A 2020 Retrospective on Becoming a CMO in 2020

My path to CMO has been an unconventional one, and that it officially happened during what is surely to become one of history’s most distinguished years is no surprise to me. For the rest of you on a decided and determined path, I implore you to keep in mind one thing I’ve learned over and over again: no amount of strategizing can stand in for the element of chance — the future’s not, and will never be, entirely predictable. 

BUT we can prepare for the unpredictable. In this article, I’ve outlined a little bit of my story as well as some of my top learnings in the years up to and including 2020. I hope they serve to help you on your own journey to and through leadership, especially during these unprecedented times. 

And so it begins…

I launched my formal career in 2002.  My incredibly illustrious entrance into marketing began as an appointment setter, the vaunted, movie-worthy career path of all future marketing leaders. I mastered the art of accepting rejection and celebrating my own small wins. I served a small, unsuccessful stint in sales and finally landed an amazing job with an agency where I was introduced to the data and science behind marketing; I loved every minute of it.  

I was fortunate enough to build relationships and a network that led me into many different demand generation and eventually VP roles in B2B SaaS companies. One of these relationships opened the door to my very first Chief Marketing Officer role and for a kickass marketing technology company to boot. 18 years of watching, following, reading other CMOs do their thing and it was finally my turn.  

My role as CMO began on February 20, 2020. I anxiously flew across the globe to our headquarters and met a team that was suspicious and unsure about what their future would hold. I tried to paint a picture of collaboration, togetherness, we would calm things down, we wouldn’t change directions with the wind anymore, we would have clarity of focus and clearly defined and documented KPIs. I flew home feeling optimistic, “I can do this.”

The world changes, overnight…

Thursday, March 19, 2020: California issued a stay at home order. Tuesday, March 23, 2020: the United Kingdom was put into lockdown and global travel restrictions were in place. By the middle of April, the world had completely and irrevocably changed – and here I am, a brand new CMO.

Companies were going bankrupt, unemployment numbers were skyrocketing, death tolls were climbing, riots were breaking out in every major city in America and I – I’m a brand new CMO.

How do you build a brand and generate demand and launch campaigns and rally a team in the middle of all of this?  How do you provide clarity of focus and set obtainable objectives in the middle of an unprecedented global crisis? 

How do you reconcile your humanity, your empathy with your job of growing revenue surrounded by these existential circumstances?

My CEO asked me what I had learned during my first 90-days. The honest answer: I learned my kids eat a lot of chips. I learned I don’t like working from a home office every day. I learned to become more aware of my fellow humans. I learned that marketing has a higher calling than generating demand.

I graded myself pretty harshly on that last point and below are the growth moments I experienced and have accepted as life lessons.  

1 – It’s ok to cry on Zoom.

Overwhelmed, lonely, tired – these were the phrases my teammates and I would use at times just before we started to tear up. I think my entire team has seen me cry, and I have seen many of them. In each case, it was cathartic, I felt closer, more connected. I never felt weak.  I just felt like a person with a lot going on and the support I received each and every time made the vulnerability completely worth it.

2 – Marketing is the guardian of how people feel about a company and therefore should set the example of kindness, care and empathy for the rest of the company.

Making a statement for a PR purpose is not what I mean. What I mean here is a genuine care for people, exhibited in how employees, customers, vendors, etc. are treated. We have a really long way to go but I accept the challenge that it can and should begin with marketing.

3 – Goals are necessary for measurement, humanity is essential for sleeping well.

Similar to the above point, be human first. BUT, anyone who knows me knows it would be disingenuous for me to pretend I don’t rely on data. I do, very much. I think people roll their eyes at my spreadsheets, charts and conversion metrics. Establishing, measuring and obtaining goals has to happen, it’s how you know what you’re doing well.  However, it is never more important than the people surrounding you.

4 – It’s ok and almost imperative to look for the opportunity for continued business growth and market fit in the midst of uncertainty.

Business needs to happen. I want to see my business grow, I want to see us be successful.  Jobs are created and secured by successful businesses. It is OK to identify opportunity, it is not ok to take advantage of the opportunity at the expense of others. I’ll give this quick example, I was introduced to a company called Open Source Medical Supplies. During this pandemic, a young entrepreneur took it upon himself to elicit volunteers to make medical supplies for the hospital system in the US. At the same time, other individuals were selling hand sanitizer for as much as $138 on eBay. I think it’s easy to see the difference between a genuine market opportunity and profiting from tragedy.

5 – Lastly, there is another side. What do you want to see in the mirror when you get there?

Aside from a much thinner, much younger, much bronzer version of myself, I want to see a woman who is wiser. Someone who is more patient, more understanding, more caring. I want to see a woman full of strength, who can carry burdens and share burdens with ease. I want to see someone who has an open mind and can appreciate contradicting viewpoints even more so than before. I hope to see someone who has been irrevocably changed because the world around her has already done so. 

In truth, the lesson I’ve learned most poignantly is that I still have a lot of room to grow. I still have many more lessons to learn and there is still a better version of me waiting to be discovered. That the people in your path, senior to you or not, are as important to your journey and personal growth as you are. Relationships matter, more than anything else. This article may not help you become the next best CMO, but I do hope it will help someone become the next best version of themselves.

I’d love to hear from you the lessons, growth moments and experiences you’ve encountered during the COVID-19 crisis. Please don’t hesitate to connect with me on LinkedIn and start a conversation.