What Jim Stengel, former P&G CMO, learned about leading change

Jim Stengel, the former CMO of Procter & Gamble, is one of the most respected marketing executives in the world and, after talking with him recently about the role of a marketing leader as a change agent, I now understand why. Following are a few highlights from our discussion.

What is the biggest issue new marketing leaders must address in order to be successful?

The biggest issue that marketing leaders have is the job is not well defined. I think that’s one of the reasons we have the great churn we have. I think a lot of CEOs don’t know what success looks like. They bring in a CMO without a clear idea of what the job design is, what the scope is, what the core work is, what the capabilities are that they want the CMO to build.

When CMOs hit the ground, all kinds of stuff gets thrown at them. They don’t quite know how to take a pause and define their scope and get ahead of it. I think that’s the biggest issue. Basically it is clarity on job design. Marketing is sort of a different thing to every company. That’s unlike Finance or Human Resources or Operations, which have relatively common standards.

Does that lead to unrealistic expectations from the CEO about how quickly a new CMO can make an impact?

In most other functions CEOs wouldn’t expect as quick a fix as they expect in marketing. I think if someone comes in as chief technology officer, and if it’s a mess in the company, the CEO understands. You’ve got to hire people. You’ve got to develop your platform. You’ve got to build some software capabilities, whatever it might be. That’s going to take ramp-up. I think in marketing, they sort of just expect it will happen, that it will be easy.

But the same things are true in marketing: You’ve got to get the right people. You’ve got to get the right strategy. You’ve got to get the right infrastructure. You’ve got to get the right relationships. I think what so many people don’t see is that marketing is strategy. It’s hard for me to tell you about a great company that is highly successful where marketing isn’t all about strategy.

I think that companies that are struggling a lot don’t have marketing or don’t have a marketing lens through which they look at strategy. Strategies are either owned by a strategy function or Finance. I think this is one of the reasons Procter has been successful for many, many, many decades. At that place, the work of marketing is well defined, well understood and it’s all about strategy. It’s all about accountability. It’s all about results. And it’s all about the customer and the consumer.

What do you think are the key ingredients for a successful strategy?

It’s certainly one that has clarity. It’s one that is forward-looking. It’s one that is choice-ful. It’s one that derives competitive advantage and it’s one that results in a value proposition to the customer that is better than your competition.

Why do you think companies have such a hard time articulating a winning strategy?

I think, John, it’s because it’s very thoughtful work. It’s very whole-brained. It’s very tough. It demands extraordinary leadership at the top and constancy of purpose, and the willingness to change things. That’s really hard work. I think that it’s a rare leader who can pull that off.

For a marketing leader to be an effective change agent for his or her company, what do you think are the key ingredients?

What a great marketing leader has to do is constantly paint scenarios or make the case for change. People are not just going to change. You won’t get their hearts and their minds unless they are extremely restless and uncomfortable with the status quo.

I think a huge job of a marketing leader is to be that data-based, dramatic, storyteller who gets people uncomfortable with where they are and thinking about where they need to go.

I did a lot of that work at P&G. It was hardest when we were successful. But I spent an awful lot of my time gathering data, painting scenarios, visiting people. I never started a conversation with a business leader or my CEO or my CFO or whoever, with a, “Here’s what I think we should do…”  Or, “Here’s what we must do.”

I would always start with, “Let me share with you some data about where we are today and where things are going.” It’s non-threatening. But the whole point of that is to get people saying, “Oh, my God. How do we address this and how do we address this urgently?”

When you get that kind of reaction, you unlock the passion of people in the right direction and amazing things happen. I think you have it easier when you’re on a burning platform but when you don’t have a burning platform, you have to create it.