Why Short CMO Tenure Is Not Always a Problem

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Many chief marketing officers track the annual CMO tenure report released by Spencer Stuart, a leading executive search company, with great interest. Since it was first released in 2004, I’ve followed the study’s updates and observed the host of media coverage the report receives each year on what the data means for marketers and companies.

Most of the emphasis has been on the short tenure of the average CMO, which in 2020 dropped to just 40 months. Headlines such as “CMOs, You Have 23 Months to Live” (Ad Age), “The Most Dangerous Job in Business: The Chief Marketing Officer” (Fast Company), and “CMOs: Your Days Are (Still) Numbered” (Chief Outsiders) all suggest that short tenure is a problem. Read beyond the headlines, and the articles’ common refrain is that short tenure typically signals that the CMO is failing or dissatisfied. And I am no different: In 2011, I wrote an article in Forbes about the “disposable CMO” and the downsides of high turnover.

Much of the analysis of this issue tends to suggest that — at the root of turnover — either the CMO did something wrong (i.e., failed) or the company did (i.e., caused the CMO’s dissatisfaction with the job). For example, one article suggested that marketers are struggling to prove the value of marketing campaigns, and another indicated that poor role design can lead to both CEO and CMO dissatisfaction.

As a former general manager and CMO, I understand the significant difficulty associated with being a CMO. The amount and pace of change CMOs face is unprecedented. Expectations are high for chief marketers, and the obvious explanations for turnover are often centered on negative factors.

However, this focus on negative factors made me, as an academic, wonder about the less negative reasons for short tenure. Are there reasons for short tenure that don’t signal that the CMO has failed or is dissatisfied? Are there reasons why CMOs may leave that may actually reflect some other rationale?

To answer these questions, I reached out to two experts who work with a number of CMOs to test the following hypotheses and get their reactions. Although CMO failure or dissatisfaction may be a common explanation for shorter CMO tenures, casting turnover as purely negative risks overlooking the upside and may be misread by executives if not fully understood. In fact, shorter CMO tenure may, in some cases, be a sign of health and growth for an organization. Below, I explore the different reasons why shorter tenure may not ascribe negative rationale.

1. CMOs are younger and may be more willing to accept risk. A study by Korn Ferry indicates that CMOs are, on average, 54 years old, making them the youngest members of the C-suite. Research further indicates that younger people tend to be more comfortable with risk. As the youngest members of the C-suite, CMOs may be more apt to seek new and different opportunities at a higher rate than their peers. In particular, they may be faster to switch jobs if they see an even greener pasture elsewhere. In this case, it isn’t that the current job is unsatisfactory; it’s that they see an even better opportunity that they want to explore. In such cases, short CMO tenure is simply reflective of the higher risk tolerance and comfort with new opportunities.

Brandon Starkoff, CEO of Transparent Partners, leads a data and media consultancy that works with a number of senior marketers from different organizations and industries. He indicated that a CMO in the beverage industry spent two years at a desirable company before getting the “offer you can’t turn down” to serve as CMO of a red-hot tech company (pre-IPO). Reflecting on what this type of move — from established multinational to startup-turned-unicorn — speaks to more generally for executive marketing positions, Starkoff said, “This also highlights a growing need for startups to have more experienced marketers to elevate the brand, thus creating a lot of turnover in the CMO role across the industry.”

2. Marketers’ growth orientation may make them more likely to seek and take new job opportunities faster than their peers. Marketers are trained differently than C-suite members who come from other functions; they are uniquely demand generators whose role is primarily centered on creating revenue growth rather than cutting costs or driving efficiency. For example, marketers invest significant energy thinking about how to innovate and increase consumer appeal. This growth-generating orientation may transfer into other areas of their careers, making them more likely to pursue growth-oriented job opportunities. In my conversations with CMOs, they convey that they tend to seek new and different challenges that can enable them to grow.

Starkoff noted that another CMO who was seeking a significant growth opportunity moved for a position that would have a “steeper learning curve.” In another example, a global CMO for a large health care retailer moved into a position at a smaller, high-growth company. This change, Starkoff noted, “was inspired by the interest and passion to be part of a significant growth opportunity and the ability to build something new.”

3. CMOs are accumulating experiences through different companies. Contemporary CMOs need a wide breadth of knowledge to succeed. They need to be competent in finance, technology, and product development, as well as traditional marketing, strategy, and other core business areas. The complexity of the role has made it nearly impossible to learn everything in one company. In my discussions with various CMOs, many said that they move on to roles in different industries to acquire different skills. For example, a consumer packaged goods CMO may move to tech to acquire contemporary digital and technical knowledge that they can’t obtain in their current industry. Unlike other functions, where executives can acquire needed skills within their organization, marketers often have to switch industries to accumulate key knowledge that will round out their skills and expertise.

Greg Welch, a senior partner and practice leader at Spencer Stuart who has worked on over 500 CMO placements, noted that “CMOs are competitive, and they like to win. Some switch companies because they want to better position themselves to learn, grow, and more effectively compete.”

4. COVID-19 has motivated some people to find jobs that better align with their sense of purpose. Welch suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant impacts on the workforce of a year of lockdowns and uncertainty have driven some leaders to reflect on their lives and realign their jobs with a bigger purpose. He indicated that some CMOs are taking very difficult jobs — even if the pay is lower — to engage in work that is more personally meaningful. This example is just one exogenous force that can shape how CMOs think about their jobs — which can then influence whether they stay in a job or move.

While CMO failure and dissatisfaction are still common drivers of short CMO tenure, understanding all of the reasons can better help CMOs, CEOs, and others interpret the data. Although the word turnover naturally tends to signal that there is some sort of problem, it is hard to know whether short tenure is “good” or “bad” without understanding the underlying drivers.

And the reasons why turnover occurs matter. For example, assume that one company has three different CMOs in a 10-year period, and this turnover occurs because the CEO doesn’t respect, value, or support marketing. Contrast that with another organization that has had three CMOs in the same time frame because the CEO believes in developing CMOs and putting them into cross-functional assignments or into different business units. The actual reasons for a similar rate of turnover are quite different, and the consequences can be significant at the company level. In the first case, it would be reasonable to think that the company would have trouble developing its marketing capability or producing successful marketing outcomes. However, in the second case, the opposite may be true: The CEO could be infusing the organization with a marketing-centered way of thinking that strengthens marketing capability and effective outcomes.

After my GM/CMO career, I pivoted to become an academic. One of the early lessons I learned in my Ph.D. program was that you should try to identify all possible outcomes in your model. In the case of CMO turnover, you would want to consider all of the possible reasons and then determine which ones were the drivers. This is technically nearly impossible, but it is important to consider before declaring a final conclusion on why something happens.

The more-positive hypotheses I’ve shared above hopefully open the aperture on what might be possible reasons for short tenure among marketing executives — and why this type of move might not always spell bad news for your company.

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Comment (1)
Kheepe L. Moremi
In general, churn rates have accelerated in capital and product markets. As an example, the Corporate Longevity Report talks about "shortening life-spans on the S&P 500." On the other hand, anecdotal and empirical evidence suggests that product life-cycles are becoming shorter and that accelerated digitalisation is redrawing industry boundaries, thus resulting in firm level digital transformation. As a consequence, functions, roles and tasks are being impacted. Being at the cold face of ESG, digital, economic cycle and corporate fortunes induced changes, it is not unexpected for the marketing function to experience elevated impact and for CMO turnover to be a bit more pronounced than other C-Suite roles.