How a CMO Gets Gray Hair

The title of this article is somewhat misleading. For one, I’ve had gray hair for a number of years. Leading a marketing team may not have helped that, but I’m guessing my rock and roll lifestyle genetics played a role. And secondly, one of my favorite things to say is, if you’re not having fun working in marketing, there’s something wrong.

My point is, I find marketing fun and for the most part, not too stressful. But I have noticed themes over the years that cause concern or anxiety—or even worse, the dreaded work dream.

Here are some of the things that could be partially responsible for my gray hair.

Leadership expectations. It’s hard. As a leader, you’re supposed to project confidence, make all the right decisions, and always have the right answers. I screw up daily. And when that happens, it’s easy to feed insecurities—especially when you’re managing a team that looks to you for a vision. To maintain a positive mindset, I’ve developed a number of approaches that have served me well.

  1. Admit mistakes and don’t pretend to know everything.
  2. Trust your team.
  3. Allow data to speak for itself.
  4. Be open to criticism.
  5. Remember that it’s not personal.

None of these approaches can happen overnight, but they make up the mantra that I’ve developed to stay focused and confident. The last thing you want to do when leading a marketing team with stretch goals is to doubt yourself. That will spell the end.

Work/life balance. I have a wife and two sons (one of whom is five months old). I also lead a 40+ person global marketing team. Not a day goes by where I don’t doubt the job I’m doing as a CMO, husband, father, friend, mentor, and so on. It’s a really hard balance. And when you work in software, there is this badge of honor in working around the clock, being incredibly busy, and spending your days in back-to-back meetings.

As humans, we start these families to create memories, share love, and contribute to the greater society—and then you vanish for a massive chunk of the week to work. I often feel stuck in the middle of things. It’s still a work in progress, but here is the approach I take.

When I am home, I try to be in the moment. I don’t necessarily leave work at the office, but I do know the difference between regular work and a work emergency. I take time off (and I encourage my team to do the same). And I try to communicate openly with my family if I’m going through a stressful time or approaching critical deadlines.

At work, I ask for help from my team or other colleagues. I take my calendar very seriously and balance out the time needed to do actual work with the time where I am needed in meetings. I typically eat lunch at my desk so I can get some real work done.

I also try to always remember that my job is to get budget and approvals, remove obstacles, and set a vision. I am surrounded by immensely talented subject matter experts. They are much more capable than me in their respective roles, so they don’t need me to micromanage them or do their jobs. I also communicate directly with my boss if I’m feeling imbalanced or need help. You can’t do any of this alone… admit that.

Old dog, new tricks. I’m 45, which in software marketing makes me the equivalent of an elder statesman. It’s my responsibility to ensure we are applying the correct marketing strategy towards brand awareness, demand generation, partner marketing, customer marketing, and contributing to a meaningful company culture. What works in this quarter won’t necessarily work two or three quarters down the road.

The scary part of having marketing figured out is that it could unravel quickly in the near future. Marketing leaders have to constantly future-proof their marketing strategies. It’s exhausting! Here are some tips I use that may help you.

  1. Used correctly, data can be your tea leaves, your Force, your crystal ball. It will provide trends and insights to help you make the right decisions.
  2. Remain a student and keep learning—new practices, software, mentors, and so on.
  3. Listen to your team. I’m definitely not the smartest person on the Return Path marketing team, but I’m confident that I’m surrounded by smart people.
  4. And finally, admit it if something isn’t working.

Keeping the band together. Your team is everything. A toxic team won’t hit goals. A harmonious team will exceed them. When you have worked hard to build a great team, the last thing you want to hear is that someone is leaving. But it happens. And it will always happen. In marketing, having people leave the team will affect company performance—there’s no way around it. Here’s how I deal with this situation.

  • If it’s someone you wanted to leave, great. Problem solved!
  • If not, it’s still ok. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to help people realize their career potential. They can either do it with you or at another company. Sometimes the latter is the only option. Wish them well.
  • For roles that are closely tied to revenue, work closely with your HR and finance teams to make sure you have plans in place to expedite backfills.
  • Accept that the team will always evolve and it’s on you to adapt the organization and personalities needed to keep it harmonious.

Branding vs. demand generation. Demand gen is easy to measure. Branding? Not so much. But marketers are simultaneously being asked to build brand awareness and generate demand for the sales team. Recruiters going after marketing leaders will often oscillate between a demand gen expert and a branding wizard—or lately, a leader that can do it all. But internally, not everyone understands that branding and demand generation are the yin and yang of marketing—and must live together.

The truth is, selling an unknown brand is difficult, if not impossible. And to become a well-known brand, you’ve got to get your product or service into the hands of buyers. This is a complex paradox that can only be solved by devoting resources, budget, and time toward both brand awareness and demand gen. Not everyone gets this, so it’s your job to find your story and evangelize across the company.

I’m proud of my gray hair and I thoroughly enjoy marketing. Although I could go on and on about the adversities of running a marketing team, the flip side—all the positive, creative, and innovative experiences I get to create—is much more powerful. Build out an operating system that allows you to function in a flexible manner, embrace potential gray hair, enjoy the team you’ve built, and have fun. That’s how I sleep at night.

This post originally appeared on Martech Advisor.

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