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The Sailing #CMO Who Wins the Digital Race

Sailing in SF.jpg

(Photo credit: Eric Kilby)

I had an epiphany during my most recent sailing trip: being a CMO is a lot like sailing a boat as a captain in the ocean. While the sport seems cool and relaxing, it is in fact challenging and focus-demanding. To be a good skipper, one must keep her ears and eyes open, have a clear vision about the directions and the journey, and must be equipped with proper tools and knowledge of the water and wind, to steer the boat and crew into winning territory.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

Sailing is Not (That) Relaxing, And Being a CMO Is Tough Job

Before having actual sailing experience, I remembered sitting at my desk gazing out of the window on work days from a San Francisco Financial District’s office building and imagining how easy breezy the lives of those sailors must be, drifting on their white sail boats in the blue bay.

I could not have imagined the strong winds through which they were trying to maneuver boats, of course.

Now that I’ve had a few outings under my belt, I learned that San Francisco Bay is famous (or notorious) for its high winds, tough current and shifting tides. They said; if you learned to sail in San Francisco, you can sail anywhere in the world!

CMOs seem to be the ones who get to have the most fun among all the CXOs because they often drive the creative side of the business. Still, I would argue that CMOs actually have the toughest jobs because the digital revolution is transforming the marketplace with lightning speed.  IBM’s 2011 CMO study shows 52% of the CMOs feel unprepared for the complexities they are facing, and yet as this study from The Economist indicates, a Good CMO must be able to find signals through the noise. (Click on the link to download this report.)

The Balance between the Inner Compass and Outer Compass (Art vs. Science)

Sailing tools such as the compass and GPS are vital. They provide data of the navigable surroundings, locate the boat in open waters, and help the skipper plan her route. An experienced skipper also knows how to read the wind, current, sun position in the sky and weather conditions so she can tack upwind and jibe downwind, and finally arrive at the destination. What’s more, as opposed to a car’s immediate reaction to its steering wheel, the boat has a delayed response to the captain’s wheel. Therefore, the skipper must “feel it” in order not to overcorrect the direction of a boat. Relying solely on the compass or GPS will not get the skipper very far, and sailing safely through various water conditions demands experience.

A good CMO must be her own navigator, depending not only on the analytical data but also on her senses and observations. Yes, she needs tools to understand and engage with more demanding customers, measure ROI and set up metrics – but the data captured by these tools can only tell her part of the story. She must also find her inner compass, which is not made of magic but experience. “CMOs need to recognize the capabilities and limitations of the tools available to access their clients, deliver their message and glean customer insights,” as the Economics study suggested. (Click on the link to download this report.)

Leadership in the Race

On a race boat that does not have a keel to balance itself, each crew member is not only tasked with a specific responsibility to push the boat towards winning the goal, but also needs to literally “weight in” using their body weight to balance the boat so it doesn’t capsize – it is a matter of life and death in San Francisco Bay’s freezing water. The captain must size up the race with a good understanding of the available talent pool she can work with, in order to assign appropriate roles to the crew, and be able to lead them through the stormy water calmly, and meanwhile motivate them to victory.

To win the consumer engagement race in the ever-changing market, CMOs have to have a clear picture in mind, and work with cross-functional teams of finance, R&D, operations and customer relations, for example, to ensure that all team members are focused on winning the same race. . To bring each team member up to speed and exceed expectations to pull their own weight, communications and project management skills drive the whole organization forward.  In this case, proper enterprise software will provide the insight and help CMOs manage not only the business, teams, tasks and also customer relationships.


You don’t have to be able to sail to be a CMO, and vice versa. But the ability to navigate the sea of data and make connections – of seemingly irrelevant information, people and teams using the balanced approach of data analytics tools and experience – is what gives you the winning edge in marketing. Happy sailing!

Click here to download “Visions in Marketing – Finding the Signal through the Noise”; a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

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