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Most chief marketing officers only get half their job right.

That's the opinion – and research finding – of Thomas Barta, who learned the marketing trade working for Kimberly-Clark before moving into the world of consulting. Marketing involves understanding customer needs, and most marketing executives are reasonably adept at that. But top corporate marketers also need to know what the company needs – what the big boss and other top executives want. And after studying 1,232 chief marketing officers with London Business School emeritus professor Patrick Barwise for their book The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader, he feels that's where they are deficient.

They are good at doing marketing, but not so good at leading marketing. "To thrive as a marketer and have a good career, you need to lead marketing – understanding the needs of the CEO and driving the business," he said in an interview.

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Leading marketing is different from leading other aspects of an organization because of three gaps you will confront. First, a trust gap: Marketing focuses on the future and no matter how good you are at the job, others will be skeptical. "It's hard for people to trust you," he observes.

Next, a massive reporting-power gap. To be successful, marketing officers need the assistance of people throughout many departments in the organization, most of whom don't report to the chief marketing officer.

Finally, a skills gap. Marketing is changing rapidly, not in a strategic sense but in tools and tactics. Every month, there's a hot new social-media tool somebody creates that you could consider using. At marketing conferences, he'll hear people wail, "Am I the only one who doesn't understand this new tool?" So that robs marketing leaders of some confidence.

To close those gaps, and lead the organization, he highlights four specific types of behaviour needed:

  • Mobilize your boss to support your activities, even if you can’t always prove the outcome. This can be difficult, given that the boss may not always trust you.
  • Mobilize colleagues who don’t report to you so that together you can create a great customer experience. This is tricky as they can often easily ignore you if they wish.
  • Mobilize your team to fight alongside you, even when they’re preoccupied and frustrated with learning all the new technical skills needed for marketing in a digital age. “You can’t do it alone. Many marketers have experts advising them which is fine but you need others around you to go out and execute,” he says.
  • Mobilize yourself to keep going and focus others on what he calls “the value zone,” where customer and corporate needs intersect. “You need to inspire yourself and others, as it’s tough work,” he says.

Mobilizing your boss starts with tackling only the big issues. You won't get the CEO's attention with the myriad of minor issues related to a marketing campaign. Bosses focus on the big stuff and you need to know exactly what that agenda is and how you can help.

Usually, CEOs are intent on raising revenue and lowering costs. If you can't raise revenue, then your operation will be viewed as falling into the costs camp – and reductions in your budget will inevitably be considered. You need to show how investing in marketing will increase revenue.

"A lot of marketers get lost, dealing with things that are interesting and relevant but not critical. They get caught up in tools that are new and have little importance. Often they deal with big issues but aren't using language CEOs understand, like talking about customer preference," he says. Such jargon can distance the activity from the impact on revenue, making it hard to embrace.

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Meet with the executive team and the CEO. Find out what's cooking. Read analysts' reports, since those can set the agenda. Figure out what role you play in furthering the corporate goals, which will usually revolve around growth.

Deliver returns – no matter what. And quantify what you are accomplishing, making sure everyone understands how marketing works. This can be hard, but make an attempt, keeping it simple. "Open your books and explain what succeeded, what failed, and what you don't know," he advises.

He hated the "net promoter" score when he was at McKinsey & Co., considering the gauge – which measures how many customers are strongly committed to promoting the brand – simplistic. "But I was wrong. You can use it to explain what you are doing and the impact to the CEO," he says.

Don't just worry about the customers. Worry as well about satisfying the CEO.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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