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The Ultimate Key to CMO Tenure: Align Up, Down and Sideways Expectations

By Laura McLellan | April 21, 2014 | 0 Comments

“Under what conditions is it possible for a CMO to achieve all the expectations for growth, revenue, profit, innovation, customer relationships, new technologies, etc. placed on them?”  That’s the question someone asked me this week.  When I started to think about the answer, the first thing that came to mind was “who sets the expectations?” The answer is that the CMO often has bilateral control over expectations at three levels.

Up – CEO expectations

Sure, the culture of a company, its organization, market position, budgets, customers and all the rest matter to CMO success and tenure. But to me, it basically comes down to people.  Think about it – the CEO hires the CMO, right?  The expectations for what the CMO will achieve come primarily from the CEO, who:

  • sets the tone for how the CMO and marketing in general is valued within their company
  • determines the scope and level of responsibility the CMO has
  • directs how the CMO is measured, and
  • clarifies what degree of support the CMO can count on

So, expectations for the CMO’s impact on the business are usually negotiated by both parties during the hiring process.

Sideways – other C-level executives’ expectations

The CEO sets expectations for what role the CMO will play with other C-level executives – change agent, growth driver, innovation stimulator, traditional service center.  But each of the CMO’s peers also have expectations for what marketing will do for them and with them (and occasionally do to them, as well), and how the relationship between the functions will work.

It’s axiomatic that in the first 100 days in the role a CMO will do intelligence gathering – talking with customers, partners, the staff they’ve inherited, as well as their peers – before setting in place a schedule for “quick wins” to cement their ability to deliver on expectations.

The honeymoon period is short to show progress in meeting peers’ expectations. That’s where sharing the clear expectations you have received from your boss – and theirs – is critical, as is bi-directional negotiation.  Raise and resolve issues early or you may never achieve the expectations of peers.

Down – the marketing team’s expectations

The existing marketing staff has expectations of their new boss. You undoubtedly have expectations of them too.  Sharing your vision of where marketing is headed – and the CEO’s expectations – is critical.  Making clear early what your preliminary expectations are of them goes a long way, as well as a commitment to modify those expectations after you’ve had a chance to meet with all stakeholders.

You know that you can’t meet peers and the CEO’s expectations without the enthusiastic contributions of your team, so joint expectation setting within the marketing team is required.  This will be a journey rather than a one-time effort, so explain it that way.  You only get one chance to make a positive impression – make your first one count by planning ahead of time how you’ll set, and manage, expectations.


As a new CMO you can accept or modify what the expectations of you and your team will be.  Up front, with the CEO, before you take the job.  Soon after you start with your team and with peers.  And later on when you’ve proven your ability to deliver.

So my answer to the original question would be a simple one – when you’re involved in setting the expectations in the first place and they are consistently aligned – up, down and sideways.


Note:  Insights for this post came from the “CMO Impact Study” by Kimberly Whitler of the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, from “20 Traits of Successful CMOs”  by Joanne Lord, CMO at BigDoor, and from conversations with my colleague Richard Fouts – see “Toolkit: Maturity Assessment for Marketing”

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