A Founder’s Guide To Hiring A CMO

December 1, 2022

The results are in! And unfortunately, they are not good. With the current economic situation we are in, the average tenure of a CMO continues to slide—making it hard for founders who need to keep re-hiring their head of marketing. So it’s not surprising that most if not all the founders and CEOs of the companies I advise have this on top of their minds, “How do I hire the right CMO at the right time?”

So in this guide, we’re going to tackle three things. We’ll start by reviewing common traps to avoid so you don’t make the same mistakes over and over (if you’re on the hunt for your next CMO or VP, Marketing). Next, we’ll lay some groundwork for the type of CMOs/VPMs based on their backgrounds or schools of origin. And then finally, we’ll look at the attributes you need in your ideal CMO/VPM based on your stage – Early (0 – 1), Growth (1 – 10), Scale (10 -100).

Common traps: Wanting the perfect hire, a unicorn

Your company runs on an operating system and so should marketing. When you decide to make this hire, don’t just think about the CMO or the VP of marketing (VPM) in isolation. You need to think about the overall marketing operating system. Who will surround this person? How can you complement their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses?

There is no single person who fits the bill of all your requirements, but it’s always better for the business to bet on a team-wide approach or operating model, rather than betting it all on a single person (who doesn’t exist). Here are some of the traps you want to avoid.

Infographic that shares common traps founders might face when hiring a chief marketing officer based on compromise, avoiding charmers, highly specialized CMOs, and wanting to find someone who can do it all.

1. Don’t get the wrong t-shirt size

It’s very tempting to look at a senior marketing leader at a large company and think, “Ah, that’s exactly what I need.” In reality, there is never one type of marketing leader. Many times, you’ll find a variation of the following: Builders, Scalers, and Optimizers. While there isn’t a hard and fast rule, these aren’t strictly exclusive. Simply put, these roles help your business throughout different growth stages.

  • Builders are great at applying strong first-principles thinking to quickly spin up a marketing motion from nothing by being the ultimate multi-tasking player-coaches.
  • Scalers are skilled at finding patterns that need to be standardized and are great at creating repeatable scalable ways for marketing to be effective and impactful.
  • Optimizers have experience at the largest companies and know how to lead large multi-disciplinary matrixed organizations that connect across multiple geographies and business units.

Marketers can take one or more of these roles, but finding someone who is all three is rare. If you pick the wrong T-shirt size (i.e. – picking an Optimizer when you need a Builder or vice versa), that fit will be poor and you’ll likely part ways within a year.

2. Avoid any motion commotion

If you’re at an early stage and still trying to figure out the right go-to-market (GTM) motion, picking a specialist will be limiting. Even after product-market fit, there’s GTM fit. During this phase, you test and learn the best ways to acquire customers successfully. If you’re in this learning phase, you need to find a generalist who can stretch and learn along with you.

Picking a marketing leader who is highly specialized in a specific motion over many years (either Enterprise or PLG) will need to be flexible, open-minded, and adaptable. This is even more apparent when you’re still in the process of determining your primary motion.

Look for people who aren’t dogmatic, who may think “this is the way it should be because I did this at my previous company.”

3. Beware the Tinder swindler

It is difficult to find the right candidate even in the best scenario. Finding time to interview when you’re under pressure and barely have enough time to eat or sleep can be difficult, but not impossible. Despite doing your best to hire the right person, anyone can be swayed by personality and interview skills, which can make you overlook actual capabilities and performance.

Be cognizant of the “Warren Harding error,” i.e., hiring someone because they look or talk like they should be a CMO. It’s human to be persuaded by charming people, but it’s an inherent bias we can monitor and mitigate.

4. Don’t compromise too quickly

Even if you believe this single hire will change everything, it pays to remain true to your DNA. This means that you must commit to finding the marketing leader that fits you, not the other way around.

For example, if you’re a highly data-driven quantitative CEO, you should find someone who can match your expectations and connect with you on that particular frequency. Similarly, if your DNA is in the enterprise space, then you need to find someone who can fit and add to your momentum. While it’s tempting to find someone “different” who will complement you, it’s asking too much for someone to change their DNA to match yours quickly, especially in hyper-growth mode.

Archetypes: What kind of CMO do you need?

Now that you’ve figured out the things to avoid and whittled down your list of candidates, you need to figure out what kind of marketer your business requires. Depending on your growth stage, knowing the attributes of who you need can make it easier to interview and choose the right candidate.

The category marketer

These are leaders who grew up in the general radius of product marketing. This type can include but isn’t limited to product development, platform, ecosystem and partnerships. Category marketers excel at deeply understanding your entire addressable market, product strengths/weaknesses, ideal customer profiles, personas, and translating all of that into tangible go-to-market strategies, positioning, messaging, and more.

This is the type of leader who will be comfortable presenting your value prop or roadmap to customers or on stage at your (or other) conferences. With this type of leader, you need to pair them with a strong demand or growth expert to maximize the overall strength of your marketing team.

The enterprise pipeline generator

The enterprise-pipeline marketing leader will be your CRO’s best friend. They are world-class at developing and accelerating pipelines from scratch. They know their digital and field channels inside out and can scale your demand globally—working hand in hand with your Sales AEs, SDRs, and BDRs in multiple motions (inbound and outbound).

They also have a firm grasp of the martech stack required to not just build pipeline but also how you can evolve towards a sophisticated Account-based Sales + Marketing enterprise strategy.

The product-led maestro

PLG marketing leaders can come from either product marketing or growth marketing. Folks who come from either of these orgs can be similarly quantitative like their enterprise cousins but are highly adept at building a high-velocity product-led growth funnel and fostering a hypothesis experiment-based mindset to drive growth.

In both of the above, you need to pair them with strong product marketers so that you have a balanced approach across your marketing team.

Other archetypes

There are a few other archetypes that come from corporate marketing (brand and PR) or field and event marketing. These definitely make sense, even more so in situations where your SaaS company offers a solution in these particular markets. For example, if your company offers a SaaS product used by event marketers or a product used by Community marketers, hiring someone from that environment can be a great fit and an advantage.

The CMO that fits your company’s purpose

If you can imagine your company’s future trajectory, it’s safe to say that your needs will certainly change over time. In many cases, you can find someone who can not only grow with you but can lead from the front on your journey. But sometimes you will need to find new people.

It’s a common misconception that you need to keep swapping out CMOs or VPMs along the way. In fact, you should do your best to retain and grow that person. Replacing them comes at a great cost and sometimes, even your GTM motion will be unable to recover after those disruptive periods.

Think of your marketing org as a peloton of riders. Talented people will join the peloton and will add to it. Sometimes you may need to change the leader of the peloton but you can do that while retaining the previous leader. Growth is best when it’s cumulative and with a compounding effect.

Early (0 to 1): Head of marketing

In this stage, you need to find someone who is an all-weather person. Things are going to be turbulent and you need a marketer who can adapt quickly and autonomously. Your ideal candidate is someone who is versatile and resourceful enough to stretch across a variety of areas ranging from product positioning to content and growth.

You can pair them with external agencies and consultants to complement the gaps in their portfolio of skills.

Growth (1 to 10): VP of marketing

As you grow and build a small yet mighty marketing team, you’ll soon start seeing (and becoming confused by) the specialization and super-specialization in marketing. You’ll see terms like growth, demand gen, digital performance marketing, and marketing operations and more.

At this point, you’ll need a senior leader who can not only craft strategy but operationalize it into action quickly and create fast feedback loops.

This person can impress you with strategic brilliance but knows how to get scrappy and execute continuously. This is a crucial stage and hire—you will need to get the right person in this stage that can make up for past failures and also set you up for exponential future growth.

Scale (10 to 100): Chief marketing officer

This person has seen scale and knows how to quickly triage your current situation based on the vast library of patterns. They should be able to move fast and slow. This sounds like a paradox, but in reality a good CMO should be able to discern which areas require immediate urgency versus which areas should be a slower burn.

Most importantly, your potential CMO should be able to standardize and scale the good patterns, course-correct the functions that are off-track, and be able to ruthlessly prioritize or de-prioritize in the overall interest of the business. This is your chief business-minded officer.

So now what? Here are your next steps.

  1. Map your business plan to the type of marketer you need. Start by thinking through how your business model will evolve over the next 12 to 18 months. Based on that, you should know which go-to-market motion will define your growth (e.g. sales-driven vs. marketing or product-led).
  2. List out the top three must-have skills versus the nice-to-have skills for your ideal marketing leader. Share these with a few of your other leaders across product, sales, marketing and let there be healthy debate so you’re all aligned.
  3. Create your own inventory of the major outcomes or accomplishments you envision your future marketing leader delivering in the next year. This will help you tangibly visualize what success will look like—for both you and them.
  4. Use the above as ingredients to start writing a job description and interviewer’s guide. As you assemble an interviewing panel, assign specific two to three areas or questions to your interviewers so that it’s a structured process. This will allow you to compare candidates more objectively and avoid subjective opinions.

Executive Growth Advisor

Harsh Jawharkar is a growth leader and executive advisor, partnering with investors and founders to shape and accelerate growth across all stages. He built and scaled marketing organizations to drive growth at category-defining SaaS companies like Atlassian, Slack, Narvar, and Zendesk. Harsh began in product development, combining his background in engineering and design to ship large-scale cloud products at companies like PayPal and Sapient.