The CMO’s New Role: Change Leader

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Many companies talk about customer focus or customer obsession, but to truly have such a focus, they need a change leader to step up and take the reins, Forrester Research urged in a recent report.

Chief marketing officers “must embrace continuous transformation on their way to becoming customer-obsessed and be ready with the resources and recognition to sustain the energy required to drive successful change,” Forrester analyst Katy Tynan argues.

Tynan points out that transforming to a customer-obsessed organization isn’t a single event, but instead is a process that occurs over time.

“The most common barrier to change comes not from the trenches but from the C-suite,” Tynan says. “Leaders must embrace continuous transformation on the way to becoming customer-obsessed.”

Change management doesn’t occur without change leadership, Tynan stresses. “Without strong change leadership, operational processes will flounder and fail. Yet many leaders still fail to see their role in enabling and evangelizing change.”

The entire idea behind change initiatives is that company executives believe it will benefit their organizations, Tynan points out.

Yet there is a high failure rate in these initiatives, with 70 percent not reaching their goals, according to Tynan. “The cost of failure is high and touches every part of the business, from customer losses to revenue declines to lost employees and reputation loss. Rather than risk those losses, some companies avoid change initiatives and their potential benefits.”

And it’s a common fear, with less than half (47 percent) of executives expecting to receive long-term value from transformation, according to Tynan. “When leaders doubt the outcome, they can’t hope to bring the energy required to inspire change in others. Leaders must see change as a practice of taking smart risks, leading to a learning culture that fails forward.”

Failure to change presents an existential threat, Tynan adds, pointing to the shrinking longevity of companies. Nearly 50 years ago (1964), the average S&P company had been in business for 33 years. Now that figure is only 18 years.

“You can’t avoid or ignore change,” Tynan says. “You must practice and sustain it until it becomes a competitive advantage that drives an organization forward. The rapid fall of giants like BlackBerry, Blockbuster, Borders, and Novell serves as a clear warning that no amount of success or market share will protect an organization from being left behind by more adaptive companies.”

As change leaders, executives need to help employees push through changes, according to Tynan, who cites six necessary competencies change leaders need:

  • The ability to communicate relentlessly: Change leaders should create a continuous cycle of listening and response. Constant communication might seem repetitive, but some people won’t process the information the first time. Consistent, continuous questions and answers will help build trust.
  • The ability to build trust in layers: Trust is built in a series of large and small moments and acts as a catalyst that enables individuals to take the necessary leap of faith. Without trust, there is strong resistance to change.
  • The ability to decide, design, and deliver with speed and clarity: Organizational changes can result in uncertainty and anxiety, so a change leader needs to be deliberate about the approach and create a holistic view for employees so that changes don’t seem arbitrary.
  • Being able to drive the right behaviors with the right incentives: Even great talent won’t adopt new behaviors if legacy incentive programs aren’t connected to the desired outcomes.
  • The capacity for measuring and recognizing outcomes at the right level: The right incentives motivate employees to go above and beyond the status quo. Without the right incentives, there will be resistance to change.
  • The ability to leverage the vision to refocus the chaos: The change leader must establish a resilient culture to harness the chaotic energy that can arise from new things. While new ideas will create anxiety in some, it will inspire and engage others.

And then it pays to keep an eye on the ultimate prize. Whether introducing a new product, changing the way you operate, integrating new technology, or executing an acquisition, the goal is always to come out the other side as a stronger, more profitable business, Tynan concludes. 

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