Why Go To Market Executives Need to Think of Themselves as Customer Activation & Growth Leaders

Leadership StrategiesTechnology and InnovationIndustry TrendsCareer TransitionsCareer AdviceTransformation InnovationCustomer Focused GrowthConsumerTechnologyMarketing, Sales, and StrategyTechnology, Data, and DigitalExecutive SearchDevelopment and Transition
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Norm Yustin
October 20, 2022
10 min read
Leadership StrategiesTechnology and InnovationIndustry TrendsCareer TransitionsCareer AdviceTransformation InnovationCustomer Focused GrowthConsumerTechnologyMarketing, Sales, and StrategyTechnology, Data, and DigitalExecutive SearchDevelopment and Transition
Executive summary
Modern go-to-market leaders focus on customer-centricity achieved via digital enablement, data-backed customer insight, and revenue growth.
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Marketing is not what it used to be. The customer activation and growth leader works beyond function, bringing a new focus on customer centricity achieved via digital enablement, data-backed customer insight, and revenue growth.

The world has changed since 2020. Two years later, we are still waking up to global disruption—the war in Ukraine was quickly followed by rising inflation, further supply chain disruptions, more geopolitical unrest, and controversial climate discussions. The impact on business and its leaders has been unprecedented. Specifically, customer and digitally-centric leaders, such as chief marketing, chief growth, and chief digital officers, have fought hard to meet the customer in-the-moment, wherever and whenever, through widespread disruption. As such, their roles have changed forever.

Go-to-market roles has quickly transformed into what we call customer activation & growth (CAG) leaders, because they are responsible for just that—activating the customer and growing the business. This is much more than just marketing—these leaders had to quickly devise new strategies, accelerate digital transformation, and grow diversity and inclusion hires. However, two years in, many boards and CEOs are worried about their progress, and this is clearly shown in the data—H2 2022 had the second highest level of job movement since we started tracking this data (6% more moves in H1 2022 than H2 2021—the highest rate of job moves was in H2 2021). Why are so many go-to-market leaders being hired (and fired)?

Russell Reynolds Associates has been tracking the moves of more than 6800 go-to-market leaders across all industries since 2014. Some of these moves are positive (such as an increase in digital and data-enabled roles, e.g., chief revenue officers making up 15% of all hires now), yet some are taking us back (female appointments have stalled and males are still filling 79% of growth-oriented roles).

This report shares our findings after tracking publicly disclosed go-to-market leadership changes across the globe since July 2020. This two-year period enables us to understand the latest trends and movements of customer-centric leaders to explore the impact on the customer activation & growth job market since the pandemic began.

The demand for better customer experience is at an all-time high work-from-home

Businesses have had to ask themselves: how do we keep up with customer-centricity when customers keep evolving? They haven’t just tweaked their behaviors the past two years, they have created entirely new habits, relationships, outlooks, and expectations. Staying ahead of customer needs is challenging, but some companies are taking bold steps to do so by hiring chief experience officers. While the numbers are still small relative to other roles, CXO hiring has more than doubled since 2020.

Unsurprisingly, consumer and technology companies hired the most CXOs so far in 2022 (33% and 22% respectively) with financial services (17%) and healthcare (11%) also starting to lean into this trend as they transition from legacy B2B companies to B2B2C brands. Late to the game are the industrial, natural resources, professional services and education industries, all of whom need to start embracing B2C customers, especially given blurring hybrid and work-from-home schedules are causing legacy business customers to behave more like B2C consumers. This provides significant opportunity for legacy B2B companies to build and take control of their customer experience journey.

And not or: the demand for BOTH right and left-brain leadership

Customer activation & growth leaders have been challenged to further expand their remit beyond sales and marketing to include enterprise strategy, data and analytics, martech implementation, revenue management and more—things that require a deeper level of left-brain expertise. The right brain, however, cannot be ignored, as brand differentiation is what helps businesses win over competitors long term.

However, we still see Chief Marketing Officers making up the majority of appointments (32%) in the first half of 2022—yet this is down from 39% in H2 2021. Tied for second place as the most popular hires were chief revenue officers and chief commercial officers, each with over 1,000 new appointments globally since 2020.

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With 500 chief digital officers appointed globally over the past two years, it’s clear that digital leaders are still in fashion, with 46% more hired in the first half of this year than the last half of last year. Because the pandemic accelerated customers’ digital demands, brands had to increase their digital acumen, which meant hiring more tech savvy leaders. This was most prominent in technology and consumer companies, which accounted for 60% of the new customer activation appointments (32% and 28% respectively). Financial services, healthcare, industrial and natural resources sectors—historically not on the forefront of digital savviness—also increased their customer activation appointments over the past six months.

Russell Reynolds’ recent Global Leadership Monitor survey identified that 43% of customer activation & growth leaders believe that their peer organizations are adopting digital technology faster than they are, and 34% think they do not have the right talent in place in their company to drive the digital journey.1 This is likely why chief digital officer appointments have more than doubled since 2020, reflecting a strong commitment to digital transformation beyond the pandemic . That said, there is still more to be done beyond implementing curb-side pickup.

Who is hiring whom?

Historically, the consumer industry hired the largest proportion of chief marketing officers, given their proximity to the end user. As marketing capabilities become more advanced and CMOs are expanding their remit to include strategy, commercial KPIs, and consumer insights, we are seeing an 87% uptick of chief digital officers in the Consumer sector since last year. These leaders are working in tandem with the CMOs to drive brand strategy, brand vision, and ultimately brand activation.

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Female Appointments: two steps forward and one step back

In the first half of 2022, and for the first time since the pandemic began, appointments for women customer activation & growth leaders did not increase compared to the prior six months, remaining at 32% for all hires. Even though this number increased from 2020 (an all-time low for female appointments), there is still work to be done to close the gap between male and female leadership positions. With nearly 40% of senior women feeling “burned out” in the workplace, we are seeing a flattening of the progress of bringing in more women into the C-suite.2

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We continue to see more men being appointed to commercially-oriented roles, and women appointed to more brand and communication-oriented roles. Women were most appointed as chief communications officers, chief marketing officers, and chief brand officers. However, chief creative officers are an anomaly—only one-quarter of these appointments were women during the past two years. There have been significantly more women hired as chief customer officers (83% increase compared to 2021)—that said, women still only account for one in five of these appointments. While these roles’ responsibilities vary, it continues to be concerning that women are typically not appointed to more data, digital, and growth-oriented roles.

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Before the pandemic, the gender gap was on track to close in 99.5 years. Now, it’s going to take 135.5 years.3 Both numbers are concerning, and to meaningfully impact to reduce them, there needs to be swift and thoughtful leadership changes that trickle down to mid and entry level teams. Investing in inclusive change means building long term solutions that promote women leaders through policy changes, shifts in company visions, and KPIs

Playing it safe with industry experience

It's important to consider the different pros and cons when looking to hire external or internal leaders, including whether to stick with the same industry expertise or bring in fresh thinking. According to our 2022 Global Leadership Monitor, 41% of customer activation leaders would be willing to make a job/career move today beyond their current industry or function. Related, we see that external appointments have risen to 81% of all hires (that is, you have less than a one in five chance of getting your boss's job as your company is likely hiring externally). 93% of chief commercial officers were hired externally in the last year, followed by 89% of heads of sales & marketing, and 88% of chief customer officers.

As customer-centricity remains essential to a brand’s strategic initiatives, the largest internal appointments are for chief experience officers (39%). A chief experience officer’s remit varies by industry, covering anything from transformation and culture to storytelling and brand. Other notable internal appointments include chief content officers (30%) and chief digital officers (31%). As companies look for talent that intersect customer knowledge and digital integration, they likely feel confident that a candidate who has grown with the company will best understand their target customer and align with the strategic vision of the leadership team.

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When companies search outside their organization for an appointee, they tend to tap consumer and technology companies for this new talent, as these industries tend to be more advanced in customer-centricity.

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As companies focus on becoming customer-centric, we’ve seen interesting movement in mature B2B industries. There have been small yet notable increases from healthcare, financial services, industrial and natural resources industries when appointing customer activation leaders from outside their sector. In the past, companies in these industries typically hired from within their industry. However, new threats from businesses (like Amazon who recently took another step into healthcare by acquiring One Medical) are set to shake up the approach, process, strategic objectives, and B2B leadership talent pool. With customer-centric masterminds like Amazon taking small but meaningful steps in the Healthcare space, it will be important to observe whether other mature companies follow suit and how they handle said transformation.

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Cutting through the noise

The impact of macro forces such as the pandemic, geopolitical shifts, climate change and technological advancement continue to push customers and consumers into new habits, making engagement at the right moment more challenging than ever before. Even though Covid-19 was a trend accelerant, there have always been opportunities to drive customer growth in new ways. Standout customer activation leaders will cut through the noise, build a strong narrative, create tech-enabled go-to-market plans, and connect with their customers authentically. Companies and go-to-market leadership must focus on creating tech-forward, data-backed experiences, finding new customer-centric models, and building lifetime value. To survive this transformation, legacy marketing leaders had to adapt. New customer activation and growth leaders (which include new titles like revenue, growth and experience) drive a greater depth of customer-centricity, bringing new skillsets that span across data, digital, growth, customer experience, and brand. Let the new era of customer activation begin.

 


 

Methodology

We tracked and analyzed 1885 appointments from January 2022 to July 2022 across North America (1253), EMEA (342), APAC (231), and LatAm (59). Since the start of analysis in July of 2020 we have tracked 6815 total appointments. Due to research constraints, we only searched in English language and did not include public announcements across all local languages. The roles consisted of: chief marketing officer, chief revenue officer, chief commercial officer, chief product officer, chief growth officer, chief digital officer, chief sales officer, head of marketing, chief creative officer, chief experience officer, head of sales & marketing, chief content officer, chief brand officer, chief customer officer, and chief communications officer–encompassing all of the most senior customer activation leaders within their respective functions. The bulk of the roles were made up of chief marketing officer appointments (32%) followed by chief revenue officer (15%), chief commercial officer (14%), and chief product officer appointments (10%).

 


 

Authors

Norm Yustin leads the Russell Reynolds Associates' Customer Activation & Growth practice. He is based in Chicago.

Antoinetta Canada leads Russell Reynolds Associates’ Customer Activation & Growth Knowledge team. She is based in Chicago.

Katelyn Schoenholtz is a member of the Russell Reynolds Associates’ Customer Activation & Growth research team. She is based in New York.


References

1 Jemi Crookes, Tom Handcock, “2022 Global Leadership Monitor. Preparing leadership for tomorrow’s critical issues”, Russell Reynolds Associates, 2022.

2 LeanIn.org, “Women in the workplace”, McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org, 2020

3 Sue Bhatia, “Recognize and Overcome the She-cession”, LinkedIn News, March 8, 2021.