4 chief growth officers on what makes them tick

Hot on the heels of CMO's investigation into the rise of the chief growth officer and its potential to replace the marketing chief, we speak to 4 CGOs about what their roles entail and what it takes to embrace the job

Being a systems thinker

Over at WiseTech, there is no CMO, and its chief growth officer, Gail Williamson, strikes a marked difference to many CGOs appointed outside of Australia. WiseTech makes technology for the logistics industry and operates globally, with 40 offices in different markets and languages.

“We are a pure tech company… all we do is make technology and we have a very long pipeline and are growing rapidly,” she tells CMO.  “If we look at that focus of the organisation, it’s on sustainable, scalable and very effective hyper growth. We have to have someone to coordinate and facilitate resources and optimise them so we’re focused on that longer-term growth. It’s not a marketing or sales role given another title.”

Gail WilliamsonCredit: WiseTech Global
Gail Williamson

In the last 18 months, Williamson has had a number of companies approach her locally and internationally asking about her role because they see differences in how it is structured.

“Here, being a chief growth officer is about removing constraints, optimising resources, and it’s multi-functional, spanning capital markets to marketing channels, governance, looking at the culture. It’s designed to optimise and enable the growth of the organisation,” she says.

In WiseTech’s case, the growth pipeline is commonly perceived in a 3-5 year timeframe. In addition, it’s less about big upfront licence sales, and more about a focus on incremental increases in utilising the ever-expanding tech platform. This means ‘growth’ is more about value than transactional sales, Williamson continues, and optimising assets such as human capital and the multi-year tech pipeline.

“You want to build the value – we have less than 1 per cent attrition for the last seven years, so we have practically no churn,” she points out. “We have quadrupled revenues and our workforce, and grown our business with 33 software company acquisition in the last three years.

“On top of that, in the last five years, we’ve also created a global integrated operating system for global logistics, operating in 130 countries, and added more than 3000 new technologies and products. So our growth comes primarily from building our technology and loading it into the platform, and the organic growth of our 12,000 customers using our platform more.”  

For Williamson, WiseTech’s chief growth officer requires a multi-functional, systems thinking approach. Having experience in multi-industry and multi-functional roles is another must.

“That allows you to bring in a high degree of intelligence and to interrogate thinking across what is the norm and what is acceptable,” she says. “We talk about benchmarking, but if everyone is just copying each other, there’s no deep thinking or people to challenge the status quo to do things better. People with that broad experience, and an ability to challenge the status quo to create something of even greater value, are key here.

“It’s also having the resilience to push through to – the CGO role is about change. That’s not committees or communication, but being able to identify and optimise resources then push through change so you can get to something of greater value. So there are personal characteristic that are relevant, plus experience that enables you to be able to work with the various parties and understand clearly the different components that must be brought in.”

Those starting in CGO roles tend to come with extraordinary technology or industry background and have worked through a number of roles, Williamson claims. In her own case, Williamson started in communications then investor relations at AMP, before holding a regional marketing and communications position at ABN Amro and then MD at investor advisory firm, OxStone. She originally joined WiseTech as GM of investor relations and corporate affairs.

“CGOs know the difference between what done looks like, and what good looks like,” she says. “There are a lot of people who’ve done things, but not so many that have done great things.”

At WiseTech, five identified growth levers are pushed simultaneously.

“We do that supported by tech platforms we build for ourselves internally to help scale up even more efficiently,” Williamson says. “As CGO, there are many hats you have to wear any given day, however, it’s a focus on value, particularly long-term, and seeing it reflected in a numbers of different ways- capital markets, stakeholders, employee engagement – there are so many parameters.

“You have to optimise the system as a whole to create something with a strong foundation so you can move at speed.”

Knowing all the right growth drivers

Wavemaker chief product and growth officer, James Hier, attributes the rise of his title’s poularity to growth hacking and the rise of Silicon Valley startups. While that kind of “growth at all costs model” is not necessarily as applicable to other businesses, he does believe having a chief growth leader can help drive change.

The trick here is understanding growth within the context of the business you are in.

“It’s not just penetration – it’s migration to more premium products or higher volume products; it’s switching, and share of market; and it’s diversification of your business and master brand. And it happens to be acquisition as well,” Hier comments. “To lean into one of these only is dangerous – there are multiple ways you actually do grow.”

Credit: Wavemaker

Using ‘growth’ does give you that one KPI to work to together, Hier continues. “That’s the power of it: A single-minded ability to aim towards without losing the long-term thinking that growth comes from all parts of the business. It’s not a headlong rush into quarterly results or short-term growth driven by pure acquisition.”  

While marketers have always looked to drive growth, there are many parts of an organisation they have to influence to get it. Yet they’re often not responsible for them.

“Retention may be part of growth, for example, but you may not control that area of the business,” Hier says. “You have to influence and engage in order to create an integrated growth agenda. You are responsible for growth, but that can be siloed. That’s the business problem today.”  

Yet if Hier didn’t hold this title, he wouldn’t be a CMO. His career trajectory is distinctive, stretching from media director at Starcom Mediavest Group, to marketing communications consulting, then chief strategy officer at MEC Australia and New Zealand, eventually rising to CEO.

He describes his current role in two parts. The first is delivering growth for Wavemaker. That requires an understanding of growth levers, and leading, working and influencing different parts of the business.

“Secondly, my job is to help set a growth agenda for our clients,” Hier explains. “There are four ‘mores’ we talk about that you can do: People, share, volume and value. They tell you what your strategy is and that helps us understand what we need to do. If you can’t do that, I can’t tell you which are the right audiences or channels or how to use them.”

This process is called ‘rapid growth planning’ and starts by understanding the purchase journey of a client’s category first and foremost.

“The kernel is then what is the growth opportunity. From there, there may be a cultural trends, or audiences to speak to, channel or distribution channel,” Hier says.  “But without the growth opportunity identified first, it’s irrelevant. It’s why we signal with my title that this is what our agency does.” 

Unlike many growth leaders, Hier also holds the chief product officer title.

“If that is not absolutely north starred to growth, it’s probably not right for this agency,” he says. “Much of our MPD is driven globally, but we have to bring it down and try to understand how it fulfils our agenda of growth and where it fits. Does it help clients to better manage audiences and growth that way, or is it more an acquisition tool for someone looking to get more market share?

“The media business is challenging – all our clients are on a perpetual search for reach. Our role is understanding that sometimes a piece of technology can be the best way to reach someone to fulfil your growth agenda. And it’s bringing the different parts of the business that could add to your growth agenda. That’s where I have to understand my business, and marketers needs to understand all the different components that could be contributing to growth not part of their remit.” 

A personality call

Amy O’Connor is the inaugural chief growth officer at Solider.ly. The Australian startup produces military-grade ‘empathetic technologies’, via wearable devices and an app, aimed at assisting individuals and organisations detect and manage stress. The company’s first paid-for pilot has just gone live, and a seed funding round is in the works.

Amy O'ConnorCredit: Amy O'Connor
Amy O'Connor

Originally brought on as marketing director, and still waiting for the CMO title to be replaced on her business card, O’Connor quickly discovered the label wasn’t right given the organisation’s growth trajectory and her priority set.

“It made sense at the time to take that title but I found it didn’t feel right, so I looked to see what other CMOs were doing,” O’Connor explains. “Those CMOs in big companies just didn’t feel like me – I’m not in a big corporate or a c-suite kind of person. And while I have a marketing background, CMO felt like it trapped you into a silo of just marketing.

“I stumbled across the chief growth officer role and job description and that’s what I do, but also what I want to grow into as this business grows.”

Key attributes of the chief growth officer role include sitting across a range of teams, with overarching responsibility for keeping the business on its growth trajectory, she says. It’s therefore a position encompassing marketing, business development, sales, working across product, external partnerships, and even helping with recruitment and company culture.

“It depends on the size of the company, but that is what I’m doing here at Soldier.ly,” O’Connor says. “Right now, instead of focusing solely on marketing, I could widen the remit and understand responsibility for growth in every aspect.”

As the business changes and gets bigger, O’Connor plans to bring on staff with digital marketing experience and sees potential for a CMO to work alongside her longer-term.

Meantime, helping provide cross-functionality unity is the adoption of OKRs, which Soldier.ly uses to identify and stick to three key business objectives. O’Connor says OKRs are a great way for startups to shut out the noise and desire to do everything, and focus on getting the things that matter most done first.

Right now, Soldier.ly’s top priority is launching a pilot with first paying client, Zurich Insurance. The Zurich pilot comes after Soldier.ly won a global innovation award in the inaugural Zurich Insurance Innovation World Championship in February.

“These [OKRs] give us flexibility to just get things done and also to grow fast,” O’Connor says. “As the team and business evolves, the goals evolve.”

O’Connor’s background is in growth marketing, and she says it’s largely organic, attention-driven marketing she’s devising right now for Soldier.ly.

“Using social channels is a vital one for us, and we have a large community of military veterans. Having that constant presence in social to be front of mind all the time is key for us. So it’s about regular messaging in the market, then having good digital footprint on the site and via media,” she says. “We are about to seed raise, so with that should come more marketing budget and we can look at where to scale.”

Ultimately, O’Connor puts the validity of the chief growth officer position down to personality.

“It’s a good one for companies with a steep growth trajectory – some marketers can’t handle that pace and look for more structure. In high-growth businesses, you need a personality that wants to take risks and can work across the business, so a chief growth officer role should work well,” she says.

“But also it could be a CMO that’s right for that approach. There will be times when things will need to settle and the company needs more stability and a CMO, like in our business, would provide that.”

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