Reduce CMO Churn by Getting the Hiring Process Right

Jennifer JohnsonFeatured
Jennifer Johnson
Jennifer Johnson

Strong marketing leadership is a prime area of opportunity to help firms navigate through what will prove to be a transformative chapter in the legal industry. The stakes are high, with expectations to match, and the abundance of data on law firm CMO churn over the last decade illustrates what can happen when expectations and reality fail to intersect.

While we’ve seen CMO tenure numbers begin to climb, research and experience both point to the same issue: a disconnect between the process of hiring and then fully capitalizing on the talent of a chief marketing officer. Defy the statistics by setting the stage for progress from the very beginning of your CMO search.


Before the Hire

CMO churn before

Decision-makers

The makeup of the hiring committee responsible for selecting a CMO will set the tone for the entire process. Managing partners, lawyers who are high-end users of Marketing, and HR directors all contribute valuable perspective, and could be even more effective when combined with the insight of a marketing insider. Without input from someone who understands the nuances of the marketing world, it can be difficult to spot the difference between a candidate who is excellent on paper and/or in person, but may lack the true skill set that will take your firm forward. Placing trust and authority in a party that can speak both languages, whether an internal marketing ally or a recruiting partner, can ensure the voice of the marketer is represented in the decision-making process.

Playbook

The hiring committee’s various backgrounds will, and should, influence their individual decisions. That diversity of opinion is a strength that can often bring challenges, as well. With that in mind, it’s important to define your collective objectives early on in order to avoid wasting significant time and frustration in the months to follow. The expectations laid out in the job description should encompass the goals of the group, not the goals of an individual. Once the committee is able to get on the same figurative page in terms of their expectations and goals, they can move forward with direction and clarity. It’s easier to identify your strongest candidates when you’re working with consistent criteria. The alternative is a popularity contest, where subjective likability and personal preference rule.


During the Hiring Process

Interview

Your brand

For better or worse, law firms and candidates both want to be liked. It’s human instinct, but one that can prevent the most telling conversations from ever emerging during the interview process. The substance of those discussions can be the difference between a long-term CMO and another statistic. In the interest of being liked or respected, firms and professionals often skip the important work of identifying who they are (and are not), what they value, what they offer in the marketplace, and yes, where there is still room for improvement. Law firms and candidates alike each deserve and want to make a truly informed decision, and that calls for reciprocal candor. Get comfortable asking those difficult questions of yourself and the person on the other side of the table.

Indicators

There are certain indicators that separate the CMOs of the past and those of the future. Use your time with candidates to assess their knowledge of/experience with:

  • Two or more full cycles of enterprise-wide change management
  • Developing and implementing an enterprise-wide strategywith positive results
  • Understanding the nuances of a marketing/BD team and optimal performance
  • Fostering a business perspective beyond the legal industry
  • Driving innovation in a professional services setting
  • Adapting to a changing marketplace with skills that prove their ability to pivot when needed
  • Breaking down internal silos, designing goals that align with the global picture
  • Building partnerships for clients that will benefit them as a value-add and serve as a business development tool

In return, here are some of the questions firms should expect to hear from seasoned candidates looking to assess the viability of the position:

  • What is the firm’s financial position? Do you have debt outside of real estate assets?
  • What is your compensation model?
  • What succession plan is in place?
  • When is the last time the firm performed a market positioning audit to understand the place they hold in the competitive landscape?
  • What value-add offerings do you currently use to attract prospective clients?
  • What is the firm’s threshold for innovation/risk?
  • Does the firm currently hold any key strategic partnerships?

After the New CMO is Hired

Scanning the data

Preparation

Spend the interim time between the CMOs acceptance and start date wisely. Assemble as much information and background as possible on the state of Marketing and client experience within your firm.  This groundwork, coupled with the original expectations agreed upon by your hiring committee, can provide him/her with the resources needed to shorten the learning curve and get to work. Another option is to dispatch an operational analyst to provide the new CMO with an independent inventory of department offerings, systems, processes and data. That information will provide him/her with a roadmap of department-wide resources, enabling them to target potential areas of improvement and begin building a culture of measurement and accountability within their new team.

The initial days, weeks and months after a CMO’s arrival are a formative time and it is important to exercise patience as they come up to speed.  Given the highly personal nature of marketing, it takes a CMO some time to begin truly understanding the firm’s culture and how to thrive within it.  Once they do, you should expect and encourage them to foster the kind of environment that will cultivate the kind of forward thinking that will take your firm into the future by prioritizing:

  • R&D and market intelligence to drive industry offerings
  • Proactive business planning and reporting using Account Based Marketing
  • Idea generation to create innovation in service delivery
  • Cross-collaboration with other business services teams across your firm

If done correctly, the Marketing team can actually pay for themselves by enabling your lawyer sales force to operate at their highest and best throughout the course of the sales funnel process.


Marketing is the place where the internal and external needs of your firm collide, and it will be a driving force in law firm sustainability in the years to come. The right CMO in your firm will be a cornerstone for a successful strategy in this increasingly client-driven marketplace, where firms are hungry for competitive advantages that truly differentiate that will help engage potential clients in lasting partnerships.  To capitalize on this investment, law firms need to be intentional and formulaic in their approach to bridge the gap between finding,  and keeping,  the right leader.


This article first appeared in Chapter 5 of the book Best Practices in Law Firm Marketing and Business Development, by Deborah R. Farone (© 2019 by Practising Law Institute).

Jennifer Johnson is the founder and CEO of Calibrate Legal. She has two decades of professional services experience, including six years at a law firm as head of recruiting, and 14 years in legal marketing executive search and organizational consulting.