How to hire the right marketing leader for your startup

by | Jul 8, 2017

Every week, a CEO or business owner asks me if I know any great marketing leaders who could join their company to help them grow faster. I know a lot of great marketers, but my response to them is always the same:

“It depends. What kind of marketing leader are you looking for?”

“I just need more leads” isn’t enough for me to help them identify a rockstar (or recruit them), so I start asking questions. This leads to a deeper discussion about what the entrepreneur actually needs and what makes a good fit.

Most entrepreneurs aren’t aware of the different types of marketers – or what it takes to attract top talent. Great marketing is critically important for any growing business to achieve big things. You can’t afford to screw up your next marketing leadership hire.

Here are the top questions I ask entrepreneurs to help them define the role, assess qualified candidates and speed up the hiring process.

What kind of marketing leader do you need?

  • What is your company’s single most important marketing objective? Determine the one thing you need from marketing more than anything else, then make sure you solve for that first. It may be online lead generation to drive sales, ecommerce attraction and conversion, launching new products or scaling systems and teams. Narrow your laundry list of requirements to make sure you solve your biggest problem with confidence.
  • What’s the right level for the role right now? Titles are all over the place these days, but in reality there are just a few different levels of marketing leaders. Call them what you wish, but be clear about how much responsibility they will have and how much they will influence other parts of the business.
    • A marketing manager runs day-to-day operations with lots of hands on execution and a small team. (The team typically includes internal staff and outside contractors.)
    • A marketing director runs a bigger operation and has more say in setting goals and strategy and interacting with other functions in the business.
    • A marketing VP is a senior leadership team member who helps guide the business in addition to running the entire marketing function.
    • A chief marketing officer (CMO) typically runs a larger marketing team, has significant influence on the product and business strategy, is very business savvy, and can court investors and lead other senior leaders. This may be a co-founder at a startup that needs serious marketing early on.
  • Which marketing functions are better solved with consultants and contractors? Don’t try to solve every marketing need with one leader. You can always get great strategic help from experienced consultants or tactical help from specialists who are the best in their fields. Determine what you absolutely need inside the building, every day. This will help you avoid chasing marketing unicorn candidates who are “great at everything.” They don’t exist.

What makes a great fit for your company?

  • Is your business a scrappy startup, a growth company or an established enterprise? These are three very different business types that require different skills and mindsets. The leaders who can create everything from scratch are not the same leaders who can run a large operation with precise quarterly targets.
  • What’s your product and industry? Your marketing leader needs to demonstrate passion for your product, the problem you solve, and your customers – the actual people you help. You can’t fake caring at a deeper level. That’s a higher standard than “industry experience.”
  • What’s your “sales and marketing style?” Have you created a hard-selling startup that uses direct response marketing and sets aggressive goals? Or do you have a helpful, problem-solving team that builds long-term relationships? Match your own sales and marketing style with the type of marketer you recruit or you’ll be frustrated quickly.
  • What are your company’s purpose, values and mission? If you aren’t explicit about your company’s purpose (your highest cause), your values (the rules you never violate) and your mission (your next big goal), then you risk your hire taking you in a different direction. Hire a diverse team of people, but hire only those with the same commitment to your values and purpose and the experience to achieve your mission.
  • How fast are you growing? A company that grows 50% a year will double in size every 24 months and become a different kind of company quickly. Recruit leaders for the size of company you will be in a year or two. Fast-growth companies require leaders who can grow fast too (CEOs especially).

Is the candidate qualified and capable?

  • Is this person smart and thoughtful? The marketing game is a complex puzzle with many dimensions: customer types, targeted messages, marketing channels, buyer journeys, business models, pricing models, competitive sets, new technologies, digital tools and more. Marketing leaders need to be extremely thoughtful to create savvy simplicity in the midst of dizzying complexity. Beware of marketers who don’t ask a lot of insightful questions.
  • Do they have proven experience in your highest-priority objective? Now that you know your highest marketing priority (see the first point above), make sure the candidate has the experience to achieve the results you need. Dig in to their actual experiences to uncover the thinking, execution steps, results, and measures of success. If you aren’t confident in your ability to uncover BS, enlist the help of a savvy friend or advisor who can help you validate the details.
  • Do they understand data, technology and metrics? Modern digital marketing is a systematic game that is more technical and math-driven than ever. Does the candidate have the analytical chops to create and improve your digital marketing machine? Can they explain how the technical details of execution connect to the financial levers that drive your business?
  • Can they tell a great story and sell? Storytelling and messaging are also important. It doesn’t matter if you have a sophisticated digital machine if you can’t create messages that persuade and sell. Can this leader create compelling messages and persuade people to get on board? Ask them to sell your product or service to you in an impromptu role play.
  • Do they keep current? Great marketers pay attention to the context of changing markets, technology tools, marketing channels, industry trends and socio-economic changes. Higher-level leaders should have the most overall context, but junior leaders also need to demonstrate that they keep up with modern methods and tools. Quiz them on what’s happening in your world and what new approaches show promise.

The success of any leadership hire is not just about the candidate’s stellar experience or interview skills. CEOs, founders and business owners need to think through what the role actually requires and then hire the right fit for the job.

Horses for courses.