Succession Plans That Work: Follow These 3 Principles

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When a C-level executive resigns from their post, it can cause widespread disorganization unless your company already has a succession plan in place. If we’ve learned anything from the last year, it’s to expect the unexpected. Putting together a blueprint for the next in line is somewhat like hedging your bets. That’s never a bad thing, and especially not when we’re talking about executive roles that impact your brand, customers, and company culture — roles like the CMO.

Despite the clear benefits of developing a succession plan, many organizations — from Fortune 500s to small startups — don’t make it a priority. Furthermore, even when organizations have developed succession plans, they often fail. That’s why it’s important that any succession plan you create is both actionable now and sustainable into the future.

To illustrate successful succession planning, this article will focus on planning to replace a departing CMO, in part because of the CMO’s aforementioned influence on brand, customers, and company culture. However, many of the takeaways will apply to succession planning for any executive-level role.

Understanding the Ever-Changing Expectations of the CMO

The CMO’s mandate tends to evolve at a faster pace than other C-suite partners. They’re expected to understand the technology that drives company culture, bolsters branding, and provides superior customer experiences. The complexity of this role has historically resulted in prolonged vacancies, which only makes the recruitment and retention of top-tier marketing talent more complex.

The absence of a key decision-maker capable of articulating the needs of the customer poses a particular issue for B2C (and B2B) companies with an aggressive growth agenda. CMOs straddle a line: They’re accountable for articulating both the company mission and the needs of the customer. By creating a CMO succession plan, you put your company in a better position to maintain brand continuity and an inclusive culture.

While marketing leaders across the Fortune 500 have successfully nurtured junior and mid-level talent, there is a critical skill-set gap in the direct reports of many CMOs. In fact, based on insights we gleaned from an extensive network of CMOs, we’ve deduced that less than half of CMOs have direct reports that could do their job. These numbers reflect the difficulty of attracting and retaining top-tier marketing talent and suggest that organizations need to be more proactive with their employee development plans.

Customer expectations for marketing leaders have changed, too. As digital channels have democratized the flow of information, consumers have become more conscious of which brands they support. Recent market data indicates that consumers have raised their expectations regarding sustainability issues and topics related to social justice and diversity. As a result, the role of the CMO is now directly linked to communities and individuals.

The 3 Tenets of Successful Succession Planning

In the absence of a succession plan, the appropriate talent won’t be prepared to take over upon the loss of a key leader. Starting the succession plan early is key to its success, especially for CMOs, who are working with a shrinking pool of top marketing talent. Because exits don’t always happen when we expect them, HR should kick-start succession planning for every key leader 3-5 years before their expected departure.

So, how do you create a succession plan that builds upon the legacy of the incumbent CMO and elevates their work? By following these three tenets:

1. Ensure Innovation Through Cross-Training

Professional development plans in marketing have traditionally focused on one or two areas, which has resulted in an overly specialized pool of sub-functional experts. For example, a candidate might know media in and out or digital marketing through and through but will struggle to stretch their skills into other areas.

To prepare candidates for the multifaceted role of the CMO, incumbents should encourage team members to spend time across multiple aspects of the function. Encouraging team members to build relationships beyond the scope of their day-to-day promotes a culture of inclusion and transparency across the organization. It also enables the incumbent to test how various skill sets might be leveraged across the team to drive innovation.

2. Look Cross-Sector for Real Transformation

When facing a significant knowledge or skills gap within the existing talent pool, companies may intentionally recruit marketers from outside their industry to shake things up with a fresh perspective. CMO candidates currently employed by technology or financial technology companies are particularly attractive to hiring managers looking for change and transformation.

While other industries are largely beholden to legacy processes and procedures, tech companies have adopted a human-centered design approach, which lends itself to a culture that puts the customer at the core of all actions across all functions. Tech CMOs also tend to have broadly cultivated skill sets extending across brand, insights, acquisition, and events. On the flip side, a cross-sector move can be attractive for candidates coming from the tech industry, as it may give them a chance to drive cultural transformation by acting as both chief culture officer and CMO, an increasingly popular combination.

3. Provide Access and Encourage Collaboration

For a succession plan to be effective, companies must first retain the talent they hire and develop internally long enough to succeed the incumbent. Toward that end, it’s vital to be open with team members and communicate to potential successors that they’re part of the plan. If employees know they’re being considered, they can be more active participants in their professional growth.

The incumbent CMO should also encourage collaboration and provide candidates with access to the company’s leadership teams. Bringing top candidates into the room has a double purpose. First, it creates positive working relationships between the candidates and other leaders. Second, it grants leaders the opportunity to observe each candidate’s ideas, working style, and overall fit for the role.

At the end of the day, leaving one’s job does not always happen the way one plans. Understanding in advance how roles and responsibilities will be distributed in the event of an unexpected exit is vital to a company’s longevity. When it comes to the CMO in particular, succession planning is critical to the brand’s identity, the customer experience, and diversity and inclusion.

Greg Rodarte is a principal at Marlin Hawk.

By Greg Rodarte