Why CMOs are always the first to go

By Thomas Barta
Last updated: May 24, 2023

The average chief marketing officer in large U.S. firms leaves after just 4.1 years, while the CEO stays around for eight. It is not good for business


(from my cmo.com column).

Korn Ferry’s latest numbers make for a chilling read. According to the search firm’s brand new C-suite study, top marketers are the first to fall off the C-suite cliff—staying half as long as their bosses.

The study found that the average CMO in large U.S. firms leaves after just 4.1 years, while his or her boss, the CEO, stays around for eight. No other C-suite executive gets fired (or decides to leave) more often.

It may be true that the CMO role can be difficult. But there’s a lot CMOs can do to make it in the C-suite.

CMO: It’s Complicated
“Today’s customer-centric CMO role is exceptionally complex and requires the right balance of left as well as right brain skills, and, very importantly, a differentiated set of leadership competencies … In some cases, short tenure can be attributed to the organisation not being well aligned behind the change that the CMO is tasked with leading,” said Korn Ferry expert Caren Fleit.

CMO failure is a big issue—not just for the CMO but for the company, too. If CMOs fail in making the organisation customer focused, its long-term prospects will suffer. And if CMOs move on, they may take years of customer understanding, new product ideas, and growth strategies with them. CEOs and marketers have an obligation, then, to be jointly successful. But how?

Leading The Way

Success in the CMO role is all about leadership. Patrick Barwise’s and my latest large-scale CMO research confirms the need for strong CMO leadership competencies. In our global CMO research, leadership competencies explained over half of what makes CMOs successful (55%). Successful CMOs know how to lead teams. But, more importantly, the best CMOs excel at leading upwards (their bosses) and sideways (their non-marketing peers). Functional marketing skills, in comparison, were much less important (>15%).

The good news: for success, things CMOs have little control over, such as personality, industry type, or gender didn’t matter that much (all below 5%). But CMOs can learn the specific leadership skills listed above!

The Tough Parts
Even for the best CMOs, influencing the “wicked” problems inside many organisations that drive a quarter of CMO success (25%) can be hard:

  • Conflicting goals. If sales, production, R&D, and business units within one company are chasing different goals, it can be hard for marketers to cut through. In our research, lack of internal alignment is the number one complaint of CMOs. It’s important that marketers spell out this problem, involve the CEO, and press for more alignment—wherever possible.
  • Small budgets. This isn’t to say CMO success requires big budgets. But some marketers’ funds are so tiny that you wonder why there’s a marketing department at all. Marketing budgets are investments in future revenue. CMOs must continuously make the case for these investments—ideally together with (not for) finance.
  • Lack of clarity on what marketing actually does. Everybody knows what finance does and what to expect from HR. But, for marketing, things can be fuzzier. In some companies, marketing is principally in charge of the “4Ps,” while in others it’s just “advertising” (most organisations fall somewhere in between). We all know that satisfaction is the difference between what we expect and what we experience. And if people don’t know what to expect from marketing, life for CMOs can be tricky. It’s, therefore, essential that top marketers create extreme clarity around how marketing helps the company succeed.

Here’s a piece of advice for the problem that’s hardest to solve. What if, despite best attempts, the CEO and the rest of the top team still don’t get customer focus? What if they talk the talk but don’t support marketing efforts to build long-term value for the customers and the company? Start looking for another job! If the CEO really doesn’t understand the necessity of customer focus, CMOs are on a road to nowhere, and the company is probably doomed. Get out while you can.