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With more universities creating a chief marketing officer role and positioning it at the cabinet level, there may be opportunities for rising leaders to step into a CMO role for the first time.

In part one of this series, we talked about strategies current CMOs could consider to help train future leaders to be ready for top-level roles.

Now I’ll discuss four things to be aware of before becoming a CMO. Having an awareness of these expectations can help rising leaders be aware of the scope of the position and help them better prepare for making the transition into such a role.

Here are four aspects of the job that rising leaders should be aware of before accepting a CMO role.

  1. Relationship management work. Often the work of the CMO feels a bit like a mediator. These leaders must understand interdepartmental relationships and help ensure people feel supported while still meeting institutional goals and deadlines. When working within the marcomm team, various creative ideas and creative personalities can collide, meaning feelings can be hurt or people feel their ideas don’t get the same consideration as those of others. As a leader, it’s important to put processes in place to help all team members feel their ideas and approaches have value. Despite such conflicts, the work still must be completed, and sometimes that means the CMO must decide which direction to go on a strategy. It can be challenging to keep everyone engaged while still doing what’s best for the organization. This challenge becomes even more complex when factoring external departments. As a CMO, I talk about how important it is to collaborate, and that can be difficult when other departments provide extensive critique and feedback or aren’t willing to listen to marcomm expertise. Creatives tend to feel their work deeply and see it as an extension of themselves. Because of that, it’s important to help support them in the work but also remind them to listen to good ideas, regardless of where they’re from. Showing support can also mean pushing back on the overly critical feedback and unrealistic deadlines from partners, all while stressing that collaboration is important. Managing those sometimes competing interests is anything but easy, and it takes time away from the tasks. However, it’s necessary work.
  2. Importance of the budgeting process. As a new CMO stepping into the role for the first time, most budget decisions fall on you. It’s critical to understand the budget from both a theoretical and a practical perspective. Theoretically, knowing how the budget is built, managed and tracked at the university will help support the administrative leader who handles the daily task of paying the bills. Practically speaking, learning the specific institutional rules and processes will also help ensure things don’t get held up by incorrect processes. To help manage the budget, I meet with the administrator each week to review requisitions, purchase orders, invoices, spend approvals, etc. This touch point helps ensure things are up-to-date and I have a clear understanding of the overall budget. Additionally, I try to regularly reconcile what has been paid, giving me a general snapshot of where things are. This ensures errors and mistakes are caught quickly. As a new leader, I didn’t take this work seriously enough and landed in a situation where I was significantly over budget. If I had recognized the importance of strategic budgeting and budget management before I took on this role, I could have better used the budget to strategically achieve my objectives. I learned the hard way and share it to help new CMOs not make the same mistake.
  1. Interruptions to your daily work. As the top marketing leader, any campus crisis or media event includes you and your team. Whether it’s conducting interviews, issuing a statement, messaging the campus or monitoring social media, your team plays a role in these things. These are things you usually can’t anticipate but usually take precedence and cause shifts in your workload. This means your calendar is not your own in times of crisis or heavy media attention. Additionally, many marketing leaders are also the FOIA custodian. This part of the job can derail plans when a major FOIA request is received. As the leader, you must learn how to prioritize items quickly. The marketing leader must find ways to keep the marketing work moving forward, because it can’t stop when a large FOIA request comes in. However, it’s important to also make sure the university responds appropriately to FOIA requests to avoid legal implications. I didn’t realize how much time media coverage and FOIA requests could take out of my day at any given point. I try to reserve bandwidth to work on these items, have cross-trained others to assist and am more realistic about the workload our team takes on.
  2. Work can be lonely. As a CMO, the work can be lonely at times. In this role, you’re likely the top marketing-focused leader at the university, which means you’re the only one who knows the exact nuance of your work. That means it can be difficult to get feedback on possible marketing ideas or brainstorm deep strategy questions with others. It also means there are times you know things you can’t share with your team, must leave a conversation because it’s not appropriate for you to participate or must focus on the positive, because as the marketing leader, it’s important to put the university in an optimistic light to the community. These factors can result in loneliness for some marketing leaders, especially if you’re at a new university, working in a new city or living in a new town. When I experienced this loneliness a few months into the role, I reached out to other CMOs to build a community and a network to help me learn new insights, brainstorm possible ideas, share frustrations and experience camaraderie. This has been game-changing for my emotional health and has helped me feel better at my job because I could build relationships for support.

If you’re considering a CMO role, it’s important to talk to other CMOs about what the work entails to determine if it’s a good fit. Higher education CMOs work incredibly hard but make a significant impact on the educational landscape. This intentional effort has resulted in more leaders having a seat at the table for critical marketing decisions. With the strides made for university leaders to recognize the work of marketers, it will be necessary for future CMOs to be fully aware of the work and be equipped to handle the challenges related to marketing or otherwise.

Carrie Phillips is chief communications and marketing officer at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

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