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How to Succeed as a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO)

Raj Sarkar, Forbes Entrepreneurial CMO 2022, Shares His Secrets to Succeeding in Tech Enterprise Marketing

In the second event of the series How I Lead - Office Hours with the C-Suite I talked to Raj Sarkar CMO at 1Password about the skills needed to succeed at this position, leadership practices to develop soft skills and boost innovation, and trends in tech enterprise marketing.

You can watch the full event organized by the University of Michigan Alumni Club of Silicon valley here.

Here is the transcript of the interview:

How to succeed as a CMO in B2B tech?
How to succeed as a CMO in B2B tech?

1. How did you become a CMO? When in your career did you plan to be in the C-Suite?

I didn't plan for it, to be honest, it just happened. I was in Atlassian for almost six years. I worked on all products in the Atlassian family. One of the early investors in Atlassian invested in 1Password. Just before the pandemic happened they reached out to me and asked if I could help them build out marketing.

I was talking to the 1Password team on and off when they asked me to become an advisor. While I was an advisor, I left Atlassian and went to Palo Alto Networks for a few months.

When 1Password was looking for a CMO they reached out to me and that’s how it happened.

And it's funny enough, and this is what I tell my team as well - when you chase after titles, titles don't happen. And when you don't chase them, it just, if it's the right time, it's just gonna happen. So that's kind of my philosophy as well.

2. What are the skills that were fundamental for you to get into the CMO position?

I always have the philosophy that I'm not gonna be in the same role for more than one, or two years. I’ve been at Google for two and a half, three years. I was at Atlassian for six years, and in my journey there I have worked on almost every single product in the family.

In these roles, I created marketing plans for the developer audience, then for the consumer audience, and then for the enterprise audience. I also worked in Product Marketing and the way that Google and Atlassian defined PMM (Product Marketing Management), you are almost a mini-CMO.

I started more on the analytical side of marketing, and later in my career, I moved into the brand and the creative side. So that helped me because I basically worked with all the different functions of marketing, starting from brand and communications to product marketing, to operations and analytics. So that was one piece that has helped.

And the second piece is obviously the leadership component, which can’t be taught in a school or a class. It just happens with experience. I picked most of my leadership ethos working from great leaders at both Google and Atlassian.

So these are the two things: craft and leadership.

3. Is there anything that you learned at the University of Michigan that helped in your career as a marketing leader?

The University of Michigan helped me to learn how to work with different people. You become more patient.

In Michigan, you do projects as a team. Sometimes you get to choose the team and sometimes you’re assigned to it. I think the team assigned to you is a more realistic way of representing corporate life. Because sometimes you just enter a team. That's what happened to me at 1Password.

4. What is the main challenge to choose the right people when the company is still forming its culture?

It's very easy to test people on their hard skills during the interview. What is really hard to test is the soft skills this is why people gravitate towards bringing in people that they have worked with, because you already know what their style is.

The second thing you can't test is leadership. There may be some people who are really good at interviewing, but when they come to a job, it doesn't match what they said during the recruitment process.

Soft and leadership skills become more important as you go up the hierarchy. When you are starting off the hard skills are more important, but as you go up the chain, your substance becomes more and more important because you get to run organizations where there may be certain areas you're not good at, or you don't understand.

It's impossible for me to understand every single function of marketing. I have sixteen functions in my organization. I'm not an expert in all those sixteen functions. I know a little bit, to be dangerous.

The point is are you able to ask the right questions or not? The more and more you go up the chain, the more critical it is to know how to motivate and inspire your team.

5. What were the main skills that you had to learn in the role?

I always say that feedback is a gift or feedback is a blessing. What I've seen is the people who are most successful in their careers are people who actually constantly crave feedback. Because for soft skills, most of the time, you might have a blind spot, of which you are not aware.

And it has happened to me so many times in my career. I always tell this story, at one point in time, I was getting fired because I was trying too much to protect my team and it was harming the other cross-functional teams.

One of the biggest things you can do, especially on the soft skill set on the leadership side is always ask for feedback and being open to change. That's the only way you're gonna get better and be successful in your career.

It’s also important to give feedback. One of the leadership ethos in my organization is radical candor. It is all about caring deeply and challenging directly at the same. Because if you don't care deeply and you challenge directly, then you may come across as obnoxious when you're giving feedback.

Leadership and soft skills are key to succeed as a CMO
Leadership and soft skills are key to succeed as a CMO

6. How have you been using Outbound Fury to make enterprise tech more human?

Let’s separate the two pieces: outbound furry and how to make enterprise tech more human

On outbound fury, I wrote a blog post some time ago. I learned about it for the first time when I was at Google. At that time, the Google apps team (now called Google Workspace) was competing with Microsoft Office, and Microsoft Office was a very well-known product - in the industry, every single company in the world was using Microsoft office.

So, how do you compete with the product, which is number one? One of the mantras that the Google enterprise team had is every single article, that talks about Microsoft Office should be talking about Google apps. That's how it started. And the whole concept of outbound fury is being furious from an outbound motion perspective.

This means that every week, we would get in a room and talk about what press coverage can we get this week. What interesting article or blog post can we write this week?

One way to build a brand is to have your name fast all around San Francisco, on billboards all around you. During those times, Google didn't have a lot of advertising budget. The idea behind the outbound theory is, how do you build a brand on a dime?

Atlassian used a similar philosophy as when I was part of the team, we didn't have a lot of dollars to spend. So we would come out with exciting ways to engage our customers on social media. That is what outbound theory is in a nutshell.

Now talking about being more human with enterprise is a completely separate conversation. And this conversation is happening more right now because of the changes happening in the workforce. People joining the workforce right now are born in the internet and the Facebook generation. They're more used to the consumerization of that.

So one of the things I think a lot of enterprise companies do a mistake is using the same strategies as 10 years ago - when you talk to enterprise buyers, you need to be serious, you can't be colorful, you can't use the pink color. And now this has changed drastically because a lot of the purchases are getting influenced by the people who are using it.

10 years back, you would sell a solution to a CISO (Chief Information and Security Officer), and now the developers make a call. The marketers make the call on what apps they're gonna use. So it's more important for enterprises products to talk to the buyer as a human.

7. What are the main differences to lead Marketing for public and private companies?

In both scenarios, you have pressure. In one scenario, you have pressure coming from your earning scale, you set an expectation and you have to meet the numbers. On a private company, it's very similar, you have expectations from the investors.

But I think the difference is in a public company, you are under more scrutiny. So you have to be very careful about what you say publicly. When you are doing a marketing campaign, you have to be more conscious about a lot of stuff when you're a public company, versus when you're a private company. I think as a private company, you have more freedom to experiment and play around, which you don't have as much when you're a public company.

8. Did this freedom help on the first commercial that you did for 1Passoward?

The whole reasoning on the commercial with Ryan Reynolds goes back to what I was talking about. Security is a term that people usually think it's hard, it's tough. We wanted to make security accessible to consumers.

That was the whole idea behind the commercial. If you want to go after a non-tech savvy audience have the concept of password management hidden in a funny story.

Storytelling and Innovation are Key to Reach Tech Enterprise Audience
Storytelling and Innovation are Key to Reach Tech Enterprise Audience

9. How do you divide your attention among focusing on the company marketing strategy, understanding where the industry is heading, evaluating new marketing and ads channels, and building your personal brand?

That's a loaded question. Let’s separate the personal from the professional.

I use LinkedIn almost as my personal outbound fury brand channel for my brand and that works. And I always tell this to my team - if you can't do like marketing for yourself, how you gonna market a product. I think it's important to have a personal brand.

Professionally I think the way I divvy up is I read mostly about what's going on in the industry in the morning. I usually have an hour blocked in the morning when I do some reading, like what's happening in tech, in the financial world. And then usually after dinner in the evening is when I do the reading for the company-related stuff because I don't have time during the day.

The weekend is all about nonfiction reading.

10. Do you rely a lot on your team to make sure that all the areas are moving?

There's no way I can have a finger on 16 functions at the same time. I have to trust my team, that they're doing the right thing and then they will come to me with the stuff which they think is the most important that needs my attention.

11. How do you build and maintain a culture of innovation in your team and your organization?

That's an interesting question. It starts with the culture of failures. If you don't create a safe space for failures, people are not going to think outside the box.

I was talking about like how I had a leadership ethos. I also have something called the crafty ethos The first one is associated with - hey, you should be extremely proud of what you're shipping. The second one is about failing fast and iterating.

I always say this, if you are not failing enough, you're not trying hard. That's why it is so important that you celebrate and encourage failures. And that's how you create a culture of innovation.

12. How do you know when to stop a project that may not be working, even if it sounded like a good idea?

There's this sunk cost fallacy which usually happens a lot. Something has been working. Now it's not working, but I haven't invested so much in this, so I will keep doing it.

At a certain point in time, you have to just pull the plug. The numbers will tell you. If it worked in the first three months and it's not working in the last 30 days, then that messaging is probably not working.

Nowadays even a viral video, like the ad with Ryan Reynolds had the majority of the views the first seven days after that it's the long tail. So, everything has a shelf life and at a certain point in time, you just have to pull it.

13. What is something that you believe in and that other people think is crazy?

The only thing I can think about is this whole concept of enterprise marketing. I have bought back internally how we need to change it.

Some interesting companies are doing out-of-the-box experiments on TikTok. I'm bugging my team to 1Password TikTok.

14. What are your favorite books?

Why We Sleep - and the reason why this book is important is that it has changed the culture in Silicon Valley to some extent.

People always think, that if you are up like five nights and working hard, you can still be productive, but basically, this book proves you wrong. And this is research-based. Every single portion in this room should read that book.

The second book is Leonardo DaVinci by Walter Isaacson. When you read that book, you realize how curious that person was. Remember, this was way before you could Google information. He would get up in the morning and he would create a note of the 10 things he wanted to know about that day.

He was an artist and a scientist at the same time and he was very curious, very curious. And I think people who are successful as well, like being curious and asking questions.


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