How to Tell Your CEO What They Really Want to Hear

True Story.

Staff meetings, while a necessary component of what we do, were becoming more of a checklist item than a valuable use of time at Rogue. So, yes, while we need to know the ins and outs of what’s happening on an account, we took a bold(ish) step and asked our team members to skip the highlight reel and action item list… and instead tell us what’s broken and where we as leaders could jump in and help remove an area of friction.

And that approach is hard.

There are many meetings where we have to stop and affirm that we know a lot of amazing work is happening – in fact, we expect that – but that our team can get the greatest value from our limited time together if they’ll change the conversation and share what isn’t working.

Your Meetings Are Different Though, Right?

CEOs, CMOs, and agencies have limited time together. We want our client meetings to stop being happy handshakes and a showcase of how great we’re doing. We’ve shifted our focus and asked our clients to do the same. Our renewed focus will be to fix what’s broken.

Because the BIG SECRET is that the top leadership actually wants to invest time into fixing what’s broken… not discussing what’s amazing.

Changing Culture Changes Everything

It really all comes down to culture. Or maybe, perceived culture.

We have a front-row seat to businesses of varying size and industry, and one thing we’ve discovered is that we’re certainly not alone. We’ve seen a belief amongst the teams we integrate with to withhold the hard conversations. Sure, we can talk about the tough stuff when it’s just the internal marketing team and agency… but in a setting where the CEO or board is involved… well, we need to just share the highlight reel.

The problem is that we all know this is a terrible plan and do it anyway. And we don’t have to search far to know it’s true. Hollywood and corporate America are full of examples where withholding the hard conversations just doesn’t work. The tragic ends of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Enron serve as top-of-mind examples. How well were these brands served by the “yes” men and women that sat at those respective decision tables?

A particular meeting we had earlier this year serves as a perfect example of how this philosophy plays out, or in this case, doesn’t.

Selling the CEO Short

It’s a Wednesday morning and our team boards a plane, heading out of town. We walk into our client’s office which overlooks a downtown landscape of another urban city. We sit down with our CMO lead, we talk about the previous campaign period, what’s been done, the impact that’s being made, and how we’re continuing take small steps forward in the journey. So far it’s a typical meeting where we all work together and collaborate on our shared goals.

Finally getting to work together again face to face, we’re talking about next quarter, holiday strategies, site updates, off-line campaigns, and what new platform opportunities are available. We also talk about ad fatigue, Facebook updates, rising cost of AdWords, budget impact, external market impacts, consumer shifts, competitive analysis, product demand, etc. Normal stuff. The conversation deepens and we’re making great progress as a client/agency team.

Phone notifications go off and the CEO and exec team are five minutes out. The conversation stops and we’re given the new plan regarding what angle to take when we share updates during the next meeting. The well-meaning CMO wants to focus only on what’s working, and how we’re moving forward.

“Huh?”

They are selling their CEO short, assuming that anything less than perfect news will end in disaster. It’s almost like, “paint the best possible picture.” The story is good. The progress is good. Great. Let’s leave it at that. Now this CEO was someone our team had been itching to spend time with. His major business success and experience was well known, but there had been little time available for meetings thus far. Basically, we had come ready to take advantage of a window of opportunity to really get our heads together and make some business magic happen. We were ready to dig in deep, but the CMO had drawn the line in the sand. And we were in for an hour-long highlight reel.

Reality Check

So how did the session go? The CMO walks through his presentation deck first. The first words from the CMO, “Conversion rate from leads to sales increased from 60% to 80% over the 3rd quarter.” Everyone flips through the executive summary, hits the highlights, and talks about how great everything is going.

And the CEO while polite and “present” was anything but. The CMO asks the CEO and executive team if they have been reviewing the weekly/monthly reports. They have not. Eyes begin to glaze over. He checked his phone, signed agreements and stepped in and out of the room. While we watched it happen. Our hypothesis though? Had the conversation been more problem revealing we’d have almost certainly had his full attention and likely these other disturbances would not have been given any priority.

There’s Gotta Be a Better Way

We totally get it. Everyone has their mortgage to pay, mouths to feed etc… so it’s only natural to want to give the best impression of everything to your higher-ups. The average CMO tenure is still right around three years or less. And while this might lead to a temporarily positive conversation, it could very likely not be a very meaningful one. Not a conversation that solves any problems.

What Was Left Unsaid:

  • Numbers grew, but not enough
  • Competitors are outspending us 2:1
  • Market saturation is becoming an increasing factor
  • Bad press has deeply impacted the market landscape
  • The data has identified some red flags

Let’s get real, when you are strategizing and making plans to grow your business, these are things that cannot go unaddressed.

The meeting time is nearly up and the CEO has to leave early. We barely make it through our slides. Our final direction; “keep up the good work.” Our thought, “this isn’t the good work.” Getting the entire C-team together and on the level is the only way to turn the marketing data into real business intelligence. Wasting time on sugar-coated fluff numbers or vanity metrics will just blur the bigger picture.

The Untold Truth: Give it to Me Straight

The system is misaligned. The CMO is telling the leadership team what s/he thinks they want to hear… not realizing they’re doing anything but. Brands can’t improve without fixing what’s broken.

We’ve been in your shoes, literally, as CMOs and corporate marketing executives. We want to empower the brands that we work with to be real (and more valuable; INDISPENSABLE) with their CEOs, so that real growth can happen. It’s time to move beyond job security and checking off boxes. And, yes, these types of conversations scale past even the marketing department. The basis of a brand’s operations, human resources, finance and IT should be on board and on the level about what’s happening.

This time isn’t best spent talking about the 20% jump in lead to customer, or the number of site visits, or adding X number of new publications to see our brand name. Let’s have a strategic conversation about:

  • Where the customer journey can be improved
  • How to move prospects from awareness to consideration to purchase while lessening the moments of friction
  • What’s happening internally that we (your agency) don’t know about
  • How can we help the leadership team understand the digital landscape and how things are changing in the coming months
  • Where the moments of friction and opportunity exist

“Let’s tell the CEO only this” is a phrase we often hear from the leaders we interface with on the most regular basis… “We need to give the CEO the information he wants to hear,” they say. But as CEOs ourselves, and after talking with other CEOs, we believe we know what your CEO really wants to hear. And we’d like to let you in on the untold secret. Your CEO wants to hear about the problems and to be given the chance to rally the resources to turn that challenge into an opportunity.

But here’s the real question: Are you brave enough to give him/her that opportunity?

One of the best parts of managing an agency is getting to help steer businesses, share cross-industry experience, and define the moments of friction within our client’s marketing efforts. Providing more laser-focused attention on the real issues. And that’s why they hire us in the first place, right?

Creating a culture where the team is always growing and improving requires the freedom to have real conversations. Rogue values the time it gets to spend interacting with great business minds and creative geniuses in the industry, many of whom are the CMOs and CEOs we work with on a daily basis.

Whenever you’re ready to finally get real with real conversations that lead to real results, give the Rogue team a call. We can move you further faster™.

Why should you go Rogue?…

Find out here.