Marketing Leadership Death Traps And How To Avoid Them

NFL head coaches struggle with job security. Going into the 2016-17 season, team owners fired six head coaches. This followed seven more who got the axe going into last season. With just 32 professional football teams, the resulting 40.6% turnover over the last two seasons is awfully high. Memo to NFL head coaches: rent before you buy!

Turns out, the same advice applies to marketing leaders, especially within the retail sector. According to Russell Reynolds Associates, 48% of the top 30 US retailers have replaced their marketing leaders in the last 12 months. Their plight is a severe instance of a threat the entire profession faces these days. CMOs: the only ones who can look at NFL coaches and envy their stability.

Why the turnover? AdAge has some good explanations, chief among them a failure to produce measurable results fast enough. That can be traced to conflicting priorities, e.g. short-term sales versus long term brand health, which leave CMOs choosing between what is right and what will keep them out of the unemployment line.

I, too, have failed in one of my marketing roles. I ultimately bounced back, in large part because of what I learned from that experience. Moving from client-side to agency-side work also has helped me see around corners and spot the conditions that can result in success or collapse.

Looking only at results is misleading. You have to understand the underlying conditions that result in success or failure. Here’s some of what I’ve learned in my tenure as a marketing leader:

  • As in golf, marketing success is determined in the tee box. A colleague uses this phrase to remind us that successful outcomes depend on getting the inputs right. For a marketing leader, this means spending however long it takes to determine what the CEO (or whomever calls the shots) is trying to achieve, agreeing on the obstacles that stand in the way, and seeing eye-to-eye on the things they must do to surmount those barriers. You must align on all three. If just one is out of step, you’re probably doomed before you even start. If you’re a marketer interviewing for a new gig, don’t let the recruiters or hiring manager rush you past these steps. They may be incentivized to close a requisition, but they won’t be on the hook if you fail.

  • Even if you win in the tee box, misalignment can occur later. Leadership, strategy, priorities, budgets – all are subject to change without much notice. You’ll need a playbook for how to manage disruption because sooner or later, it will find you.

  • It’s up to you as a marketing leader to fix misalignment problems: It can be tempting to sit back and expect the boss to fill the gap. After all, the boss typically is the final decision maker, the buck-stopper who can make things happen. The boss often times has her reasons for being on some other page than yours, though, so it’s going to be your responsibility to fix it.

  • Here are some reasons why you and your boss may not click (and what to do about them):

    • You don’t see the same problems the same way: Think of this is a different stack ranking of your priorities. Ultimately you want to show your boss that you’re spending the bulk of your time on the most pressing issues. If you and your boss don’t agree on what those issues should be, it will appear that you’re off in the wilderness. What to do about it: Make your case, but if you fail, close ranks around what your boss wants. Either way, document your agreed-upon priorities and make them the centerpiece of your one-on-one meetings with your boss.

    • Lack of contact: Maybe you and your boss have busy travel schedules or work in different offices. I once had a boss who occasionally resorted to profanity-laced tirades. My coping strategy: avoidance. If we never met, after all, I wouldn’t have to worry about being the target of this person’s ire. If that sounds like a disastrous approach, you’d be right. It was one of the biggest work mistakes I ever made. What to do about it: Make sure you have regular one-on-one meetings with your boss. You should meet at least once every other week. Prepare an agenda every time. If your boss is unfocused or rude, do your best to remember that their behavior is more often a reflection of something deep seeded within them, not you. As hard as it may be, don’t take it personally.

    • Your boss doesn’t know or understand what you do: Just because you see eye-to-eye on your priorities doesn’t mean all is well. If the boss doesn’t understand your methodology for dealing with those problems, it can appear as if you’re wasting time. What to do about it: As every high schooler’s math teacher instructed, “Show your work.” Use your one-on-one and leadership team meetings to share progress reports, explain who on your team accomplished what, and how you’re progressing toward the goals you and your boss set. Emphasize the inputs as much as you do the results. If you can prove that you’re getting the former right more often than not, you’ll buy yourself some equity for when things inevitably go wrong.

    • You’ve got a peer who won’t support you: Even if you and the boss agree, you may have a peer on the leadership team who doesn’t support you, or, even worse, actively works to undermine your progress. What to do about it: For those who dread office politics, this is the nightmare scenario because the solution may require you to channel your inner Frank Underwood. You can do nothing and hope stalemate doesn’t impede your progress, try appealing to reason, rolling over, duking it out and letting the boss declare a winner, or you can try horse trading, giving something that it important for your rival in return for support. Some bosses are conflict-avoiders, so your boss may require that you settle things on your own. Be prepared to step up.

    • Your boss asks you to change your focus too frequently: I worked for someone who changed my goals in what seemed like a monthly cadence. It was exhausting and, I later learned, a product of my boss’s boss changing things up just as frequently. What to do about it: The risk here is that you won’t ever get anything accomplished because the clock keeps running out prematurely. String enough of these instances together, and your boss will look at your tenure and defy you to produce any wins. If you can’t establish stability, you’re probably best off securing your exit.

Of course, failure to produce sufficient results quickly enough will put you in the endangered category, but it’s crucial that marketing leaders know why failure can happen. Learning to spot the symptoms and even reverse them will improve the likelihood that you steer clear of the firing line.


  1. Stearns 205 · · Reply

    I have a mentor who calls this “managing expectations.” Not always easy, but very much necessary.


    1. Right on all counts. Managing expectations, like producing results, can gloss over the enormous effort success sometimes requires.


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