CMO Leadership in a Crisis

Industry TrendsCustomer Activation and GrowthCustomer Activation and GrowthExecutive SearchTeam Effectiveness
min Report
Norm Yustin
June 19, 2020
10 min
Industry TrendsCustomer Activation and GrowthCustomer Activation and GrowthExecutive SearchTeam Effectiveness
Characteristics of Customer-Centric Growth Leaders
To lead during a crisis, CMOs need courage, authenticity and empathy, a purpose-driven mindset, agility, financial sharpness and to embrace digital tools.


During a crisis, every member of the executive team has a crucial role to play in keeping their organizations closely connected to customers and employees. Few, however, will face more public scrutiny of their actions than the chief marketing officer (CMO). The ongoing impact of Covid-19 has presented a particular set of challenges, as massive uncertainty, economic loss and public health concerns persist. At the same time, companies face growing pressure to respond to racial injustice, both in society and within their own walls. For many CMOs, it can be hard to know when and how to best communicate with customers, what messages to offer employees across the enterprise, and how or if to take advantage of opportunities to strengthen their marketing organizations.

There are six leadership qualities that Russell Reynolds Associates finds to be essential to manage during a challenging time. While all are important, three of these behaviors are particularly relevant according to the experiences of CMOs to whom we recently spoke. In this paper, we explore how CMOs can use these three behaviors, as well as the traits that Russell Reynolds Associates has found to be common among growth-oriented leaders, to help shape smart and meaningful communications that move the business forward.


Authenticity and Empathy

While the world remains fragile, it is imperative that marketing strikes the right tone in communication for the company during the recovery from this crisis. Now and in the near future, a lack of authenticity and empathy is a significant misstep – both internally to employees and externally to customers. Russell Reynolds Associates’ research on customer centric leadership has found that those who do this well Inspire Connectivity and Encourage Inclusion (see Figure 1).

For CMOs, this means ensuring the brand is reflecting current realities across every medium, without compounding negative sentiment. Companies doing this well might trade highly produced ads for heartfelt home videos, for example, but at the same time, take pains to make sure digital ads do not turn up anywhere near Covid-related content. Missing the mark externally can create an emotional disconnect with customers at a time when making brand choices on sentiment is rife.

Striking the “perfect pitch” in internal communications is equally important, as this affects both employee morale and brand perception. “We have put at least twice as much effort into internal comms and making sure our 80,000 colleagues on the front line are protected,” said the CMO for one major retail chain.

In challenging times, the ability to show openness and vulnerability is critical for a leader to build rapport with others. This comes through in how CMOs lead their own teams and how they advise their executive peers. Leaders who seem tone-deaf or less-than-forthright risk losing confidence and loyalty from both customers and employees.

Offensive and Defensive Agility

Executives need to think differently about the opportunities and challenges they are facing and be inclusive while managing the pace of their teams, their decision cycles, and their operations. Russell Reynolds Associates’ research on customer centric leaders has found that those who do this well tend to Push the Limits and are not afraid of tackling uncharted grey areas in the face of a challenge (see Figure 1).

Defensively, CMOs will want to think about getting their houses in order internally and improving collaboration across functions to strengthen go-to-market capacity. With behaviors pivoting towards large weekly shops in grocery and consumers switching to shopping many categories digitally rather than physically, close partnerships between marketing and commercial teams will be essential to delivering the right products through the right channels.

Offensively, many have successfully found new products and channels to delight customers during and after the pandemic. A multinational gym chain began offering online classes when the gyms were closed, and “they are here to stay, as consumers have loved them,” said the gym’s marketing head. As retailers have struggled to keep shelves stocked, large consumer brands such as Pepsi and Heinz have launched new direct-to-consumer efforts designed for the times.

This “both-and” approach requires shoring up marketing teams. Many marketing organizations will be forced to cut staff in difficult economic times, requiring leaders to nurture morale among those who remain and face heavier workloads. At the same time, many organizations need new talent to help them succeed in an all-digital reality and will need to hire strategically.

Yet agility remains key as CMOs walk a fine line between seizing new opportunities without tarnishing relationships. It will be equally important to build and re-build strong ties with retailers, who will remain important in the future. Most brands also want to avoid any hint of benefiting from the crisis. “We made a decision at the start of the crisis to make our actions clear but not take advantage or put a varnish on it. We have focused on one question – how can we help customers?” said the CMO for a high-end department store.

While there is still a way to go towards full recovery, marketing officers will need to know how and when to deploy both an “offensive” and “defensive” mindset, and to approach issues systematically and while thinking across multiple horizons.

Forced Digital Acceleration

Marketing leaders must embrace digital tools and practices now, even if they were hesitant about them before. The timeline for when the most used advertising mediums -- outdoor and Live TV- will be relevant again is a question mark at best at this point. Russell Reynolds Associates’ research on customer centric leaders has found that those who do this well have a visionary mindset towards Changing the Future, being exceedingly creative and change-oriented (see Figure 1).

While outdoor and Live TV audiences to market to have sharply declined, companies with digital marketing plans in place going into the crisis have been able to quickly capitalize. Covid-19 has accelerated the shift from traditional to digital advertising, and while many marketers have been ahead of this curve, others have been slow to adopt, lacking mature Search Engine Marketing (SEM) strategies or even the right marketing muscles for a platform such as Amazon. Those with well-developed digital content strategies have also emerged as winners, with Video On Demand platforms the perfect channel for short form content. Marketing organizations that are late to adopt and understand digital tools will undoubtedly face an even greater uphill challenge to rebuild brand relevance after the effects of the pandemic subside. Conversely, marketers with digital muscle will have a growing advantage when being considered for new roles.

Looking forward, the question is whether to buy, build or partner for the ability to scale additional digital capacity, and how to protect those investments to keep information safe. This question runs the gamut from how to improve digital storytelling to shoring up online ordering platforms and distribution channels.

On a practical note, shifting the marketing budget to a zero-based system can provide the dynamism marketing leaders need to adjust advertising investments as quickly as times may change – and strategies shift from defensive to offensive.

Looking Ahead

Chief marketing officers face challenging times. To succeed, they’ll need to draw on all three of these leadership qualities to be strong in any one of them. True agility requires digital to execute and empathy to do well; likewise, it is difficult to project authenticity without a clear understanding of needs and opportunities or the data derived from a digital business model. Looking forward, those that come out ahead will use all of these means to understand and connect with customers and employees in new and better ways.

Figure 1: Customer-Centric Leaders Have Four Distinctive Traits



Source: RRA psychometric assessments, N=280