If you're an interim CMO, how you end a project can be just as important as how you start it. It can affect the success of the overall project, your career progression, and even your wellbeing.
We're back once more with Kaila Yates, and she's sharing why it's essential for interim CMOs to "leave well", and how to do it. Whether you’re an interim or fractional CMO, or even full-time, there’s plenty of information on how to wrap up projects.
This conversation was originally recorded for an episode of CMO Convo, our podcast all about the things modern CMOs need to succeed. Listen here or read on to find out all about…
- Kaila’s latest interim role
- Proving your results
- Upskilling your team as an interim CMO
- Planning for the future of the marketing organization as an interim CMO
- Handing over to the new CMO
- Decompressing between projects
- The golden rule of being an interim CMO
Kaila’s latest interim role
Hi Kaila, welcome back. Last time you were here, we were talking about how to get started as an interim CMO so that you hit the ground running. Today we're closing out this two-parter and talking about what you should have in mind when you're leaving that role.
Yeah, and it's such a timely conversation because I am just wrapping up with a client now, so it's still really fresh in my mind.
Great! Can you tell us about the latest work you've been doing and give us some context on what we're going to be talking about today?
Yeah, of course. When we talked previously we discussed the different types of interim CMO roles that come up. This was one of the transformational roles, if you like, where the company is really assessing what they need from marketing.
They’d only had a marketing team for a year, and it was time to revisit that organization and define what would be required for growth in the next four to five years. So I was coming in to assess the team, the type of work we were doing, the martech, and the way that the company wanted to grow.
It was a professional services learning and development organization, but they also had a new tech offer. So the role also looked at how to embed that technology marketing skill set in a way that's less about the product and much more about the emotional connection and the value that a client is going to get out of it. So this role was transformational in terms of the way that the organization was going.
Was this a short-term role where you knew that there was an endpoint, or did you just keep working till the project was done?
I knew there was an endpoint. It’s a great question, by the way, because even as you’re stepping into a project, you need to think about what the end looks like.
We knew at the outset that we wanted it to be a nine-month assignment for two reasons. One, I knew I was going away for the whole of June, and two, it was important for the company.
I think it's really important to be very defined about the timeline you're going to be working to and the outcomes that you're going to deliver and make sure that those are your key momentum throughout that period of nine months.
It can feel like a long time. You can have a baby in that timeframe, but what's the baby gonna look like? And how are you going to deliver it? That’s really key to any interim assignment.
Proving your results
How do you show that you've achieved your outcomes? Is it obvious (you‘ve completed your marketing plan) or do you have to put together a big report with KPIs and OKRs?
Sometimes it can be defined at the start of the project. What’s the outcome? What's the deliverable? Why am I here? And in this example, have we transformed marketing? So really, what you do at the beginning of an interim assignment is set those goals.
And then in the first few months, I give myself time to really understand whether those goals are achievable. Are there any roadblocks? Are there things that will prevent me from delivering on those goals? Is there an internal mechanism for tracking and measuring those? For lead generation and demand generation, that's very important.
Then there are the soft skills. Have you transformed the marketing team? Have you been able to upskill, retrain, and refocus the organization? Those are harder to evaluate.
So you have to be very clear about the objectives and the timelines around those objectives. You should also have some reasonable timeframes for when you will test or do some discovery before you deliver.
Another really good thing is to look at the internal reporting cadences and the tools that are used; I use those to make sure that I'm delivering on that scope. If internal reporting is something you do anyway, use that to ensure that you’re also keeping to your set objectives.
When those objectives are derailed – you know, business derails you all the time – you need to be able to adjust those with the exec team and say, “Look, I came in to do this, but we're going off in a completely different direction. Here's the new set of objectives.” I'm very results-driven and a total completer-finisher, so I’m constantly aware of what I’m being monitored and tracked for and doing my own evaluation as I go along.
Upskilling your team as an interim CMO
There are certain things you can track and show quite clearly to the exec team or C-suite, like engagement levels and performance metrics to do with the marketing strategies you're running.
But what about things like team building or team member’s competency levels – how do you show that to someone who might not understand marketing? It's all well and good saying, “We've improved our content writers’ competency levels,” but how do you show someone who's not in the marketing sphere that you've had that effect?
This is where your competency as a CMO comes in. When I start an assignment, more often than not, there'll be a conversation about the team and how they’re performing. I go in and look at the objective for the soft skills that are required from marketing, and then I assess that marketing team along those guidelines.
Sometimes there are tough conversations to be had, and occasionally it's about resetting. A number of times I've had conversations with the exec team to say, “You've got two superstars who are in the wrong role and just need a bit of time and investment, so here are some courses that we're looking at.” In pretty much every assignment there are people who go through some sort of marketing qualification that gives them the confidence to step up.
Say we’re driving content strategy, it’s also about giving the execs evidence that they’ve got some great subject matter experts, but maybe their writing style’s not great, so let's focus on their writing skills and give them support.
I knew somebody who could write really well, but their headline writing wasn't brilliant, so I looked to my network for former editors who could give some of that guidance. There was no reason that that person needed to be removed or replaced. It's also creating that environment around the organization and the team, to make sure that they can deliver and learn and grow.
I think of the psychological impact as well on the individual. How are we helping each individual in the marketing organization step up, do more, or even do less sometimes, and go off and do something else?
The conversations I have with them are a lot more open and direct than they might be if I were their permanent head of marketing. I've got enough industry experience to be able to say, “I think you're in the wrong role, here's why, and here's how I can help you.” That's sometimes kinder than continuing to judge them on a set of criteria that doesn't fit the individual.
Another reason companies sometimes bring in an interim is to have somebody completely objective who will give you their industry experience and say, “This is the type of marketing you need right now,” or “The roles that you have in place at the moment won't be right for you in a year, but right now, this is what you need.”
Often, interims are creating a completely new marketing organization. And when you're creating something new, the skills that you need are very different from those you need when everything’s already in place and you just have to go and execute successfully.
You need to be very purposeful about what that role is going to do and how you can have an impact on both your organizational structure as well the psychology and the culture of the marketing team.
Planning for the future of the marketing organization as an interim CMO
How much are you expected to plan for the future as an interim CMO? Do you leave a strategy for people to work from, or is it just a blank slate for whoever's coming along to deal with?
I'm such a control freak. I've written an 18-page handover document with loads of links and all the people the new CMO needs to talk to in week one and week two before it’s all handed over to them.
But to answer your question about whether I leave a strategy, I find it really uncomfortable to do that because the strategy I'm creating is based on a really rapid deep dive into the organization. I can give you the priorities, the existing business strategy, and the marketing strategy that sits alongside it.
I tend to show the operational framework for the next six months, the rationale behind it, the decision points you'll have coming up in the six months, and what you need to do next or what I would do next. So for example, I'll give the existing organization chart and then have a recommended organization and why I feel that will work better.
What you could achieve with that org chart is a really important talking point. It also helps the new CMO to understand what was on your mind when you were doing whatever you did, and it provides them with some rationale for their conversations about how they grow the organization moving forward.
Handing over to the new chief marketing officer
So it's less about leaving someone with a half-finished house to finish building, and more about leaving the blueprints, the materials, and solid foundations for someone to pick up from. Is that a good way of thinking about it?
Precisely. There are a lot of nuances though, so I can’t leave it all in writing, and if there’s no one immediately stepping into the role, I’ll leave my contact details so whenever my replacement comes along they can give me a call.
More often than not, companies have a new CMO coming in, so you can take them through that strategy. I generally plan out their first month, and we’ll talk every day for the first week. At that point, they're out talking to everyone else in the organization, and they're doing none of the job. I am.
In week two, we start to slowly and deliberately hand over projects, and I believe really strongly in this. As CMOs we want to dive straight into the role, but then we run the risk of failing to go out and talk to customers and learn the products and how sales works. So if I'm handing over in person, I like to make sure the new CMO has the luxury of being able to go into the induction phase without being distracted by the delivery of the marketing function.
It’s best not to drag that out for too long though – I think three weeks is enough. When you get into the fourth week, the new incumbent should be owning the outcomes.
What I’ve found, though, is that you've got this marketing team, often people that you've either upskilled or brought into the organization, and they're still reliant on you. Severing those ties is harder than you might think because they're still relying on you to answer all their questions. “Go figure it out on your own,” is a difficult message to give.
Anyway, I know now that three weeks is about enough for handover. By the third week, I’m bored anyway, and I wanna move on and do something else. It’s much more important for the marketing team to get behind their new leader, and that the new leader is able to create an impact quickly from the handover.
Decompressing between projects
You mentioned you've got some time off coming up – we hope you're looking forward to it! How important is that decompression space between projects for marketing leaders? Do your projects ever overlap, or do you always make sure you've got time to relax after the latest project?
I really couldn't speak for any other interim, but I have to decompress. I put a lot into each of my roles. It is exhausting because you're learning and embedding yourself and getting under the company's skin to be able to represent them and make decisions that will have a positive impact. All of that takes a lot out of you as an individual.
I really didn't stop in these last nine months. I think I might have had a week off over Christmas, but that was it. And I know that when it's such an intense nine months, I really need a good two or three months to just decompress.
But also as an interim, and one that finds most of her work through her network, it takes a good three to four months for me to get a good few bites and find some roles that fit my capabilities.
I'd say to any interim, find things that you love doing outside of work that allow you to just switch off. International roles can take so much out of your time, so how you get that time back is really important. And make sure that you've got a nice little padding between projects.
The golden rule of being an interim CMO
So, Kaila, let’s wrap everything up. If you had one big golden rule for people in interim CMO roles on how they should approach wrapping up their projects, what would it be?
Gosh, one big golden rule. It would have to be “Always think of impact.” I don't just mean reorganizing the marketing function in six weeks – that's not really a huge impact. I mean the impact on the organization. The role of marketing is to grow the business; what impact are you having there? The other role of a CMO and leadership is to influence the culture, so think about what you’re doing to change that culture positively.
Thank you, Kaila. This has been another fantastic conversation. There are quite a lot of interim CMOs and fractional CMOs in our audience, and we’re sure they'll find it very useful. Even if you're not an interim CMO, there's some great advice about how to approach work as a full-time CMO in general. Thank you very much for joining us
Thanks for having me.
Are you contemplating stepping into an interim CMO role and in need of advice? Got insights to share on wrapping up projects as a CMO? Join the conversation with marketing leaders around the globe on the CMO Alliance Community Slack channel.