How can marketing get a “seat at the table”? How can marketing leadership stand on equal footing with the rest of an organization’s executive team? Like security software on a computer, the query hums in the background of conferences and in the subtext of analyst reports, but seldom is it tackled directly. Rarer still is a practical solution provided. After all, the safest answer to gnarly questions tends to be, “It depends.” Marketers hear that one a lot.
This is why I wasn’t surprised when the new head of marketing for a company that has grown without any marketing investment recently asked us, “How can I get a seat at the table?” Our reader is in a bit of a bind — having to prove his value to a company that has never attached a value to the function. Below is some practical advice for getting noticed — and respected — by an organization’s executive team.
Practical Advice on Getting “a Seat at the Table”
The good news is that his position is only temporarily unenviable. The company hired him, presumably, because it’s experiencing a challenge that current leadership was failing to solve. Which brings me to my first suggestion: Reverse-engineer at least one of goals off of the pain you are asked to relieve.
This could be as basic as refreshing the brand. Many marketers have elevated their status internally by simply updating the company’s logo and tagline. If that’s what the company needs, and why you were brought in, then you’re in luck. You’re metric is a simple pass/fail grade: did you, or didn’t you, create and proliferate branding assets?
Of course, not everyone is fortunate enough to have such clear-cut objective. Let’s say the immediate need is amorphous, like combating a fast-growing competitor that is making management uneasy. You need to immediately propose KPIs that center on this specific challenge.
For example, you might select market-facing metrics like the growth of your social media audience and blog subscribers compared to fast-moving competitors or perhaps commit to a quarterly “share of voice” analysis that demonstrates how a lift in the number of conversations about you vs. your competition. Alternatively, you may select internal metrics, such as completing a competitive intelligence report and training all sales staff on competitive messaging).
When it comes to earning that proverbial table seat, there are few absolutes. You get there by knowing which metrics matter to your company at a particular moment in time. As your company’s needs evolve, the data you report should evolve as well.
But be careful to not change the data you report (or sources from which you report it) too frequently. Inconsistent reporting will forever keep you from the executive table. Consistent reporting builds confidence — executives or board members want to know what to expect before you clear your throat, not after you begin to speak. They are pattern recognizers. Establish a pattern — what you are going to report, why you are going to report it, and which sources will determine your success or failure — and you’ll see their confidence swell.
Regardless of your targets, be sure to emphasize the results of your efforts, not the efforts themselves. Leadership expects you to work hard and make smart decisions. Leaders are accountable for outcomes, whereas practitioners are responsible for projects. Nobody presently seated at the table wants to hear details of how you are going to impact the business. Instead they want to be convinced that you did it.
Speaking of accountability, once you’ve gotten some respect by setting the right metrics, the best way to keep it is by owning your screw-ups. Marketing is becoming more sophisticated, and with an increase in complexity comes an increased likelihood for mistakes. Quality leadership recognizes both the inevitability — perhaps even desirability — of blunders. In fact, a previous CEO of mine used to give an annual award to the marketer behind the year’s best screw-up. The key to winning that award is the same as the key to keeping your seat at the table: the mistake is the sand, the lesson the pearl. Owning mistakes means deriving pearls of wisdom from your mess-ups.
Remaining mindful of the reasons you were hired, establishing a pattern of consistent metrics from consistent sources, prioritizing results over efforts, and owning your screw-ups will, sooner or later, earn you a place at high-level meetings. But if you want to fast-track your credibility, start at the end: sales impact.
The very first relationship you should build is with your counterpart on the sales team. The two of you need to agree on what levers need to be pulled and who is going to pull them. The more closely you can tie your team’s efforts to revenue growth, the bigger the seat and the faster you occupy it.
Did you create a blog? Great. Show how many leads it generated. Better still, quantify the quality of those leads. Maybe you deployed a marketing automation system. Congratulations. You are part way there. Now compare close rates, time to close, deal size, retention rates — basically any top-line revenue metric — of nurtured leads versus cold calls.
Of course, depending on your company’s sales cycle, producing reliable reports on marketing’s impact on pipeline (much less retention) will take time. That’s okay. Presenting a plan for what you are going to track, why you are going to track it, and when you expect preliminary results will begin to establish that vital pattern for your leadership to recognize. And that pattern begins to pave a path — a path to the elusive decision-making table.