Set Up to Fail


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Credit: Richard Mia/

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Poor design of C-suite jobs can block executives from succeeding in their roles.

Why is the average tenure of a C-suite executive a brief 5.3 years? And why do chief marketing and chief information officers last barely more than four years in the job, on average?1

The answer may lie between the lines of the job specifications shopped around by executive recruiters. One of us (Kimberly A. Whitler) was approached to gauge interest in a CMO position and, as she reviewed the 12-page job spec, realized that she couldn’t in good conscience recommend anyone for the role. Based on the responsibilities, expectations, and ideal candidate qualifications described in that document, the role was poorly designed. It was setting up the incoming CMO for failure.

Unfortunately, based on our experience and research, many C-level jobs are poorly designed — and the individuals interviewing for these jobs are unaware of it. We shared that CMO job spec with a group of senior-level marketers and asked how many would be interested in the role, assuming it offered competitive compensation and an attractive location. A large majority of the executives were interested: They had no idea how to assess how well aligned the responsibilities, performance expectations, and qualifications were — and whether the job design set them up to succeed or fail.

An Expensive Problem

What makes the short C-level tenure surprising is that it is similar to that of average salaried workers, despite the much greater effort, expense, and time spent identifying and filling C-level roles.2 Companies pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to executive recruiting firms and may involve other C-suite executives, including the CEO, and potentially the board of directors, in defining and approving C-level roles.

We believe that one of the issues contributing to C-level turnover is a lack of alignment on key elements of the role. Consequently, individuals wind up stepping into a role that is poorly designed, and ultimately they either become frustrated and leave or disappoint the CEO and are asked to leave. But we believe this can be remedied. Here, we explain how we arrived at our conclusions and share an alignment tool that can help design better C-level jobs.

To understand C-suite job design, we analyzed a total of 185 C-level job specifications that included descriptions for CFO, CIO, and CMO roles. A job spec is typically created by the executive recruiting firm hired to find candidates. It is based on input from executives at the hiring company, who will later confirm that it is an accurate representation of the position. After that, the document is shared with potential candidates. Consequently, the job spec is the pivotal document in the candidate sourcing process: It defines the job that the recruiting firm has been contracted to fill, and it establishes the expectations, requirements, and duties of the job that a prospective candidate will accept.

Our objective was to understand within-role alignment, or the degree to which expectations, responsibilities, and experience synced up and matched one another. The job specs came from the four largest executive recruiting firms, midsize recruiting firms, and a number of boutique firms that specialize in specific industries or positions.

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We also found variance in the degree of misalignment across the three C-suite functions. For example, the CIO job specs had higher levels of misalignment on expectations-responsibilities (53%) and experience-responsibilities (49%) than those of CFOs or CMOs. CMO specs had the highest level of misalignment on expectations-experience (41%) compared with those of CFOs and CIOs.

Importantly, the CIO and CMO job specs generally described a greater variety of expectations, responsibilities, and experiences than did the CFO specs, which indicates a greater degree of variability in how the CIO and CMO roles can be constructed and configured. Thus, if CFO roles are more consistent across companies, then the training and experience of individuals will also be more consistent, making it easier to create aligned roles — which may be reflected in CFOs’ slightly longer average tenure of 5.1 years compared with CIOs and CMOs. Conversely, if the composition of roles is more varied, it can increase the difficulty in designing the job and potentially contribute to the higher CIO and CMO turnover observed.

The consequence of misaligned roles can be significant. Consider the following rather common example we observed. If a job spec for a CMO indicates that they are expected to “create and drive the growth agenda,” but the CMO does not have responsibility for corporate strategy, product, innovation, pricing, distribution, or sales, there is clear misalignment. Here, the CMO is expected to drive growth and yet doesn’t have responsibility for most of the growth levers. What happens as the CMO starts a job with such a mismatch? The CMO may attempt to deliver on expectations by trying to influence all of the owners of growth — before developing the relationships underlying such influence. The CMO may realize fairly quickly that the role relies completely on influence — a situation that will make it difficult to achieve expectations. This is likely to lead to conflict, friction, and frustration while the CEO becomes disappointed as progress languishes. In this case, the misalignment between expectations and responsibilities can lead to significant CMO dissatisfaction with the role, and CEO perception of CMO failure.

Prepare to encounter the typical pushback we hear from leaders when we discuss the issue of misalignment: that those in C-level roles are often required to wield influence in addition to authority, and that if they need complete authority, they aren’t suited for these roles. Our response is that C-level leaders understand that their jobs require influence. The problem is that on a spectrum between complete responsibility and no responsibility/total influence, many of the job specs describe a role situated near the “total influence” end of the spectrum. The more the job depends on influence, the greater the risk — for both the company and the executive. It sets up the C-level leader to wield influence — often immediately — in areas where others will naturally be resistant. Executives can resolve this issue either by defining how each C-level leader specifically contributes to a more macro business outcome or by horizontally aligning C-suite leaders on shared business outcomes.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Kimberly A. Whitler (@kimwhitler) is the Frank M. Sands Sr. Associate Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, a former chief marketing officer, and author of Positioning for Advantage (Columbia University Press, 2021). Ed Tazzia is a principal at Sycamore and Co., a management consulting firm specializing in executive recruiting; global chairman of the P&G Alumni Network; and coauthor of Crafting Persuasion (1845 Publishing, 2019). Stephen Mann is a senior associate at JPMorgan Chase and a former Darden School of Business research assistant.

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