Becoming a chief marketing communications officer at a higher ed institution is an exciting opportunity. These positions provide opportunities for creativity and service and offer so much variety that they are never boring.
But the decision to take a C-suite position in higher ed should also come with deep reflection, an open mind and realistic expectations. Here are 10 things to consider before saying yes.
- Where does the position sit in the organization? Over 60 percent of higher ed CMCO roles now report directly to the president, but these positions historically sat in many different areas of an institution and are sometimes combined with other functions such as advancement or enrollment. When the scope exceeds a classic marketing communications role, you must consider how and where you will be spending the majority of your time, since you will be evaluated on how well you deliver on the marketing and communications needs of the institution and its leadership team.
- Do the responsibilities align with your experience and expectations? Ideally, there would be both a CMO and a CCO, but that’s not our reality. It’s rare for someone to have equal experience and passion in both areas. When considering a CMCO position, think about your expertise and interests. If the responsibilities of the role are outside your area of comfort or passion—or if your expertise doesn’t align with what the institution needs—you might want to pivot your attention to other open positions or existing roles complementary to your skill set.
- What is the institution’s narrative and brand? In these roles, our primary function is to build and protect institutional reputation, drive results, and tell the institution’s story. Early in the recruitment process, start researching the institution’s strategic plan and initiatives, current positioning and media coverage and ask colleagues in the industry for their perspective on the institution. The higher ed marketing communications community is one of the friendliest, kindest groups of people who are always willing to help.
- What is the current state of the unit and institution? A great guide to help assess if an institution is a fit for you to succeed is The First 90 Days by Michael D. Watkins. It’s impossible to know everything about an institution in the interview stage, even in the gauntlet of higher ed interviewing. But pay attention to what is said and not said. I find assessing access to people, sophistication of the processes used and available technology helps to frame the maturity of an institution. Don’t be fooled—even large universities may not have the resources or structures you assume they do.
- What support is in place, what roles will you need to create and what functions will you need to build? Reviewing the institution’s current organizational chart should be part of your interview process. As you evaluate the current people and resources, you may see missing functions or roles that will be necessary to accomplish what will be expected of you. Think about potential hurdles to filling out a team, including funding and ability to hire permanent staff, agencies or contract support, as well as recruiting considerations such as remote work or region.
- What support will you need personally to succeed? These jobs are taxing, and the first year can be especially intense. Support could include things like hiring an executive coach (something that many institutions will pay for), participating in therapy, exercising or engaging in a spiritual practice.
- What is your professional chemistry with the president and cabinet? With the average length of a presidency coming in under six years, evaluate where your president is in their tenure and why they are adding or replacing a CMCO role. It’s important to have professional chemistry and alignment with the president, especially if you will be reporting directly to that person. And you will need to assess if you fit in the cabinet. It’s likely that you will serve with more of them longer than you will serve under the president. Spend time with the cabinet members with whom you are likely to have the closest working relationships. Ask how they envision working together, what the cabinet culture is like and what you will need to do to be a successful addition.
- What is the campus’s cultural approach to success? Evaluate if the campus culture celebrates collaborative successes or if leaders are rewarded for unit-based wins. Zero-sum strategies play out every day on campuses, meaning one team must lose for the other team to win. On football fields, zero sum makes sense. But for most of us, our day-to-day life should feature collaboration between leaders and units and shared acknowledgment for meeting the institution’s mission and serving students.
- What is the fiscal health of the institution and what is the budget you will have available? One of the hardest parts of the CMCO role is managing expectations around what results marketing can deliver. At most institutions, you will find there are limits to the budget allocated to marketing communications’ coffers. Does the institution’s marketing communications budget align with the expectations for what you and the team you will lead can deliver? Ask for a detailed budget during the interview process. Then ask about how these dollars compare to allocations to other units on campus. The distribution of financial resources to the unit is an indicator of how well marketing communications is currently valued at the senior-most levels.
- How do leadership and the institution approach shared governance? Try to discern shared governance’s role on the campus. At its best, shared governance can be a powerful way of navigating complex organizational structures and can provide democracy and diplomacy to decision-making. But, occasionally, power and control are centered in shared governance, which can make progress difficult. I’m a firm believer that consensus building is a powerful leadership tool, but it can also be inefficient and delay progress.
All higher ed leadership roles are demanding, but marketing communications roles experience scope creep and external and internal pressure to deliver results. In the best-case scenario, they become a catchall for projects, and in the worst, a scapegoat for failure. Clear understanding of the role and desired results is imperative to being successful as a CMCO, and spending as much time as possible researching and reflecting on a role is better for the candidate and the institution.
Executive leadership roles in any industry come with a higher level of exposure and risk, so my final piece of advice is to keep your future in mind. Invest in your professional network, create relationships with search firms and manage your finances responsibly. These positions require massive effort and focus, but exploring what’s next will help if you find yourself in a position where your CMCO tenure ends unexpectedly.
Higher ed needs a new generation of thoughtful, courageous and intentional leaders. Before taking the next step in your marketing communications career, use the tips above to make the choice that is right for you.