Stepping into the shoes of an interim or fractional CMO is like boarding a high-speed train that's already left the station. It's exhilarating, challenging, and requires a delicate balance of preparation and adaptability.

Interim CMOs can provide a fresh perspective, and bring a wealth of experience to the table, yet they're not magicians. To truly flourish and deliver their best, they need the right environment, tools, and support from the companies hiring them.

I'm Kaila Yates, an interim CMO whose love affair with marketing started at IBM over 30 years ago. In this article, I'll share some of the golden rules of being an interim CMO, and discuss how to have maximum impact when leading the marketing function on a temporary basis.

Whether you're an aspiring interim CMO, a company considering hiring one, or simply curious about the intriguing world of interim leadership, I’ll equip you with essential insights and practical advice.

Prefer to listen? Check out Kaila's appearance on the CMO Convo podcast 👇

What is an interim Chief Marketing Officer (CMO)?

An interim Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) is a marketing executive who is brought in on a temporary basis to lead a company's marketing efforts during a period of transition or vacancy in the permanent CMO role.

As you might expect, interim CMOs are typically experienced professionals with a proven track record in marketing leadership. As such, they're hired to provide strategic direction, oversee marketing operations, and ensure continuity until a permanent CMO is appointed.

Much like permanent CMOs, they're responsible for driving marketing initiatives, managing the marketing team, and aligning marketing activities with the company's overall business objectives during their interim tenure.

What skills do interim CMOs need?

Of course, every interim CMO brings a unique set of skills, but in my experience, many of the companies and organizations I've worked with have sought transformations within their marketing teams. So, my main focus has typically revolved around organizational design, structure, and process.

A key question I often have to address is: is the marketing team fit for purpose? We might have a marketing organization that's doing great work, but perhaps they're not leveraging technology in ways that would provide greater efficiency or a more significant impact on pipeline management.

What do interim CMOs do in startups?

Startups and scale-ups present unique challenges. Often, these are organizations that have never had a full-time CMO before and now recognize the need for a member of the executive team who understands marketing.

Previously, marketing might have reported to an operations head, and part of the transition involves bringing someone onto the executive team to demystify marketing and prepare for the new marketing head.

Creating the infrastructure needed to ensure the success of the new head of marketing is another significant aspect of the role of any interim CMO in a startup environmenrt. This task might involve facing unique challenges, but it's always fascinating.

How to be the strategic voice of the marketing function

If a company has never had a CMO as part of the executive team, that worries me because it suggests that someone has been looking after critical functions like brand management and go-to-market strategies as a side task, or those roles have been handed to less experienced individuals. As an interim CMO, I need to ensure that marketing has a strategic voice.

Sometimes, the role of an interim CMO is to build credibility and show that the role of marketing has changed – and that there's ultimately a different outcome that stakeholders can expect from their marketing function. Making an immediate impact within the first 100 days is a significant responsibility and comes with immense stress.

The interim CMO role also involves putting a lens on the individuals in the marketing team. Many of them might have reported to an operations head or into product or the Chief Product Officer. Removing them from that environment and putting the lens on the marketing organization brings immense pressure, but it's part of the role.

In the C-suite, there's often a need for rapid results, which means being able to deliver quickly while setting and resetting expectations. It's a constant balancing act, but it's one of the things I've grown to appreciate about the role.

Lastly, one of the critical aspects of my role is enhancing brand reputation. Every company wants growth, but it's crucial to achieve it in a way that builds and enhances the brand. This task can involve orchestrating messaging, segmentation, brand surveys, and perception, all the way through to creative look and feel.

Project-based vs full-time interim CMO roles

In a typical interim CMO project, you might be brought in to be a CMO for six months to address a specific problem. Often, it's a case of a company having lost their marketing leader or realizing they need to upgrade the position and with it, upgrade marketing. Part of the process usually involves hiring a new CMO and ensuring their success.

While I prefer coming in as a full-time interim CMO, I've also worked on specific projects. The role of an interim CMO can change depending on the company's needs, but it's usually "we need an interim," with some large projects attached to it.

How to prepare for an interim CMO position

As an interim CMO, it's important to hit the ground running from day one. To do this, I usually begin with a series of conversations with key executives, including the CEO and often HR.

However, I also make it a point to speak to the heads of sales and product. They can provide valuable insights into an organization's priorities and cultural fit. This helps me ensure alignment across the board. Everyone needs to be focused on the same outcomes for the duration of my placement.

Before starting, it's crucial to clearly understand and define the expected outcomes, measurement methods, tracking processes, and performance evaluation criteria. It's essential to ensure that these outcomes are achievable within the placement period. Depending on the project's complexity and timeframe, the achievement of these outcomes may require a roadmap spanning several months.

Creating a plan and setting expectations

Typically, I like to define my 30/60 day plan, where I define key objectives and metrics. I then communicate these to the company's leadership to get alignment with stakeholders. It's a process that needs frequent revisiting, especially in the first 30 days. This is the period when I identify challenges that could hinder the achievement of these goals, and consequently, the objectives may need resetting or even redefining.

Cultural fit is also critical in this process. There have been instances where I've realized immediately that a particular organization was not the right place for me, emphasizing the importance of identifying this early on.

It's also crucial to clear the path for the new interim CMO by letting the marketing organization and the entire company know that they are hiring an interim and the specific areas of focus during their tenure.

Setting KPIs and metrics

When it comes to setting the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and metrics, these are usually established in conjunction with the CEO. However, other department heads, such as those leading finance or product teams, also contribute to this process.

Understanding the company's business strategy and how new initiatives align with it is a key part of this discussion. While the objectives are often bedded into the organization's roadmap, making them hard to change, my role becomes ensuring that they are achieved without overstraining the team. This sometimes necessitates revisiting market expectations and potentially negotiating the objectives.

There have certainly been occasions where the KPIs I set have been almost impossible to meet, but that's all part of the challenge and excitement of the role.

Building relationships as an interim CMO

Establishing strong relationships with department heads can be a challenge for an interim CMO. You have a limited timeframe to build trust. I've found that these connections are often built on the foundation of open, honest conversations.

In the initial week, I aim to meet with these department heads. We discuss what has worked and what hasn't, and the expectations for the upcoming period.

In my experience, being part of the management team means everyone is committed to the same outcome. This is essential in fostering cooperation and support. I've found there's generally a shared team goal, which makes it easier to facilitate frank, even sometimes brutal, discussions.

Difficult conversations and establishing processes

On occasion, difficult conversations with the finance department are inevitable, such as securing funding for specific projects. However, these challenging discussions often lead to increased understanding and more efficient operations. I've yet to encounter someone in a company who isn't open to feedback about their team's function, interaction with marketing, and potential opportunities for greater efficiency and cooperation.

One of my main roles is to help build processes that alleviate tension and enable smoother interaction between departments. I believe that everyone in the organization shares the common goal of company success, which motivates us to work around our own functional barriers and find ways to collaborate more effectively. The aim is always to find those avenues for closer and better cooperation, and ultimately, drive the success of the company.

Setting the stage: The importance of the first month

From my experience, the initial month in a new role is of utmost importance, which is why I pour a significant amount of energy into this period, even before I officially join the company.

There are certain steps that companies should take to prepare for my arrival, and these can sometimes be as simple as clearing the runway a week before I come on board.

Gearing up for productivity

One key area that requires immediate attention is the technology infrastructure. Being able to work productively from the get-go requires fully functional tech tools.

A simple, yet crucial, game-changer I've found is having immediate administrative support. This team can set up calls and navigate the invoicing process even before my arrival, ensuring all potential IT obstacles are cleared.

Acclimatizing to the company's operations

Understanding the company's workings also plays a vital role in my early days. Questions like "Who's who in the company?" and "How does the company operate?" are integral to my familiarization process. Finding where the intranet is and having admin support right from the start paves the way for me to hit the ground running.

Connecting with key players

In the first two weeks, it's important for me to have frequent, brief check-ins with the CEO - around 15 minutes every other day. These meetings help me share and test my initial theories and assumptions, and also get valuable insights about the right people I need to connect with.

It's also crucial to communicate with board members to understand their perspective, particularly in scale-ups or listed companies.

Digging into the strategic goals

Getting a grasp of the company's strategic goals and revenue targets early on is another key component of my strategy. I like to understand where we are in terms of achieving these targets, and what potential hurdles we might face.

I find it beneficial to interact with customers and potential buyers, understand how our products or services are talked about, and get a feel for our overall brand perception.

Preparing for potential crises

One of the first things I like to do when I join a company is to understand the company's crisis plan. In my experience, having this knowledge lends greater confidence, and it allows me to respond adequately in case a crisis occurs. This preparation, in my view, is just as important as knowing where the fire exits are.

Cultivating compassion and efficiency: The interim CMO approach to marketing teams

When stepping into a new role, it's important to note that I'm not one for grand inspiring speeches on day one. I believe in practicality and understanding the emotional state of the marketing team.

Many of them may have recently lost their head of marketing or may be aware that things weren't functioning as they should, so I approach them with empathy. My goal is to reassure them that their voices and contributions are still valid and crucial, and that their role is still significant in the overall framework of the organization.

The promise of transformation

My primary focus as an interim CMO is to foster transformation within the marketing department. This is a unique opportunity for the team to shape their department in a way they've always wished for.

In the spirit of reinvention, I encourage team members to share their ideas on how we can work more closely with other departments, like sales and product teams, and address any existing issues.

One aspect of the transformation I encourage is the evaluation of our processes. I tell every team I work with that they have a chance to say 'no' to tasks or functions that may just be noise or unnecessary burdens.

For example, internal newsletters that inform sales colleagues of upcoming events may not be necessary if there are tools like Slack and Confluence where information can be shared more efficiently. The goal is to improve the efficiency of the team by eliminating roadblocks and encouraging iterative work.

Encouraging learning and development

I take a keen interest in the learning and development of the marketing team even as an interim CMO. Through open conversations about career goals, motivations, and personal enjoyment, I try to understand each individual on the team. This helps me recognize where they fit within the transformation plan and also acknowledge any difficult conversations about potential departures that might need to happen.

Throughout this process, honesty is key. There are times when team members may need to let go or undergo training to align with the needs of the team. Whether it's internal processes or education courses, or even assistance in finding another role, it's crucial to provide support during these difficult transitions.

In evaluating team members, both previous assessments and my personal experience of the team are crucial. I also seek insights from people inside the organization with whom the team interacts. The goal is always to drive business outcomes. If a team member isn't able to step up to the challenge, even after providing tools and opportunities for growth, an open and compassionate conversation about their role is necessary.

Being an interim CMO: Compassionate leadership and data-driven decisions

As a compassionate leader, I understand the impact of my words and actions on the team. Each piece of advice and guidance is delivered with clarity, backed by data, and designed to support the team member. Whether it's a change in job titles or the need for new hires, all decisions are made with the team's best interest in mind.

The ultimate golden rule I've found as an interim CMO is a balanced combination of compassionate leadership and data-driven decision-making. A significant part of my role involves asserting my credibility and experience not only within the marketing team but also across the entire organization and my peer group.

One common situation I've come across during my stints as an interim CMO involves weak go-to-market plans. It's common to find that every department within an organization tends to focus only on their specific roles in bringing a product to the market. Often, they forget that marketing plays a crucial part in the final step - making it stick in the market.

The solution is not just creating an effective go-to-market plan but doing so in a way that involves all departments within the organization. It's about fostering a dialogue across the entire organization and alleviating the frustrations and inefficiencies inherent in a siloed approach. The process helps the team realize the importance of marketing and contributes to better outcomes.

To sum it up, I often find myself saying, "I don't know why the go-to-market is broken in this company, but let's go figure it out." The path to problem-solving starts with acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers, so you identify the problem and then collaboratively work towards the solution.

A little about me

Around eight years ago, I embarked on a new path as an interim CMO. After concluding a role, I was uncertain of my next move. What I was sure of, however, was my desire to create an immediate impact. I yearned for a role that could offer me that. This need drove me towards interim roles, where I found the opportunity to make a substantial difference in a short time span.

Being an interim CMO, a role that thrives on novelty and constant change, is perfect for a curious soul like me. You are continually thrown into new situations, introduced to new companies, and even exposed to new industries.

What struck me about my journey in the interim business is that while companies may feel their problems are unique to them, they're not. It's comforting to know that you're not alone. Many others are grappling with similar challenges, and I can bring a fresh perspective to these common struggles.

One of the reasons I love working in tech marketing is the constant innovation. This continuous transformation and the impact that this innovation has on society, businesses, business models, and how organizations grow, is fascinating to me.

However, this unending evolution can also present substantial challenges for companies. How does a company that's already on a growth trajectory, with a vision and direction, leverage new technology? How do you move if the path you're on isn't where you want to be?

These changes bring new innovation, new opportunities, and sometimes, moving in a new direction can feel like steering the Titanic. These are all challenges that I've encountered with clients over the past year.