How To Become a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO): 26 Must-Have Traits

As the spearhead of the marketing team, a CMO can make or break a company.

But as we edge towards 2021, the position of CMO is becoming an increasingly vulnerable one. In fact, according to The Wall Street Journal, the median tenure of a CMO in 2016 was only 26.5 months — a smidgen more than two years.

Here are some must-have traits to become a successful Chief Marketing Officer (CMO):


Playing it safe is a dangerous game

In an attempt to please their CEOs, CMOs have sought to play it safe in recent years, choosing the mundane over the innovative. But Daniel Backhaus, Director of Sales and Marketing at Kern Americas Corp., has told Core dna that the predictability of CMOs is an issue that needs addressing:

"Recently, a digital VP of a Fortune 500 company told me their CMO has already decided that they will use Adobe, hybris, and Accenture for their new website/eCommerce approach because that ‘is what everybody else is doing’”, Backhaus said.

“With the average CMO tenure getting ever shorter, I feel many are either making what they perceive are ‘safe’ choices by following the herd or dropping big money with known vendors — because nobody ever got fired for picking IBM or Accenture, right?”, he remarked.

Backhaus went on to explain that CMOs need to be braver by taking chances on underdog technologies, “even if it’s just a side-bet or an interim solution until their big-bang approach comes online."

With Backhaus’ comments in mind, it’s now more important than ever for Chief Marketing Officers to recognize and adopt the traits of highly-successful CMOs. To help you be the best CMO you can be, we’ve listed and examined 26 of them.

[Trait #1] A communicative maestro

At the core, CMOs need to be expert communicators. A CMO will be working with every major team, so they’ll need to be able to communicate ideas and strategies clearly and effectively with everyone from executives, to sales teams, to IT departments.

Beyond inter-departmental communication, you’ll need to excel at communicating with the marketing team. This means setting workable timelines, managing workflows, listening to feedback and much more.


[Trait #2] A team player

A Chief Marketing Officer will almost always have a team to work with. As a CMO, you’ll need to ensure that team is fit to serve, up to date with their marketing knowledge, executing their tasks, sharing knowledge with other team members and more.

You’ll likely have a role in hiring and firing your team members too, so you’ll need to have an eye for workers who will fit in — and for those who won’t.


[Trait #3] A curious mind

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it also helped the CMO innovate.

A strong level of curiosity works in a CMO’s favor whether it learning about emerging technologies, experimenting with unorthodox marketing techniques, or even an effective leadership practice. The best CMOs are lifelong learners and are able to take whatever new knowledge they acquire apply to the market, no matter how it ebbs and flows.

Jeff Jones - Former CMO at Target

“As a marketer, you have to be driven by the consumer that you are serving, and you can only do that when you are insanely curious about them. You can’t change the world if you are not curious about it.”



[Trait #4] Humbleness

When a new marketing campaign is a big success, the CMO gets some plaudits. But a great CMO remains humble anyway because they know the success of these campaigns is reliant on much more than them alone. Instead, they recognize the value of the team behind them and other departments that helped along the way.


[Trait #5] A big-picture thinker

An enterprise has no shortage of moving pieces, so it’s easy to get lost in the minutiae of everyday tasks and responsibilities. An effective CMO will be able to easily manage these tasks while being able to see the entire organization from a 10,000-foot perspective.

For example, they’ll see how each marketing initiative is contributing to different aspects of the customer journey. Or, they’ll be able to determine which new channels are worth investing in, due to an understanding of current and emerging trends.


[Trait #6] Tech trend watcher

The best CMOs are always checking out what’s on the cutting edge of marketing innovation.

They need to have the ability to recognize when an emerging technology is going to be a worthwhile investment — and when to steer clear of a fad. This future-oriented mindset will ensure the company is always moving forward instead of being late to emerging trends. They don’t simply follow the crowd but instead push forward to help to company become an early adopter on the trends and platforms that will be huge into the future.

Beth Comstock - Vice Chair at General Electric

“When you hear marketing, most people think advertising. While we, of course, do that, we have made sure that marketing has been redefined as innovation. We expect our marketers to be the champions of ‘what’s next.’”



[Trait #7] A calculated risk-taker

If you’re in a competitive marketplace, you’re going to need to take risks to stay ahead of your competition. Blind risks can end up hurting your company, but taking calculated, data and research-backed risks, will help propel your company forward.

To take those risks, you may even have to hold your own against stakeholders and superiors, so a CMO needs to be strong-willed and resilient in the face of skepticism.


[Trait #8] Inspirational

As mentioned, top CMOs know they’re only as good as their teams. But that doesn’t mean you should hire a stellar team and leave them to it. A great CMO can inspire and motivate his team with his or her words, actions, and ambitions.

It’s not just about making others work hard, either. Inspiration in this context relates to aiding others to innovate in the marketing sphere.


[Trait #9] Patient

If you didn’t already know, marketing success rarely happens overnight. Marketing campaigns take time to plan, and they take time to start converting meaningfully once they’re out in the wild. When it comes to SEO, the process is even longer.

However, a strong CMO should be patient enough to keep instructing team members to add alt-tags to images, and to keep those Facebook ads running for a little while longer.

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[Trait #10] Brave

When the next niche social network gains traction — will you be brave enough to experiment with it? How about investing in content creation for it?

Sometimes, a CMO has to make brave decisions. Their decision may result in a positive ROI, and it may not. The point is, you have to be willing to take the plunge when every other CMO is hedging their bets.

Linda Boff - CMO at General Electric

“Sometimes you scrape your knee and a platform goes away, but I’d say it’s a greater risk not to be there trying it, because in this world you don’t know what’s going to necessarily take off.”



[Trait #11] Growth-obsessed

A great CMO will always be thinking about how they can improve the bottom line of the business.

But revenue aside, as a CMO, you should be able to channel your love for growth into other avenues. If the brand needs to expand into a new demographic, or target a new geographical location, you should have several plans for that.


[Trait #12] Diplomatic

Marketing isn’t done in a vacuum. You’ll need to lean on the IT department, the legal team, and other areas of your company. To do that effectively, you’ll need to deal with each team with diplomacy.

So, work on building bridges between departments, and your team’s lives — and therefore your life — will become a whole lot easier.


[Trait #13] A storyteller

Communicating and sharing both internal and external stories will help to fuel the growth of your company.

Whether that’s through an interesting case study that helps you source new customers, or through effectively articulating your company’s work or design philosophy. Humans connect to stories, and a great CMO will be on the lookout for stories that will help generate new customers and improve your company’s core values.

Lee Applbaum - CMO at Patron

"They want to know the history. They want to understand the authenticity and integrity of a brand. And maybe equally importantly, they want to share that backstory with others because it gives them inherent credibility.”



[Trait #14] Open-minded

The last thing you want is to be a stubborn CMO. Not every new app is a fad, and not every new buzzword should be cast aside as meaningless.

The marketing world is fluid and exciting, so every CMO’s strategy should mimic those traits. Keep an open mind about trends in the market, because if your marketing strategy isn’t evolving — it’s dying.

Doug Collier - Former CMO at La-Z-Boy

“The world is changing so fast, particularly from a marketing standpoint, that if you’re not interested in learning new things you’ll be left in the dust very quickly.”



[Trait #15] A T-shaped marketer

The ‘T-Shaped Marketer’ is a concept cooked up and discussed by marketing whizzes such as Rand Fishkin from Moz. Essentially, it means that a marketer should have a basic understanding across a wide breadth of topics (from email marketing, to funnel building, to HTML coding) — while having deeper knowledge in one, or a few, marketing fields.

In other words, a T-Shaped Marketer is a Jack of all trades, except in a few specific areas where he or she totally rocks.

Rand Fishkin - Founder at Moz

"I don’t know whether every team or every marketer needs to strive for [T-shaped web marketer], but I’m certain that as I advise other companies and as we grow Moz, it will continue to be a trait I look for and recommend."



[Trait #16] Technically adept

Not every CMO can code — and to be frank, many will never need to. However, the only way to make solid decisions regarding your technology is to understand the technical landscape.

While that doesn’t mean you have to learn to code in ten different languages, you should take the time to understand coding languages, frameworks, and technologies to know what their best uses are.


[Trait #17] Multichannel understanding

It’s not enough to have mastery over a single technological domain. As a CMO, you need to have expertise across multiple channels. Get comfortable with Twitter, Pinterest, and YouTube while also taking the time to study how consumers use gaming consoles to browse the web.

In other words, if a marketing channel exists, you should know it inside out.


[Trait #18] Revenue focused

Revenue is the most important metric for any business.

While being creative is a big part of the job, a top CMO will always tie his or her decisions back to ROI. So, channel your innovations into revenue-generating activities and be quick to scrap marketing campaigns that aren’t helping the company’s bottom line.

Carrie Palin - CMO & SVP at Box

"My team is doubling our commitment on marketing sourced pipeline year over year, without doubling the investment. This is a big North star for us, and the only way we can achieve this is by getting crystal clear, down to a finite level, the performance of everything we do."



[Trait #19] An eye for design

A star CMO doesn’t need to be a front-end design ace — but they should have something to say about the state of their company’s website and app design.

For that input to be useful, you need to possess a solid understanding of design, and how it plays a role in user experience.


[Trait #20] An experimental mind

Contemporary marketing tools give CMOs the ability to test, test, test. And so they really ought to be doing exactly that.

A savvy CMO knows that small changes can make big differences, so they will A/B test everything from ads to the size of the font in marketing emails.

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[Trait #21] Data literate

Numbers never lie, so a serious CMO should very rarely act in opposition to what the data indicates.

As a striving CMO, you should be able to glean data from analytical tools, incorporate it into your decision making whenever possible, and continue to tweak everything based on whatever new data emerges.

Stuart MacDonald - Former CMO at FreshBooks

“Tracking marketing is a cultural thing. Either tracking matters or it doesn’t. You’re in one camp or the other. Either you’re analytical and data-driven, or you go by what you think works. People who go by gut are wrong.”



[Trait #22] A critical mind

While spontaneity and innovation have their places, a CMO needs to keep his/her team’s ideas in check.

What’s the end goal of this campaign? Why are the advantages of testing this new channel? How does this new campaign benefit our customers? Are we even technically able to execute this? Those are some critical questions worth asking whenever an idea is presented.


[Trait #23] Sales savvy

The line between sales and marketing is becoming ever so slightly blurred — but marketers are not salespeople.

Yet, as a CMO, you should have a decent understanding of the sales processes your company uses to convert website visitors, blog readers, and social media followers into customers.


[Trait #24] Deep customer lifecycle understanding

The best CMOs understand the entire customer lifecycle. They know what needs to be done to attract new customers, engage them, get them to buy, and keep them happy over the long-term.

Each step of the customer journey will require a different style of communication and as the CMO, it's basically your job to be fluent in all of them.

Robin Korman - Former SVP at Wyndham Hotel Group

“Always think about the next horizon. Customers own the conversation now. You must play among them to influence them.”


[Trait #25] Imaginative

Imagination is the hallmark of all great creatives, and marketing is an inherently creative activity.

As a CMO, you must be able to transform data, research and your gut feeling into innovative marketing campaigns that help your company stand out.


[Trait #26] A black sheep

Top CMOs won’t follow the pack or adopt a new technology stack because “that’s what everyone else is doing”. Instead, they’ll push boundaries and look for solutions that are best for their teams and customers — even if that means picking new or lesser-known technologies.

Conventional CMOs will err on the side of caution, helping to maintain a status quo. Great CMOs on the other hand, will stray from the herd when necessary in order to help their company stand out and dominate.

Be the super CMO

Let’s be frank, no CMO will be able to embody all of the above traits with any amount of ease. Heck, many CMOs will never get close.

But if you see these traits within yourself — even faintly — then work on improving them. And if you don’t, work on obtaining them.

What traits do you think I'm missing? Let me know in the comments below.

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Sam Saltis
Sam Saltis

An entrepreneur at heart with over 20+ years of experience in building internet software, growing online companies and managing product development.

Loves all things SaaS, technology, and startups.

You can find him feeding his beloved fish when he's back in Australia.

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