5 ways to find standout CMO candidates

The CMO hiring process can be challenging for both candidates and selection committees. Here are some insights to help you get ahead.

While evaluating a short list of CMO candidates, I noticed something interesting. On paper, each candidate had similar experiences and appeared to fit well. Yet, when we spoke to each, their narratives were completely different.

While not shocking, what stood out was their approach to the role and perceived context of the market. Why such a stark difference? Was it them or the client I was advising at the time? How do we collectively evaluate a fit to make an offer?

CMO candidates and selection committees don’t have it easy

CMOs have one of the most difficult jobs on an executive team. Hiring one can be equally challenging. Companies must triangulate the changing business landscape, mixed CMO responsibilities and varied candidate pools. In turn, CMOs must craft a moving target narrative to match those evolving expectations.

I’ve worked with hundreds of marketing and go-to-market leaders. We discovered and used a few insights to help us along. These are from an investor’s perspective and part of our greater efforts on resilient growth and cross-organizational value creation.

Within those engagements, we evaluated five CMO and one head of marketing roles. Several topics stood out about the candidates and selection committees.

1. Overlooking internal candidates

Personally, I tend to look closer at internal candidates. In three of five cases, there was a prevailing mindset that a new GTM or brand value strategy must always be external hires.

As an internal candidate

Prove that you have taken an alternative approach to your predecessor and can still navigate existing relationships. Most CEOs and boards who want a new CMO seek one that can think differently and execute well.

As a selection committee

Unless the GTM strategy is a pivot, look closer to internal candidates. Even those that have less experience have more incumbent advantages. Existing relationships, processes, knowledge and onboarding mean less time to value.

Also, you can incentivize these candidates with coaching and mentoring. It also speaks to a healthy retention culture. If there are no closely qualified internal candidates, then it could be worth revisiting and investing more in retention, talent management and succession planning strategies.


2. Siloed CMOs

A siloed CMO is a growth inhibitor. The most valued asset a CMO brings is maximizing the brand value of the product or service in the market. Among many things, modern marketing builds brand value and a stronger engagement with the marketplace. 

CMOs must integrate throughout as they serve as a conduit of energy and sentiment internally with the brand and the marketplace. That said, a CMO needs to gain interest and synthesize even more about the rest of the company.

As an internal candidate

You must understand how other C-suite leaders make decisions and navigate challenges. Illustrate this in your interviews. 

More importantly, as part of your personal brand, continue to share your curated insights and tips on this. They need to tell a story beyond marketing best practices.

As a selection committee

It’s not the CEO and board’s job to hold the CMO’s hand. But, if they show insightfulness, initiative and business empathy, it is critical to open doors and smooth out your reactions to their plans. 

When evaluating candidates, look for those stories of internal motivation, also how that translated into value creation across the organization.

3. CMO evangelists make poor candidates

For one of the companies, marketing was less of a priority. They had a “figurehead” and storyteller. This CMO severely lacked operational and organizational experience. Without an internal connection across the organization, the CMO came across as disconnected and lacking authenticity. 

The CEO must showcase the cornerstone of the brand and the purpose of the company. Evangelists primarily engage in the marketplace. CMOs primarily own the connective ecosystem and engagement. 

As an internal candidate

I am a huge fan of evangelists and, behind the scenes, have helped build and support evangelists. I’ve seen how their broad research and seasoned insights can be a boon in marketplace-level conversation. Also, they can provide innovative concepts from industry engagement. 

But CMOs whose primary talents are showing up to events, panels, podcasts and interviews make for poor operators and often poor leaders. Too much self-focus leaves little spotlight and attention for others. 

If you want to change that image, learn the platform, build a valuable use case and demonstrate it. For services, it’s a bit more challenging. Though standout candidates either adapt a version of this or invest time and help deeper within the sales process.

As a selection committee

Besides listening for “we” in interviews, I found top candidates showed culture building that encouraged ownership, experimentation, skill/experience training and collaboration. 

Sometimes marketing is less of a priority depending on headwinds. Top candidates in these cases discussed retention, education, partnership and community initiatives.

4. Correctly weighting tech capabilities

Originally from a computer and software engineer background, I surprised everyone, including myself, at how little weight I put on tech capabilities. Like traditional tech leaders, CMO candidates may not know how to use the latest code tools and languages, but they can add massive value by optimizing and positioning the impact of the stack on the business or ecosystem. “Why” is greater than “how.” 

Value creation is more important than stack perfection.

As an internal candidate

As CMO, it’s not important to know how to use these stacks. Instead, it is good to know what is in your core tech and which are the game-changing platforms/tools. 

Be ready to describe:

  • How some major tech initiatives did at your last/current firm if any.
  • How your brand value or productivity improved.
  • What it enabled for the business.

As a selection committee

We’ve seen position descriptions shooting for the moon. It’s certainly unnecessary to filter out or give added weight to a CMO candidate based on the technology they oversee under their group. (Once, a candidate initially filtered out because of the “tech” mismatch, eventually became our selected candidate.) Another important success factor is how a candidate builds value-added relationships with vendors.


5. Be prepared, but not hyper-personalized

While hyper-personalization may apply to customer relationship tactics, it gets too creepy in the selection process. 

It tends to come across as inauthentic, possibly overcompensating and showing a level of insecurity.

As an internal candidate

Key research on the company is a must. Over-indexing your deep and even personal research of interviewers can lead to an out-of-context situation or inappropriate behavior. For example, we had two candidates in two separate processes surprise interviewers with highly personal gifts during the interview.

Personalized thank you notes, within the context of the interview, are still most welcome. Stay within those boundaries. 

As a selection committee

The flip side is true as well. HR is required to do background research. However, interviewers who make assumptions about a candidate’s non-relevant history can lead to uncomfortable or inappropriate conversations. 

The hobbies/interests questions are a good way to get to know more about a candidate but stay within the rails of what they provide you.

Finding the right CMO role or candidate

There are many criteria you will use in your unique processes. In ours, the above points helped us differentiate between good and great candidates. They often weighed (positively or negatively) more than some traditional criteria.

Regardless of the experiences, I too am constantly learning and evolving my thinking. I certainly urge a constant curiosity about the role, changing perceptions and value opportunities within an executive team. These will be great additions to your selection process and support your business goals.

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About the author

Anand is an industry leader, builder and advisor in marketing technology and growth strategy. His 15 years include marketing, operations, sales, data, analytics and intelligent systems. He thrives where people, data and money intersect. Advisor to growth leaders and investors. Builder of smart tools enabling smart people. Investor favoring product-led growth (PLG) companies. In recent years, he has been the co-collaborator with Scott Brinker on the Marketing Technology Landscape. He is an advisor to the CDP Institute and a co-host of the Talking Stack podcast. Bringing a multi-disciplinary background, Anand founded IntelliPhi to enable growth leaders to navigate complex go-to-market decisions by leveraging data, AI-enabled systems, and their seasoned leadership. Their Apollo platform was recently acquired by a top management consulting firm. He’s worked for growth teams within enterprise companies such as Siemens, Silverpop/IBM, Microsoft, Blackstone, Salesforce.com, Fidelity, NYSE and eBay. With some entrepreneurial wins and losses, Anand is a retained advisor to select startups and investors navigating remarkable returns. He’s also known for having a knack for identifying and cultivating rising sales, marketing and entrepreneurial leaders.