Behind closed doors, in the corner offices of companies throughout the nation, a heated C-suite battle rages on. On the surface it looks like a battle waged over the corporate budget — a tale as old as time — with both sides seeking to claim a bigger portion of the pie. But a closer look at the classic fight between chief marketing officers (CMOs) and chief information officers (CIOs) reveals the contention is actually about much more than just money.
There are stark differences between CMOs and CIOs. CMOs tend to be female while CIOs tend to be male. More to the point, CMOs are liberal arts types while CIOs are technologists.
Companies can get past the mutual disdain and squabbling that prevent the collaboration needed to thrive in a tough global economy by investing in their “soft edge,” which will at least provide the executives the language to discuss their differences and the values to bridge them.
Most C-suites and shareholders speak the language of the hard edge: metrics, analytics, logistics, strategies and a well-defined and easy-to-see ROI. But today’s turbulent marketplace has taken much of the bite out of the hard edge. What can be measured and quantified can also be analyzed and copied by the competition. The “soft edge,” much tougher to quantify, might be summed up as “the expression of your deepest values” or “the heart and soul of your company.” My latest book describes the soft edge culture in terms of five pillars — Trust, Smarts, Teamwork, Taste and Story.
The companies that have achieved soft-edge excellence — the FedExes, Apples and NetApps of the world — are thriving, while others flounder in our uneven and unforgiving recovery. Let’s look at the soft edge in play at NetApp, a $6.5-billion vendor of computer network storage solutions.
Strive to understand each other’s challenges. (Soft Edge pillar: Trust) NetApp’s CMO, Julie Parrish, empathizes with the company’s CIO, Cynthia Stoddard. Parrish recognizes that Stoddard faces multiple challenges, including adapting to the cloud while assuring adequate security; betting on which technology platforms to go with; serving all functions at the company, not just marketing; and always doing more with less. Hers is a rapidly changing world.
And Stoddard recognizes that Parrish’s world is changing just as rapidly. After all, the share of marketing that goes through digital channels is growing like crazy. Social media, in particular, is always tossing up market opportunities that must be grabbed or they’re lost.
Stoddard recognizes that a CMO’s requests for greater technology budgets are not power grabs, but a reflection of reality. Of course, to come to that understanding, there must be trust — which comes from showing one has the other person’s best interests in mind, working hard to achieve common language and transparency, and doing what one says she will.
Work together to ensure mining of the right data. (Soft Edge pillar: Smarts) To stay ahead of the curve, Parrish and Stoddard regularly meet to discuss trends in predictive analytics, sentiment analysis and other valuable information. This requires a healthy CMO-CIO relationship. To stay smart, Parrish likes to put this question to their teams: What are the questions we should be asking?
That’s how NetApp gets the information it needs in order to build the right dashboards. “If you don’t ask the right questions,” Parrish explains, “you build up a lot of technology in marketing without any coherence.” As CMO, she uses Stoddard and her team of technologists to make sure marketing is using technology wisely and efficiently to get the data it needs.
Don’t succumb to departmental tunnel vision. Keep the needs of the whole company in mind. (Soft Edge pillar: Smarts) This is an important reminder for any C-suite leader, but especially for CMOs and CIOs, who may feel the urge to dig in their heels for their own department. It is vitally important, in fact, to have analytical people and intuitive people in the room together on every major issue.
Says Stoddard, “We use an enterprise executive architecture committee, with all the leaders of every NetApp function — marketing, sales, HR, operations, finance, and so on. That’s how we can come up with a roadmap for the whole company. We put on our NetApp hats and ask if this is the right thing to do for the company at this particular time.”
Regularly immerse yourself in the world of the “other side.” (Soft Edge pillar: Teamwork) In a healthy CMO-CIO relationship, members of the marketing team and the IT team do regular “tours of duty” on the other side. Embedded marketers get to learn from their IT counterparts about data and analytics; embedded IT people get to learn about key marketing programs and metrics. These tours of duty help establish common ground that can help create unity and trust and helps lubricate collaboration.
Be as transparent as possible. Invite scrutiny. (Soft Edge pillar: Teamwork) At NetApp, both sides are open and honest about their cost structures. NetApp’s CMO Parrish established a foundation of good teamwork with CIO Stoddard when she admitted that marketing owned too many projects. “I raised my hand for an IT audit,” Parrish says. From that day, Stoddard knew Parrish wasn’t trying to build an empire.
Collaboration and innovation are musts for survival in the global economy, and that means great teamwork is vital. But great teamwork is possible only if there is trust (another Soft Edge pillar). And trust can’t exist without transparency. That’s why Parrish’s IT audit request was so powerful. It was a way of saying, “Our information is your information. Help us see what we can do to make this company better.”
Don’t try to bury disagreement. (Soft Edge pillar: Taste) In a soft-edge-excellent company, CMOs teach CIOs how marketing platforms are crafted and how to fine-tune messages for any given audiences. CIOs show where complexity will slow down deployment, and therefore suggest areas to simplify the platform for maximum rapid deployment. Sometimes there is disagreement. The truth is, taste evolves through disagreement. When opinions are shared, problems hashed out and arguments heard, the best possible products are born — products that look great and work great and that are somehow so compelling to customers that they must buy them.
Yes, there will be tension, and there will very likely be misunderstandings. It might even feel dysfunctional. But sometimes, leaders just have to get people together, urge them to speak up, and convince them to face their disagreements. In the end, their differing opinions and interests will sharpen the company and result in better products and services.
Let your story drive your behavior (and solve your disagreements). (Soft Edge pillar: Story) NetApp keeps really, really good company. Along with Google, Singapore Airlines, Starbucks and very few others, it makes two annual lists: the world’s best places to work and the world’s most innovative companies. It takes huge pride in making both lists, and it should. But aside from pride, the real value of making both lists is that it creates a consistent story for employees, suppliers and customers.
Whenever NetApp’s CMO Parrish and CIO Stoddard disagree on anything, they can call a time-out, step back and ask: What would a top innovative company do? What would a best-place-to-work company do? Thus NetApp’s story — its belief about itself — drives the right behavior and, more often than not, correct decisions at every turn.
Knowing the right story to tell combined with knowing how to deliver it effectively can inspire everything from understanding to action. It can be used to connect employees to a strategy by providing understanding, belief and motivation. Stories capture and communicate knowledge, drive innovation, build community, strengthen organizational culture and support individual growth.
The message to all C-suite leaders is clear. We are now working in a corporate environment where the soft edge dominates, where trust, teamwork, smarts, taste and story matter as much as ROI, market share and other hard metrics. Businesses that recognize this truth, and live by it, will thrive. Those that get caught up in infighting over hard-edge principles may not even survive.
Rich Karlgaard, author of The Soft Edge: Where Great Companies Find Lasting Success, is also the publisher of Forbes magazine, where he writes a column on business and leadership issues. A serial entrepreneur, he is a past winner of Ernst & Young’s “Entrepreneur of the Year” award. His 2004 book, Life 2.0, was a Wall Street Journal business bestseller.