Why is the average tenure of a C-suite executive a brief 5.3 years? And why do chief marketing and chief information officers last barely more than four years in the job, on average?1
The answer may lie between the lines of the job specifications shopped around by executive recruiters. One of us (Kimberly A. Whitler) was approached to gauge interest in a CMO position and, as she reviewed the 12-page job spec, realized that she couldn’t in good conscience recommend anyone for the role. Based on the responsibilities, expectations, and ideal candidate qualifications described in that document, the role was poorly designed. It was setting up the incoming CMO for failure.
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Unfortunately, based on our experience and research, many C-level jobs are poorly designed — and the individuals interviewing for these jobs are unaware of it. We shared that CMO job spec with a group of senior-level marketers and asked how many would be interested in the role, assuming it offered competitive compensation and an attractive location. A large majority of the executives were interested: They had no idea how to assess how well aligned the responsibilities, performance expectations, and qualifications were — and whether the job design set them up to succeed or fail.
An Expensive Problem
What makes the short C-level tenure surprising is that it is similar to that of average salaried workers, despite the much greater effort, expense, and time spent identifying and filling C-level roles.2 Companies pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to executive recruiting firms and may involve other C-suite executives, including the CEO, and potentially the board of directors, in defining and approving C-level roles.
We believe that one of the issues contributing to C-level turnover is a lack of alignment on key elements of the role. Consequently, individuals wind up stepping into a role that is poorly designed, and ultimately they either become frustrated and leave or disappoint the CEO and are asked to leave. But we believe this can be remedied. Here, we explain how we arrived at our conclusions and share an alignment tool that can help design better C-level jobs.
To understand C-suite job design, we analyzed a total of 185 C-level job specifications that included descriptions for CFO, CIO, and CMO roles. A job spec is typically created by the executive recruiting firm hired to find candidates. It is based on input from executives at the hiring company, who will later confirm that it is an accurate representation of the position. After that, the document is shared with potential candidates. Consequently, the job spec is the pivotal document in the candidate sourcing process: It defines the job that the recruiting firm has been contracted to fill, and it establishes the expectations, requirements, and duties of the job that a prospective candidate will accept.
Our objective was to understand within-role alignment, or the degree to which expectations, responsibilities, and experience synced up and matched one another. The job specs came from the four largest executive recruiting firms, midsize recruiting firms, and a number of boutique firms that specialize in specific industries or positions.
The Problem With C-Level Job Descriptions
We found that across the CFO, CIO, and CMO functions, there is significant misalignment within individual C-level jobs. In a well-designed role, expectations for how a new C-level leader will impact the company should match the responsibilities given to the leader as well as the desired experience that the ideal candidate should possess. For example, if a CFO is expected to grow the company through mergers and acquisitions but does not have responsibility for a critical activity such as the analysis of M&A opportunities (because another functional leader does), then there is a mismatch between expectations and responsibility. Further, if the CFO is expected to lead M&A activity but there is no requirement that candidates have experience leading successful M&As, then there is a mismatch between expectations and experience. While this may seem obvious, the analysis suggests that in practice, it isn’t. (See “C-Level Job Misalignment.”)
We also found variance in the degree of misalignment across the three C-suite functions. For example, the CIO job specs had higher levels of misalignment on expectations-responsibilities (53%) and experience-responsibilities (49%) than those of CFOs or CMOs. CMO specs had the highest level of misalignment on expectations-experience (41%) compared with those of CFOs and CIOs.
Importantly, the CIO and CMO job specs generally described a greater variety of expectations, responsibilities, and experiences than did the CFO specs, which indicates a greater degree of variability in how the CIO and CMO roles can be constructed and configured. Thus, if CFO roles are more consistent across companies, then the training and experience of individuals will also be more consistent, making it easier to create aligned roles — which may be reflected in CFOs’ slightly longer average tenure of 5.1 years compared with CIOs and CMOs. Conversely, if the composition of roles is more varied, it can increase the difficulty in designing the job and potentially contribute to the higher CIO and CMO turnover observed.
The consequence of misaligned roles can be significant. Consider the following rather common example we observed. If a job spec for a CMO indicates that they are expected to “create and drive the growth agenda,” but the CMO does not have responsibility for corporate strategy, product, innovation, pricing, distribution, or sales, there is clear misalignment. Here, the CMO is expected to drive growth and yet doesn’t have responsibility for most of the growth levers. What happens as the CMO starts a job with such a mismatch? The CMO may attempt to deliver on expectations by trying to influence all of the owners of growth — before developing the relationships underlying such influence. The CMO may realize fairly quickly that the role relies completely on influence — a situation that will make it difficult to achieve expectations. This is likely to lead to conflict, friction, and frustration while the CEO becomes disappointed as progress languishes. In this case, the misalignment between expectations and responsibilities can lead to significant CMO dissatisfaction with the role, and CEO perception of CMO failure.
Prepare to encounter the typical pushback we hear from leaders when we discuss the issue of misalignment: that those in C-level roles are often required to wield influence in addition to authority, and that if they need complete authority, they aren’t suited for these roles. Our response is that C-level leaders understand that their jobs require influence. The problem is that on a spectrum between complete responsibility and no responsibility/total influence, many of the job specs describe a role situated near the “total influence” end of the spectrum. The more the job depends on influence, the greater the risk — for both the company and the executive. It sets up the C-level leader to wield influence — often immediately — in areas where others will naturally be resistant. Executives can resolve this issue either by defining how each C-level leader specifically contributes to a more macro business outcome or by horizontally aligning C-suite leaders on shared business outcomes.3
Get Job Specs Into Alignment
We developed a tool to help C-level leaders assess job specs for specificity and internal alignment. (See “Job Alignment Map.”) Almost none of the job specs in the research were adequately specific on all of the key role elements. The map also provides a framework for a company or executive recruiter to design an aligned role from the start. The recruiter can distill a job into its key parts, reach agreement with company executives, and then write the spec based on that work.
When using this tool to design or assess a job spec, keep the following in mind.
Specify role expectations with detail and clarity. Do not use phrases that are generic (such as “drive growth”) or grandiose (such as “drive company transformation”) to set expectations for the role. Rather, be specific, such as “drive revenue growth by 3% within a year,” or “improve brand health measures on product quality from X to Y by 2023,” or “increase EBITDA by 5% within six quarters.”
Identify the responsibilities required to achieve expectations. Returning to our earlier example, if the CMO is supposed to drive revenue growth to a specific level, what are the levers that can impact growth? If the levers report to other individuals, then the expectations should be modified accordingly.
Identify the skills required to achieve expectations. These should match the responsibilities outlined above. For example, if the responsibilities required to achieve a specific level of sales growth include managing the product pipeline, then the ideal candidate should have expertise in creating and managing a successful innovation program.
Compare the responsibilities assigned on the job spec to the responsibilities required to achieve expectations. Ideally, these should be the same. This is a crucial area of assessment, as expectations frequently transcend the responsibilities assigned. Such roles require the executive to exercise influence without much authority. Expecting someone to achieve outcomes requiring functional support over which they have no authority should be a red flag for candidates.
Resolve the gap between the responsibilities assigned and the responsibilities required. There are two ways to manage such disparities. One involves redesigning the role to ensure that the responsibilities assigned are the same as the responsibilities required in order to achieve expectations. The second approach involves aligning C-level leaders. One CMO job expectation might be to improve the customer’s shopping experience such that store-level sales improve by 3% by 2023. That expectation hinges on rolling out technology to enhance the retail experience, but in this hypothetical instance, the CMO isn’t assigned responsibility for technology — the CIO is. An option here would be to ensure that both the CIO and the CMO are jointly held accountable for improving the customer’s shopping experience (and commensurate sales). This has an added benefit of ensuring that the CEO understands that multiple C-level leaders are responsible for leveraging technology to enhance the customer’s shopping experience.
Compare the skills listed in the job spec with those needed to meet expectations. Ideally, the skills listed in the job spec should match those needed to execute responsibilities and meet goals. This rarely occurs. The greater the disparity between the two lists, the more challenging it will be for the candidate to succeed in the job. High turnover suggests that organizations are often challenged to identify the right candidates; consequently, it’s critical that candidates assess for themselves whether they have the skills that are really needed to meet expectations — not just the ones listed on the spec.
Identify the measures against which role success will be judged. Most job specs fail to do an adequate job of detailing key performance metrics that correspond to the high expectations for the role. If the expectation is that a CMO will improve the customer’s shopping experience, what measures other than sales will hold the CMO accountable, and are those drawn from a survey, reviews, social media, or some other method? What specific customer experience improvements do they want to see?
We hope that by shedding light on poor job design, we have also illuminated an important underlying cause of C-suite turnover, particularly for CMOs and CIOs. By using our tool to analyze job specs, organizations can design better jobs, and candidates can gain insight to renegotiate roles.
The greater the alignment between expectations, experience, and responsibilities, the clearer the role will be to all involved, and the greater the chance of success. Given the short tenure of C-level leaders, taking time to design an aligned role upfront can yield significant value to both parties.
1. See “Age and Tenure in the C-Suite,” Korn Ferry, Feb. 14, 2017, www.kornferry.com.
2. See J. Scherman, “Employee Tenure Trends: Recent Retention, Millennials, and More,” Rasmussen University, Oct. 29, 2018, www.rasmussen.edu.
3. K.A. Whitler, D.E. Boyd, and N.A. Morgan, “The Power Partnership: CMO & CIO,” Harvard Business Review 95, no. 4 (July-August 2017): 55.