CMOs: Let middle managers lead radical innovation

New academic research argues executive-level marketing leaders should take a backseat and let middle-managers initiate change, while they support and implement it

It’s by taking an unconventional but deliberately supportive role to middle managers that CMOs can truly lead radical change initiatives, a new academic paper claims.  

The new evidence-based research paper produced by Macquarie University associate professor in strategy and innovation, Ralf Wilden; Monash University associate professor, Pitosh Heyden; and Hyper Anna marketing director, Dr Chelsea Wise, took a detailed look at the role of the CMO during a crisis such as COVID-19. And what they found was taking a backseat was one of the best ways such leaders could respond.  

Rather than reactively cutting costs by culling middle management ranks, an all-to-often reaction by organisations when facing a crisis, the ‘Navigating Crisis from the backseat? How top managers can support radical change initiatives by middle managers’, argues middle managers are in fact the most instrumental in getting radical change initiatives across the line. By mid-level managers leading the way, companies are best exposed to new product and service innovations.  

And it’s radical innovation efforts that will best serve organisations in the long run. The paper points to several studies showing companies that respond to crises by pursuing radical innovation tend to better perform in long-term.  

Marketing managers in particular, are well-positioned for change initiation because of three skills: Sensing (anticipatory and internal sensing); challenging (encouraging direct feedback and embracing debate and discussion); and transmitting (unravelling conflicting messages and upward and downward information funnelling).  

For this to happen, middle-level marketing managers need to initiate, while CMOs implement, the paper suggests. The interesting role-reversal takes its cues from recent developments in managerial change theory also explored by one of the latest authors, Monash University’s Heyden, first published in 2016. That research found effectively navigating change comes via a reversal of conventional change roles: Middle managers should initiate, while top managers support them in that initiation.  

“Middle managers are boundary-spanning actors who operate at a key intersection between the firm and its environment, while also connecting executive and supervisory tiers within the organisation,” the latest research paper stated. “For B2B firms, marketing managers are the key interface between the company and core customers. As such, they are the first sense ripples in the environment, while also being – correspondingly – entrusted as first responders.  

“The COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity for organisations to rethink the ‘strategic’ and ‘tactical’ roles of the CMO and middle-level marketing managers in radical change initiatives.”  

The report makes clear this is not about diminishing the CMO’s role. In fact, the paper highlights executive-level marketers ensure a firm’s strategy “has a non-trivial market orientation”, and also bridge functional silos to create synergies. In addition, Wilden, Heyden and Wise highlight research by University of Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business’ assistant professor of marketing, Frank Germann, which suggests firms with a CMO benefit financially by up to 15 per cent.       

3 key roles of supporting change

But while CMOs play a key role in driving organisational innovation, they can’t do it alone. The report authors argue CMOs need to adopt one of three key roles to support middle managers: Advisor, Judge and Guardian. These, in turn, correspond to each stage of radical innovation projects: Ideation, feedback and commitment.  

As an ‘advisor’, for example, a CMO encourages exploration and development of new ‘know-how’, as well as dissenting perspectives. They also delineate ‘bounds of acceptable proactive behaviour’ and provide emotional support in instances where ideation results in sunken costs.  

By contrast, a ‘judge’ incentivises and rewards ideation, and encourages a learning culture that accepts failure. A ‘guardian’-oriented CMO helps navigate socio-political environments, installs structural safeguards to protect radical ideas and sponsors new ideas and experimentation internally.    

Wilden said the trio recognised there was a lot of research on the CEO role, but less research on the CMO. One thing that quickly became clear was the connectedness of the marketing leadership role.

“CMOs can’t do everything – they rely on other people across the organisation,” Wilden told CMO. “There are various levels of marketing managers participating in this and it’s through them you see a lot of change initiated.”

Yet during any crisis, including the COVID-19 pandemic, layoffs are commonly the first decision made. “The data we found available suggests the next layoffs will be middle managers, leaving CMOs and top-level managers to do more. But we know from our last studies middle managers are often trusted to initiate change more by staff,” Wilden said.

“In a crisis, you have to find new sources of revenue, new products and services, quickly,” Heyden continued. Again, he emphasised change led by middle managers and supported by top managers receives the highest level of buy-in and oftens prove more effective.

Another aspect of innovation is the growing need for agility. Wilden noted dialogue on agile commonly reflect on the importance of a fluid organisation structure. But it’s also vital to have external partners and customers involved.

“Customers, for one, want to be more involved in the offerings and the value they receive. There’s a higher value to think not just about your organisation, but the broader ecosystem,” Wilden pointed out. “Often you have customers, supply chains and distribution partners. With crowdsourcing and open innovation, what we’re seeing is there’s more people involved outside the organisation than inside it.

“What that means is we have to have people who are customer and client facing to enable it. We need more people with the outward-looking job descriptions.”

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Speaking as a marketing director, Wise said she’s seen digital and data leaders over the past three months turning to the marketing function for advice on navigating the uncertain time and helping evangelise their functions. It’s a broader role than undertaken external customer messaging and again shows marketing’s importance, she said.

In addition, middle managers are in a position where they can manage both up and down. They can transfer information from external players they’re getting back up, as well as translate what’s coming down. By CMOs taking one of the three roles the paper describes – advisor, judge and guardian – they’re also building a two-way engagement with these middle managers.

“It pays for CMOs to take a step back and let people in the middle to lead the change,” Heyden said.

Heyden hoped the paper would further add to the dialogue of the evolution of the CMO role.

“What we hope comes out of this is that as CMO, you know what is going on in your organisation and what ideas are being generated. But also, you’re ensuring all parts of the organisation access that information afterwards,” he added.

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