Unclear CEO expectations often lead chief marketing officers toward revolving door.

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Fact: More than 40 percent of CMOs have been in their jobs for 2 years or less. The turnover in this position is higher than any other in the “C” suite. And, what’s more, nearly three-quarters of chief marketing officers believe their jobs aren’t designed to let them have the greatest impact on their companies, according to a new survey.

What the researchers say: CMOs frequently suffer from having poorly designed jobs, which, the researchers say, is why they have such a high turnover rate.

This “revolving door of CMO short-timers” affects how consumers view the company, since new chief marketing officers often change some or all of their predecessors’ strategic direction for positioning, packaging and advertising. These changes also come at a significant financial cost.

The researchers presented their findings in the current Harvard Business Review.

“We believe that a great deal of CMO turnover stems from poor job design,” the authors say. “Any company can make a bad hire, but when responsibilities, expectations and performance measures are not aligned and realistic, it sets a CMO up to fail.”

They interviewed more than 300 executive recruiters, CEOs and chief marketing officers; conducted multiple surveys of chief marketing officers; analyzed 170 CMO job descriptions at large firms; and reviewed more than 500 LinkedIn profiles of CMOs. They found more disparity in how the chief marketing officer’s role was defined and much more than for any other C-level role.

The authors found some common core CMO responsibilities. More than 90 percent of chief marketing officers were responsible for marketing strategy and implementation, and more than 80 percent controlled brand strategy and customer metrics.

“But beyond that, the range of duties –from pricing to sales management, public relations to e-commerce, product development to distribution—is mind-boggling,” they said. “Even before considering candidates for the job, a CEO must decide which kind of CMO would be best for the company.”

Their research identified three types of chief marketing officers: the strategist who makes decisions about firm positioning and products, accounting for 31 percent in their survey; the “commercializer” who drives sales through marketing communications (46 percent); or someone who is an enterprise-wide profit-and-loss leader who handles both roles (23 percent).

The key problem is that CEOs and executive recruiters do not do a good job of identifying the type of role that the firm needs the chief marketing officer to play before they identify and evaluate candidates. Rather, they look at CMO candidates and select the one the CEO rates highest—which assumes that the CEO knows what type of chief marketing officer the firm needs.

That turns out to be a false assumption in most cases. This is much less of a problem for chief financial officers, chief information officers or even chief human resources officers, where there is much more standardization in the role these executives play across firms and industries.

So what? Once they have identified the type of chief marketing officer they need, CEOs must design the role to align with what the firm needs from that person before looking for candidates. This “role design” part of the process is also done badly most of the time.

“Alignment of responsibilities is the critical area where mistakes are made. Expectations typically far exceed the actual authority given the CMO,” they added. “That problem is often compounded when CEOs are wooing candidates who already have good jobs.

Only 22 percent of the job descriptions the authors studied mentioned how chief marketing officers would be measured or held accountable, and only 2 percent had a specific section that clearly spelled out job expectations.

What now: To solve the problem of identifying the type of chief marketing officer before looking at candidates CEOs need to take into consideration:

The degree to which consumer insight needs to drive firm strategy.
How difficult it is to achieve firm-level growth.
The level of dynamic change in the marketplace.
The historical role of chief marketing officers in the organization.
The firm’s structure, including whether the marketing function is centralized or dispersed throughout the organization.