Is now the time when corporate sales and marketing skill sets are most valuable, and possibly an imperative, in the boardroom?
Each day, the media is replete with news of: new economic challenges, government stimulus programs reaching deeper into the private sector, previously blue-chip stocks trading below asset value (or in some cases, even cash on hand) and a new administration calling for more "change" to corporate tax bases. It's no wonder corporate boards are calling special sessions to reassess their strategies going forward.
Some boards seeking solace in this storm can only remind themselves of the Chinese folklore which suggests there is often "opportunity for the wise" in widespread chaos.
As safer routes are being plotted to navigate these unchartered waters, enlightened boards may take this time to also reassess the skill sets of their current members against these new global challenges. Aside from having the luminaries to attract and influence, the financial skills to comply and protect, or the domain experience to steer and correct, the question being asked today is, "Do board members have the talent, time, and energy to help the company be nimble, creative, and grow?" Some boards have turned to their customer base as an expeditious path to growth; and consider this time almost ideal to forge deeper and more strategic global relationships with this important and strategic corporate asset.
Sales and Marketing…the New Valued Skill Set
As boards consider strategic growth, perhaps a new requisite set of experiences and skills emerging for directors could be coming from the historically lesser-selected profession of global corporate sales and marketing executives.
In the past, boards tended to overlook sales and marketing executives because an adequate supply of traditional candidates was available. While boards long have recognized their composition and structure must evolve, today, perhaps more than any time before, board searches need to more closely align new talent and new skill sets with the new corporate direction and complexities at hand.
More specifically, I believe, when growth is a strategy, a requisite set of skills and experience can be found in those sales and marketing leaders who have built, grown, and led billion-dollar-plus "business-to-business" sales organizations. These are senior executives who have led global resources and know how to forge business growth and deep strategic relationships when times are difficult. Equally valuable candidates, and potentially particularly tuned to boards seeking rapid growth, are those sales and marketing executives from smaller organizations where speed and flawless execution are their organization's life's blood.
Board members, with these experiences, could bring immediate, substantial, unique and differentiable advantages into the boardroom. And especially in today's environment, when many business customers are paralyzed with apprehension, having an experienced corporate sales and marketing leader on the board can even become a comforting and potentially differentiated competitive edge.
Why Are These Experiences and Skills So Important?
The experience and skill set corporate sales and marketing leaders bring to the boardroom are both strategically important and tactically beneficial.
Strategically, this potential new breed of directors can provide immediate benefit with their deep customer insights and relationships—gleaned from years in industry—and sage advice on strategic marketing investments where their hands-on experience has demonstrated definitive results.
Tactically, these sales and marketing executives are most often "DNA programmed" to actively support the management team, by offering leads into prospective customers through people they know; by guiding collaborative partnerships with customers; by providing expert-level media testimony; by contributing their expertise at company- or industry-sponsored events; and by potentially even suggesting alternative, more efficient, go-to-market strategies and tactics.
When growth is strategic, this new breed of director can deliver even more levels of high value because they have been trained to think out of the box for growth opportunities regardless of the challenges. Additionally these sales and marketing leaders most often inherently have the ability to turn negatives into positives, to motivate colleagues and even, when appropriate, motivate the company's management team to achieve difficult objectives.
Directors with corporate sales and marketing leadership backgrounds typically have personal characteristics boards may find attractive, as well. In general, senior sales and marketing executives are typically industry savvy, confident, willing to take a strong position when necessary, and can inject a level of energy and healthy debate into a board without destroying the collegiality that has been established during the board's years of working together.
In my experience, these are typically resourceful individuals, able to think "on their feet" after years of having to do the same in front of customers, and are generally likeable—given this trait is almost a prerequisite for their success in years of interfacing with customers and industry colleagues.
And lastly, almost parenthetically, they typically are "wired" for multitasking, meeting deadlines, navigating corporate matrices, living with quarterly quantifiable performance metrics, and have the talent to articulate positions in a persuasive manner—while still remaining open to the views of others.
According to David M. Ernsberger, retired sales leader of IBM Technology Group and currently serving on the board of Bell Microproducts, an international distributor of high-tech products, services, and solutions, "the time is now" for boards to be leveraging the skills of past sales leaders. "When times are tough, and most companies focus on major cost reductions, those with directors who have past sales leadership experience and skills know how to use these times to drive market differentiation and share gain by solidifying long-term customer relationships."
These directors, Ernsberger further says "often become a driving force in the strategic leadership of the company, which delivers benefits not only to shareholders, but also to customers, suppliers, and the entire management team."
Henri Richard, another seasoned corporate sales and marketing executive, currently sits on two public company boards, Ultratech, a company in advanced packaging lithography technology and laser processing, and ASBIS, a distributor of computer components, blocks, and peripherals. As Freescale's chief sales and marketing officer, Richard reminds, "Companies that make it through this economic crisis will have to outperform their competitors on the top line, as well as the bottom line." Doing so will require board members who are able to support their management team with quantifiable contributions.
On this point, Richard recalls a board meeting when one of the company's marketing executives was presenting the marketing roll-out plan for a new product. Due to the company's heavily technical culture, most of the features and benefits presented were understandably technical. With his attention tuned to real customer benefits, he recognized the program was missing a key differentiated feature, which, once remedied, improved the product's value proposition immediately and significantly increased the campaign's ROI. When it comes to costs savings, Richard also points out, this type of board director often can quickly assess compensation plans and "from hands-on experience [they] intuitively know what works and what doesn't work."
Why Are There So Few Sale Executives on Boards Today?
Regrettably, sales executives often have been off the radar screen of most director appointments and searches. While reasons may have included their own personal preferences or corporate culture, exceptional corporate sales and marketing leaders, often chief sales officers and/or chief marketing officers (CSO and/or CMOs), do not typically become CEOs or CFOs. Nor are they the political, technological, or academic luminaries who historically comprised the fishing pond of most historic searches. Boards have not valued their potential contributions. But perhaps the single most important reason for a limited number of sales leaders in the boardroom has been the supply-and-demand ratio of CEOs. Historically, there has been an adequate supply of traditional directors to meet demand.
Today, things are different, and boards are seeking a broader set of skills to maximize their performance in building shareholder value.
Now is an appropriate time for all corporate boards to re-evaluate their current inventory of director skills and succession planning processes. In light of the mounting challenges of our new millennium, boards must consider the skills needed to grow in tough times, and determine if they have the ones required to navigate successfully. If those skills are present in the directors sitting around the table, boards should leverage them effectively soon.
If the board's skills assessment and board succession planning suggests a need for more nimble and energized talent, with a more creative focus on growth, perhaps it is time to think twice about requiring it to be filled with a sitting CEO. Now could be the right time to consider onboarding someone with corporate sales and marketing leadership experience.
The good news is, there is a definitive pool of highly qualified sales and marketing executives to consider, and they are ready to step up and serve today.
In fact, maybe, this could be one of those rare, but timely "opportunities for the wise."
Bill LaRosa, CEO of GW LaRosa & Associates LLC, a global technology sales and business development firm, is a senior executive with global sales, marketing, and general management leadership experience in companies including GE, IBM, SGI, and Advanced Micro Devices. LaRosa chaired the board of Lead Group Internal Inc.; currently serves on the board of advisors for StorSpeed in Austin, TX; and was a past director on the advisory board of the Lubin School of Business at PACE University in New York.