This column exists to help B2B CMOs improve their position and performance – which is why several editions have discussed the need for chief marketing officers to move beyond marketing communications and pursue a more strategic role, whether to drive innovation, infuse the entire organization with the mind and voice of the customer, or help drive change and the profitable growth that should come from it.
And while the focus of those columns have often been high-level direction, this month we come down-to-earth and explore the specific steps one B2B CMO took to transform her role, along with her organization’s approach to marketing and the benefits it reaps.
To get this ground-level picture of what it looks like to be a more strategic and influential, marketer, we sat down with Amy Nigrelli, CMO of CUNA, Credit Union National Association, America’s leading trade association for credit unions. While there’s not enough room here to share the entire conversation, I encourage you to watch the introductory video and review the five key points recapped below.
Six Steps to Greater Impact
Our discussion revealed six areas in which B2B marketers can take the initiative to create more influence and impact:
- Demonstrate that you are all business
- Stay agile, stay ahead
- Consistently, continually build relationships
- Be your organization’s left-brain/right-brain bridge
- Leverage your power as The Integrator
- Be an Instigator
1. Demonstrate that as a marketer, you’re all business
In sales-centric B2B organizations, it’s all too easy for marketers to be dismissed as marcom order-takers. There are two closely-related cures for this common condition.
We’ve covered the first before (most recently in last month’s column): understand business. Master the math. Know the pressures and process of dealing with responsibility for profit and loss (P&L).
The second is to not only possess this business acumen, but actively deploy it on behalf of your colleagues and internal clients across functions. This starts by showing you know the key business questions to ask.
As Nigrelli puts it, “It has helped me to understand business strategy and to bring a more strategic approach by first asking the right questions. ‘What are you trying to accomplish? What’s your strategic landscape? What’s the competitive landscape? Where do we want to head as an organization or where does this product line need to take us? Who are your different audiences? Who’s buying what? Who’s interacting with the organization, and in what ways?’ ”
Asking the right questions, and actively listening, builds confidence in both your abilities and intent, even as it provides you with critical input for doing your job.
2. Stay agile, stay ahead
The business leaders you partner with, focused as they are on P&L, tend to lock in on immediate targets, which is required for meeting short-term objectives. As a strategic marketer, however, you need to stay flexible rather than locked-in, providing the organization with both a broader and farther view of the opportunities and challenges on the horizon.
“… whether it’s easy or not, it’s always worth it for me to understand the people in your organization. Try to understand them in their professional roles, but also understand them as people.”
“It’s really important for us to stay a couple of steps ahead of the organization,” Nigrelli said, adding an apt analogy from her personal life. “I’ve coached youth soccer, and one of the things I tell the kids is that they always need to be in an athletic stance. So, knees bent, on your toes, ready to move, whatever direction you need to go, however fast you need to move.
It’s kind of like that for us in marketing CUNA. We need to see where we want the organization to go, be in a position where we can support that, move it, nudge it gently in the right direction. And if we’ve been asking those good questions and building relationships internally, then we’re always ready to plug in to a need or initiative.
Otherwise we’d have to say, ‘Uh-oh, they’re ready, but now we need to build this whole thing and we haven’t laid down the track yet.’ So we work hard at anticipating, engaging in ‘pre-thinking’ and scenario planning, so we’re ready to move quickly when the time comes.”
3. Constantly, continually build relationships
Which brings us to the next hallmark of a strategic, high-impact marketer: connectivity across functions and business units.
“Relationships are absolutely critical,” Nigrelli advises. “Now, credit union people are incredibly nice, so I had the good fortune of working with people who don’t mind getting to know you. But whether it’s easy or not, it’s always worth it for me to understand the people in your organization. Try to understand them in their professional roles, but also understand them as people.
When you take the time to listen to someone else, hear what they’re all about and really listen to what it is that they’re trying to do – and to understand their passions – you can do a much better job of telling their story, and helping reach their objectives. But that takes time and effort – in my case it meant extra trips to Washington, DC, and getting to really know people at our headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin.”
4. Be your organization’s left-brain/right-brain bridge
Business-to-business companies often forget that, ultimately, they’re not selling to corporate entities, they’re selling to individuals. People. Human beings. As such, and in spite of the traditional penchant for fact-and-feature based selling, you have to help your organization market on rational and emotional levels.
Nigrelli puts it this way: “A B2B CMO has to be a very right-brain, left-brain person. You need to spend time on relationships and understanding how to creatively bring something to life. You also really need to understand the business, have a good grasp of the data that’s going to help drive decisions, and deeply understand results. As marketers, we’ve got to see both sides of that equation. And the ability to do that plugs us in in a way that other functions within an organization can’t or simply don’t.
If you’re a CMO you’ve got to be able to tell the story, but you also need a command of the facts in order to really drive the story toward business objectives.”
5. Leverage your power as The Integrator
“The CMO is ultimately the organizational storyteller and as such has license – in a way that no one else does – to talk to other people, to connect the dots, to challenge.”
Marketing doesn’t simply build a bridge between sometimes conflicting left- and right-brain thinkers – it can also span competing, disconnected areas of corporate turf. That’s because marketers occupy a unique position in a B2B organization: the middle, as in the nexus, the crossroads, the commons. As such, marketers can become the cross-functional link, the integrator who breaks down traditional silos that prevent organizations from optimizing their efforts.
As Nigrelli sees it, “The CMO is ultimately the organizational storyteller and as such has license – in a way that no one else does – to talk to other people, to connect the dots, to challenge. And frankly, we’ve got a responsibility in a way that no one else in our organization has, to understand what’s going on and to understand the overarching value proposition and how to bring it to life.”
But becoming The Integrator in your organization isn’t simply a role you assume.
“It hinges on building trust,” says Nigrelli. “And in order to do that, you need to spend time getting to know people and understand what they’re trying to get accomplished, what their challenges are, and to respect and respond to all of that – to deliver. That’s how you get people to understand that it’s OK to trust you, because they know you’ve got their backs.
As a first step, get your head around the strategic goals. In our case, we’ve got specific financial and other targets. So understanding that is important, and it helps take you to the next step, which is to have conversations with different people and different departments because now you’ve got a context, you’ve got a marketing objective.
But you also understand the overall organizational objectives and you can bring those two together as an integrator. That means setting up meetings, figuring out what needs to go on the agenda, bringing the right people to the table and taking the lead.”
6. Be an Instigator
“The trick is to know when to be a subtle instigator, when to lead change without people knowing that’s what’s happening, and when it’s time to get up and say, ‘Hey folks, we’ve got to go this way, and I’m going to challenge you…”
Any senior B2B marketer is well-advised to consider the five points above – but based on this author’s experience with other CMOs as integrators, there was still one more area to explore: the need to not only integrate thinking and functions but also to actively instigate change.
It was clearly a topic that resonated with Nigrelli’s experience. She said, “I’m probably always an instigator. I love instigators, and we’ve got lots of instigators on the team. The trick is to know when to be a subtle instigator, when to lead change without people knowing that’s what’s happening, and when it’s time to get up and say, ‘Hey folks, we’ve got to go this way, and I’m going to challenge you, and I’m going to push hard on this, and I’m going to make it a little bit uncomfortable and drive you forward.’
There will be moments in time as a marketer where you need to hold your ground and you need to point the flag forward and tell everyone, ‘We’ve got to go this way’ or you won’t move, you won’t be able to effectively tell your story, you won’t be able to kind of get the big things done that an organization needs you to do.”
Today’s B2B CMO. Integrator, instigator, and agent of strategic change. Are you ready?