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Boardroom challenges marketers face and what they can do about it

Marketers who have succeeded in gaining a seat on the board must seek to be the agents of change in the company. For a smooth transition, the board and marketer must work in harmony to scale the brand in new ways.

According to research published by Econsultancy and Oracle Marketing Cloud, one challenge that a newcomer might face in the boardroom is the adjustment period of understanding and getting used to less than ideal environments. This includes joining a boardroom that lacks openness.

Read also: A CEO’s case for good marketing

Navigating boardroom politics

A top marketing executive sharing his experience said: “I can only describe the atmosphere in the boardroom as toxic and frankly, I can’t wait to do my time and move on. It was clear from the start when I was brought in by the owners of the business (after a management change resulting from M&A activity) that I was upsetting things a lot. My way of doing things was very much not the way it had always been done.”

An expert in data and digital, this executive was ideally placed to help the organisation to understand new trends and respond to them.

Using metrics that clearly demonstrated the validity of certain strategies, he and his team were following an accepted and highly valued path to what should have resulted in boardroom acceptance.

However, it did not go as hoped. “When I asked them to look at the results, the metrics, the board wasn’t interested and in fact seemed disappointed with the work. The attitude was ‘we’re really disappointed that you bang on about data when we have employed you for your expertise.’”

Directors are threatened with data and I feel I regularly show them up for making bad decisions based purely on politics.

Unsurprisingly, this executive felt that this company was unlikely to keep up with the market if the attitude prevailed and happily admitted that, rather than stewarding the business into a period of growth, his was simply a “stepping stone to future roles”.

On speaking to the executive the frustration is clear – at the missed opportunity for the business and for the personal roadblocks at every turn.

Interestingly, a board can have an intense understanding of creativity, yet be unsure about the most effective ways to move forward, as they can be traditional and cautious, the research said.

Agents of change: Is that possible?

Boards can sometimes be resistant to change.

However, Evan Greene, CMO, The Recording Academy (GRAMMYs) said that as a CMO, you are expected to be the company’s brand steward. As such, top level marketers are in the position of driving change. This gives marketers the opportunity to stand behind taking strategic and calculated risks to evolve and scale the brand in new ways.

Still, for marketers, being the agent of change can be a difficult mantle to adopt.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for modern marketers is the number of moving parts now under their purview.  And it is a challenge for the leaders of the organisation too. Are they to entrust areas that marketers are not yet experts in and possibly could never be?

This signals the move towards a more collegiate approach to brand and customer management. Boards must trust that, while a marketer may only have a working knowledge of data technologies or corporate finance to a certain degree, the one thing they do intuitively understand is the customer and it is around this that all other things revolve.

Without care, there is potential for a marketer trying to establish themselves at board level to find themselves in a Catch-22 situation.

Nevertheless, boards are willing to be convinced if marketers can demonstrate the value of their actions in terms that can be understood and appreciated by those whose functions are nominally unrelated, such as the CFO and CTO.  A marketer’s versatility and ability to put a customer-centric spin on business strategy make them the best agents for leading the company into innovative solutions.

Read also: Perils of communication between the CMO and CIO

From CMO to CEO

The progression of marketers to the board – and on to CEO level – is always going to be easier in organisations that already have marketing at the heart of the business. Jill McDonald, formerly CEO of Mcdonald’s UK, is a marketer who has made the leap between national and international marketing roles that have ultimately led to not one but two CEO positions.

She said because McDonald’s was a company that valued marketing very highly, she was a key player on the board with a number of other colleagues. In other places, like British Airways, commercial was at the top table but marketing wasn’t, making it even harder for marketers to get to the top role.

Yet, marketers should not abandon their attempts to take marketing to board level in companies where it has not traditionally led the strategy. However, it does indicate that the marketer needs to adapt to accommodate the habits of that particular board. The role of change agent may yet be further down the line.

Read also: Lessons in making the CMO-CIO relationship work

Marketers need to gain the trust to perform activities that demonstrate the value of their new roles, but in many cases need to prove they are able to perform those activities in the first place.

Greene believes that a lot of board-level success comes simply from having the courage of your convictions: “It’s important to stick to your guns. You can easily fall victim to group think. If you prepare and have the brand’s best interests at heart you can be bold, be aggressive, make sure you’re doing the right thing for the right reason.”

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