Marketing to Management: The 4 Stages of a Company, Its CEO

Question: If you are a CMO or other marketing executive new to an organization, what is the first and most important audience you must successfully understand and sell? The company CEO, of course.

Given that the shelf life life of most CMOs is less than that of an NFL running back (hint: fewer than three years), this is no immaterial question. And given that the Great and Powerful Egos who inhabit the CEO’s office can be masters of disguise, how best for a marketing executive to fully grasp the managerial style of that leader?

Turns out, the answer may lie in the particular life-cycle stage of the company itself. Just as anxious stage actors are known for sneaking a pre-show peek to gauge the temperament of their audience, marketing executives would be well-served to take the measure of the organization itself in predicting the likely outcome of their engagements with the CEO.

steve jobs

Where might the mercurial, often-brilliant management style of Steve Jobs have fit in the corporate life cycle stage?

Visionary, Barbarous, Dull or Dying: Which CEO are you marketing to?

One bleary-eyed morning a number of years ago, my then-company president gave a presentation on a fascinating theory that, over the years, has consistently proved true (at least in my own experience). Borrowed (and somewhat bastardized) from a 1990 business management theory by Fortune 500 consultant Lawrence Miller, I am further tailoring it here for the marketing executive. It goes something like this:

Organizations, like the humans who inhabit them, are in a constant state of flux and evolution. By recognizing the four stages of a business life cycle and figuring out where a company sits along that spectrum, marketing executives can identify the personality type of the company’s leader and tailor their engagements with that CEO accordingly. Those four evolutionary phases are:

  • The Prophet – This is the visionary, the individual who has come up with a better mousetrap. The visionary tends to be an idealist, far dreamier than pragmatic, lacks basic organizational skills, struggles to focus, can’t be bothered with details, and usually can be counted on to get the company going but not much beyond that (e.g. the ink hasn’t dried on the LLC paperwork and he’s off chasing the next Big Idea). Lots of dot-coms were ‘inspired’ – and ultimately doomed – by prophets who failed to make way for….
  • The Barbarian – The barbarian brings a kind of single-minded zealotry to the prophet’s dream and stops at nothing to make it a reality. As the title suggests, barbarians bring an aggressive, no-holds-barred business style with them. They tend to be hyper-controlling, loathe delegating responsibility, and are damned good at getting product to market. Left to their own devices, however, barbarians will eat their own young (e.g. burn out their colleagues). Many companies flame out because these leaders fail to cede control to….
  • The Manager – The manager puts in place the people, processes, and systems necessary to take the barbarian’s scorched-earth approach to business and transform it into a sustainable, ongoing enterprise. The manager has good people and organizational skills, establishes efficiencies, and foremost is focused on creating a well-oiled machine. However, the manager lacks long-term vision or creative powers, meaning the company is unlikely to grow or diverge into something new or different. Eventually, the ranks of the best and brightest begin to thin and the leadership vacuum is filled by….
  • The Bureaucrat – The bureaucrat clings desperately to the dream of what once was. The bureaucrat is not terribly good with people outside his/her comfort zone and prefers reports and presentations to brainstorming sessions and outside-the-box thinking. The bureaucrat is a figurative leader who more or less ‘leads’ the organization in its death spiral.

Because organizations, like their leaders, are dynamic, it is rare to find one that perfectly fits into any one of these profiles. Most are in fact transitioning from one life cycle stage to another, and by the time an organization reaches the bureaucratic phase of its existence, another prophet undoubtedly is envisioning a better mousetrap that will seal the older company’s doom.

For marketing leaders, then, it behooves them to take the measure not just of the man or woman at the helm, but of the organization itself. Is the organization scattershot or focused? Are executives empowered or obsequious? Do innovative ideas elicit huzzahs or allergic sneezing? Chances are very good that the answers to these questions will go far in telling you what you need to know about the CEO and, by extension, your fit within the organization.


Want more doug food? Doug Rekenthaler Jr.

I specialize in creative, compelling, informative content for organizations of all kinds. White papers, blogs, newsletters, Web content, marketing collateral, media articles and more.

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