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Most CMOs Don’t Last, Here’s How to Beat the Trend

CMO tenures plummeting

In April 2021, Spencer Stuart released their 17th annual CMO Tenure Study. In 2020, the average tenure of CMOs dropped to 40 months, the shortest it has been since 2009. CMOs have the shortest tenure of any position in the C-suite; with the average CEO’s tenure reaching double the length of the average CMO. For aspiring CMOs, the obvious question is this: why do CMOs stay at their companies for such a short time? What’s more, how can would-be CMOs tailor their career development and job search to ensure longevity in their roles? 

Here, we’ll discuss the Spencer Stuart findings in detail, as well as considering how aspiring CMOs can prepare for longer tenures. 

Demographics of CMOs in 2020

Women were 47 percent of CMOs surveyed by Spencer Stuart, an increase of about one percent from 2019. Women also made up more than half (52 percent) of incoming CMOs.

However, the number of CMO positions held by people of color dropped from 14 percent in 2019 to 13 percent in 2020. The number of incoming CMO positions held by racially- or ethnically-diverse people also dropped to 12 percent, from 19 percent in 2019. 

CMOs Were Often Promoted from Within

Aspiring CMOs take note – companies were highly more likely to promote CMOs from within their own ranks. 63 percent of CMOs overall were internal hires in 2020. Newly-appointed CMOs were even more likely to be hired from within: 83 percent compared to 16 percent. The difficulty of onboarding external hires during the pandemic likely only partially accounted for this difference.

How Can the CMO Tenure Survey Help Aspiring CMOs?

The tenure survey suggests it is much more difficult to remain at a company long-term if you’re a CMO. So, how can aspiring CMOs ensure they would last longer in your CMO role than others? 

Here are a few ideas:

Make a plan to rise through the ranks at your current employer.

As such a high percentage of CMOs were promoted from within, it’s a good idea to rise through the ranks at your current employer, as well as choosing a company that holds your same values. Though perhaps this year’s percentage of internal hires was more significant than usual, the average of internal hires indicates this trend won’t leave with the pandemic.  

Choose a company culture that fits you.

Erica Seidel of the CMO Network explains why some CMOs are not successful in their roles. “Someone can be very successful in one culture and flame out in a different culture.” 

This is precisely why it’s important to choose a company where you feel comfortable and see long-term growth potential. If you’re not happy with your company culture now, then you’re also not as likely to be successful in your CMO role. This is particularly true for people of color; do you feel supported in your current position?

Find a company with a C-suite that values long-term growth.

Another factor that affects CMO success is their often-poor relationships with the rest of the C-Suite. In a 2017 study, Harvard Business Review discovered that 80 percent of CEOs didn’t trust or didn’t like their CMOs. 

Managing this issue is two-fold. 

First, it’s important to find a company where job expectations are clarified, right up to the C-suite. Whereas CEO expectations are often clear, C-suite expectations for the CMO may be ambiguous – even to them. If job roles are clarified on the lower rungs of the corporate ladder, that’s a good indication they will be upwards, as well. 

What’s more, find a company with a supportive C-suite. Whatever change or progress a CMO wants to make may take time. They may also have to face crises with the public that are beyond their control. Identifying a company with a C-suite that trusts each other is key to making sure your tenure doesn’t have the potential to be cut short before it even begins. 

Learn to manage change.

Daniel Codella suggests that CMOs are judged more harshly than other members of the C-Suite. “Failures are more noticeable and felt much more deeply, both financially and through public perception,” he writes. 

This is why it’s important to hone your skills with the public and the C-Suite. CMOs need to interact with the public and the press, as well as explaining any issues that may arise to the C-Suite. Develop your executive presence early so you’re able to navigate unpredictable and ever-changing situations that are public-facing and internal. 

Planning Your CMO Future

CMO tenure is so much shorter than others in the C-suite for a variety of reasons. Some CMOs may have a cultural mismatch at their organizations, or they may work with colleagues who won’t give them time to enact their plans. Still others may not be equipped to handle the volatility of the role. But if a CMO role is in your future, rising through the ranks at a company that will support you and your vision is the best career decision you can make now.

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