your ability to afford a higher CAC will rely on their ability to increase customer LTV.

Cutting acquisition costs is the easy answer — but not always the right one.

Even if this responsibility doesn’t rest with you, the marketing team typically has more specialized expertise that can help with this. You’re probably the only design team at the company. You probably have the only specialized email automation tools. Your team can help. You may even want to set up a dedicated Customer Marketing Team to help services up-sell or retain customers.

Month Three: Stay on Target

14. Obsess Over Employee Metrics as Much as Customer Metrics

Create anonymous internal feedback and employee survey programs. Make sure that your anonymous feedback mechanism has a feature that enables you to anonymously respond if necessary. ENPS (Employee Net Promoter Score) or other anonymous happiness metrics are good leading indicators of potential employee churn problems. If you wait until employees leave to identify unhappiness, you’ll not only lose the chance to save valuable talent but you’ll have potentially damaging impacts to the business while the performance of demotivated employees tapers off before they finally leave.

Times of transition are particularly trying — for everyone. Uncertainty can make people overly cautious and add undue stress. Don’t delay implementing employee happiness metrics that enable you to be proactive.

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15. Focus, Focus, Focus.

Identify areas of opportunity within the current funnel to focus on and areas to ignore.
Even large, sophisticated marketing teams can’t focus on every opportunity at once.
Equally important to defining your playbook for growth is defining and clarifying with the marketing team things you know are an issue but are intentionally ignoring. Create an “Omissions” section of your formal strategy. Share it — and your rationale — with your team to keep people focused and avoid morale problems. You don’t want them to take initiative and attempt to solve those problems.

It can really bother smart employees when they think something important is going unnoticed. Acknowledge the deficiency.

For example, HubSpot uses a formal strategic framework called “M-SPOT” (Mission, Strategy, Playbook, Omissions, Targets). This allows the business to identify areas of focus and areas of known (and accepted) weakness.

Maybe you know your website needs to focus on top-of-the-funnel demand generation efforts. But, the middle-of-the-funnel marketing automation and sales enablement may also need work. You may choose to identify marketing automation as an intentional omission. After all, if your inbound lead generation volume is low enough that sales can keep up manually, adding sophisticated automated email nurturing won’t add value.

Whenever I find myself wandering off course I can imagine a tiny version of Dharmesh Shah, my old boss, standing on my shoulder saying: “Focus, focus, focus. Do fewer things better.”

The world is filled with fascinating distractions. One of the most difficult challenges of leadership is knowing which billion dollar opportunities to ignore.

16. Avoid Generalizing Your Marketing

Make sure that your marketing doesn’t settle into being sort of interesting to everyone.
It should be really interesting to each persona. Segment your marketing. Focus unique sales and marketing efforts on each buyer persona. Our jobs are to help every user create their own, perfect internet — not force them into what we think they want. Email, social, even the website itself should be as uniquely valuable as each type of visitor.

17. Change Needs to Be Managed

There will be some changes that you can implement right away without disrupting any key operations. Others will take time as new teams are organized, trained, and begin their work.
One of the most difficult challenges you will face is making sure that the trains continue to run on time while you simultaneously lay new tracks ahead and redesign the train’s engine. Converting from a steam engine to, say, a maglev train is a noble goal — but if you remove the wheels before you add the magnets your train is going to derail.

18. Lift People Up by Giving Them Your Time

You probably had some help on the climb up. Now it’s time to return the favor.

Mentor team members on your own team. Mentor folks around the company. Mentor rising stars outside the company. Seek out people at all stages of development. Don’t just take on the next C-level candidate.

Mentoring doesn’t have to be terribly formal or time-consuming. Carve out a few minutes to listen to people. Dole out advice and reassurance when it’s appropriate. Take a new hire to lunch. Ask questions.

You may learn useful information about your company. You may develop the next all-star.

You’ll also help people. People just like you. That will make you feel good and build the next set of leaders so you can retire one day.

Get to it, CMO!

Don’t lose focus of your job: Drive value for the business by helping your team create value for prospects and customers. And remind everyone about the person missing from most of your meetings: the customer. Learn about diy SEO tips for small business owners.