The Financial Marketer’s Guide to Earning a Seat in the Banking C-Suite

With the shortest job tenure of any senior leadership position, CMOs in banking often struggle to help other C-level executives understand how marketing benefits their institution. The Financial Brand asked CMOs at banks and credit unions across the U.S. how they build bridges and forge bonds with their peers in C-suite.

The average tenure for Chief Marketing Officers is only 44 months, according to consulting firm Spencer Stuart. And research firm Korn Ferry says 43% of CMOs say that better organizational alignment would make them more effective. Only 17% say they need a bigger budget, and a mere 4% need more authority to make them more effective.

The Financial Brand sat down with top marketers from banks and credit unions to ask them how they build trust and strengthen relationships with other C-level executives, and what advice they have for other CMOs in the banking industry. Here’s our panel:

  • Natalie Bartholomew, Chief Marketing Officer and Vice President at Grand Savings Bank ($440 million in assets, 11 branches) serving northeast Oklahoma and northwest Arkansas
  • Becca Hoeft, Chief Brand Officer at Sunrise Banks ($1.1 billion, six branches) serving the Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota area
  • Anita Hutchinson, CMO/Vice President of Marketing at UMe Federal Credit Union ($215 million, one branch) in Burbank, California
  • Lynne Jarman-Johnson, Chief Marketing Officer at Consumers Credit Union ($1 billion, 19 branches) serving communities around Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, Michigan
  • Dan Westhues, Executive Vice President/CMO at Central Bancompany ($11.6 billion bank holding company) headquartered in Jefferson City, Missouri

How has the role of marketing and your role as CMO changed in the digital age?

Lynne Jarman-Johnson: Words like “AI”, “machine learning” and “real-time” were not in our vocabulary five years ago. Now these words are the keys to success as we look to the future.

CMOs must lead. We must begin the hard work of breaking down the silos between IT, operations, risk management and all other departments that work together to ensure digital excellence. Have you ever heard “everyone is a marketer?” YES! That’s awesome! Let’s work together versus rolling our eyes and ignoring potentially great ideas.

Today, we emphasize collaboration between operations, IT, marketing and each department. We focus on behaviors, small screens and access to data in real time. We aim for personalization without being “stalky.” We focus on what people feel in digital channels — the digital experience. The front end touts ease and intimacy, while the back end is the delivery tool that must make the magic happen.

As we focus on digital transformation, we must listen to people’s needs and offer the tools they need to bank how they want, when they want. We also must give them an experience that brings a smile to his or her face — just like saying their name when they walk into our door or knowing their child is graduating because they told us so during their last chat with the call center.

Becca Hoeft: The role of CMO has changed drastically. Today the CMO must work closely with CIOs as the “back stage” is built and the “front stage” or the UX/CX is developed into user stories. As we are currently going through digital transformation, I’m excited to see the results, as our goal is to make opening up an account as easy as opening up an iTunes account.

Dan Westhues: We have moved past all the soundbites. Yes, we have significantly shifted our budgets to support digital. Yes, we have put in place multiple strong SEO and SEM strategies. Yes, we can receive performance data immediately and use it to track results and formulate an ROI. What we spend our time on now is shifting our digital communication from groups to individuals. We want to offer the right solution, to the right consumer, at the right time. Marrying up our analytics with the opportunities digital can give us provides the strongest ROMI by far.

Anita Hutchinson: When I joined Ume back in 2005 (then Burbank Community Federal Credit Union), marketing back then was postcards, letters and a pitiful website. We had more letter templates than you could shake a stick at. Social media consisted of MySpace, and certainly wasn’t geared towards business strategy. Today, I don’t mail a thing.

Additionally, we are active — both connecting with and advertising to members — on Facebook, Instagram and Yelp. We market the UMe brand to the community and we email our members regarding products we think they would benefit from (but never mail). This is what is working right now. But, for how long? That’s the magic question.

My marketing creed is “Always. Be. Learning.” Push, grow, try, fail, try, fail, try, succeed, try, kick some serious butt, try, high five, try, learn.

Read More: Six Changes Bank and Credit Union CMOs Must Make

How do you improve relationships with key members of the C-suite, namely the CEO, COO and CFO?

Natalie Bartholomew: I was once told that I should always bring solutions to my CEO — not problems — and every bank marketer knows that they encounter multiple problems in a week’s time. Or in my case… hourly. That being said, I see problems (or as I like to call them, “challenges”) as opportunities to increase my worth with the bank and to build trust with our leadership and board. My CEO has enough on his plate as it is. If I am able to bring solutions to the table, my seat at the table is more valuable.

I’m fortunate that I share an office with my CEO, and am across the hall from our Vice Chairman, so we’re strengthening our relationships daily. It’s fascinating sharing a small space with fellow senior leaders, hearing nearly every conversation that occurs during the day.

Becca Hoeft: The key to building relationships especially in the C-suite is to actively listen. I schedule periodic times where I proactively reach out to various members of the C-suite so I can understand their concerns, what they are seeing, and how my role and my team can assist them.

Lynne Jarman-Johnson: Trust isn’t something that is a given at the outset of any relationship. Like a good marriage, you learn to trust as life throws curves at you. Building trust means sharing. It means letting your CEO understand where you have expertise, and asking for help from your CEO, COO, CFO and others when you need it. It’s also about spending time together. My trust with my executive team has come with time spent in and out of the office. Its trust built through strategic planning and then hitting the goals together. Its trust built through “grinding it out” as our CEO likes to say, and knowing you respect the talents of the brightest minds in the room even if outcomes are not as hoped.

Dan Westhues: Being part of the C-suite is more than just rising to the top of your division. A CMO of a bank or a credit union is certainly the expert in marketing strategies, but you must also be a solid banker. Your job is more than marketing; it is the management of the institution. To do this effectively and be seen as an equal, you must understand the bigger picture.

Anita Hutchinson: UMe is a small credit union with one branch and just over $215 million in assets in an extremely competitive market, and that presents unique opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, there’s no marketing engine in terms of resources. But on the other hand, I don’t have to navigate as much internal red tape and buy-in to make our vision a reality. I do have to be strategic, scrappy, nimble and willing to get my hands dirty.

At UMe, I am the voice and advocate of the brand. The passion and confidence I have in the external and internal manifestation of the brand must be unwavering. But it’s no easy hurdle to earn the respect and trust from the C-suite — to prove that you can drive results and make a big splash on a small budget by taking risks.

I was fortunate to lead our rebrand project back in 2010. Helping to create our brand has given me ownership of it, and my CEO trusts me, because the brand truly is an extension of me. That trust has allowed me to do some unconventional things, which has attracted more members, and gives me greater credibility when I have my next “wacky” idea.

Why haven’t more CMOs been promoted to CEO?

Natalie Bartholomew: This is a fantastic question. Traditionally in community banks, marketing has been viewed as an expense. Unless the CMO is able to effectively prove ROI to the rest of the leadership team, they will continue to be viewed as such.

My banking career involves more years and experience as a lender than as a bank marketer, and while that knowledge has proved beneficial to me as a marketer, I also utilize that background from time to time to book deals and essentially “pay for myself” in other ways than ROI from marketing initiatives.

For whatever reason, banks tend to promote more commercial lenders to the CEO level than any other position within the bank. I’ve been around some pretty incredible commercial lenders over the years, but not all of them are nearly qualified for a CEO role based on that title alone.

Ultimately, a CMO can bring just as much to the table in terms of strategy, pricing, leadership and problem solving. The rest depends on hiring the right people.

Dan Westhues: We still drive the majority of our revenue through interest income. Credit quality and portfolio growth remain the number one issue. A strong credit background and an understanding of asset/liability management are still qualities that make the board feel comfortable. However, I have seen some change. With increased competition, particularly from non-traditional players, and a desire to change the revenue mix with stronger non-interest income, banks are looking for a different type of leader. Boards still want to hear about credit quality, but they also want to talk about innovation and evolution strategies to compete. CMOs are positioned to be very successful with these objectives. They understand the broader landscape and can provide strong leadership in as banks look outside their comfort zone for growth.

How do you create your strategic marketing plan?

Becca Hoeft: Before budget planning my brand manager and myself go out not only to the C-suite but also the next level down to hear what their focuses are for the next year, where they see challenges and their measurable objectives so we can build an internal communications strategy as well as a brand/marketing/PR strategy to meet the organization’s needs.

Anita Hutchinson: My CEO and I write our annual business plan together. Brand awareness has been part of the plan since we launched our UMe brand back in 2011. Our brand — and marketing our brand — is that important to us. This is why I work to evolve the brand every couple of years; I want to keep it fresh and interesting, I want to hold our community’s attention.

My marketing plan directly supports the credit union’s strategic plan because I’m part of that process. I believe that more CMOs should be involved on that level — crafting the organization’s strategic plan. It’s disappointing to me when I meet CMO colleagues from other financial institutions who are not valued in the work place the way I feel I am, where marketing seems to be disregarded and dismissed. That’s short-sightedness and limiting.

Lynne Jarman-Johnson: Strategic planning, implementation and tweaking is the most exhilarating aspect of my position as CMO. Our strategic marketing plan is developed based on our strategic plan. It’s really very simple. Our executive team meets to create our strategic plan together. We are transparent in our plan and in our goals. Currently, we are in year two of a five-year strategic plan. Our marketing is built on the goals for that plan. Our marketing team meets with each of the departments that have goals in the overall strategies, and we build out the marketing plans together.

Tweaking is a central component of our plan. We have a living, breathing document, not one that is created and then set on a shelf. If we are seeing a goal trending down, we do not wait to act, we dig deep and tweak the plan.

What advice do you have for aspiring CMOs in the banking industry

Dan Westhues: Very simple… learn the business, prove the value of marketing in terms bankers understand, and always be innovating.

A good marketing director understands budgeting and knows how to use it to deploy a marketing strategy. They understand how to deliver a positive ROI on an initiative and produce results. A good CMO understands the balance sheet and knows how best to impact the bank or credit union’s overall performance. They understand which initiatives are most important to the strategic plan and how to add value to the institution long term.

The C-suite is designed to take the best from each division, couple their individual expertise with their common understanding of the business and provide strategic leadership. When done effectively, all members of the C-suite provide equal value.

Natalie Bartholomew: Don’t pigeonhole yourself based on what others tell you. Don’t be persuaded by mediocrity and always strive for better. You are going to have amazing bosses that empower you, encourage you and allow you to fly, but you will also have some of the absolute worst bosses in the history of banking. Don’t get discouraged by them, learn from them and vow to never make the mistakes they made while managing you. Keep your eye on the prize, don’t speak until you think your thoughts through and never give up on what you know you’re destined to be.

Lynne Jarman-Johnson: As I’ve advanced in my career, I’ve found the best advice I’ve received is from several CEOs and centers of influence I’ve been blessed to work alongside.

None of us is the smartest in the room. Hire people smarter than you. Have a thirst for knowledge. Learning is never ending. Talk less, listen more and bring balance to work, life. But the one piece of advice is that happiness matters.

My most recent center of influence is my granddaughter. She is three. She has reminded me to do what makes me happy. In her world, when she is happy, life is really, really good. She recently spent time at the beach with us and she said, “Grandma J., this makes me so happy!” In the long run, isn’t that what we want for the people we work with, the members we serve, the communities we build? Ask yourself, did you bring a smile to someone’s face today?

Becca Hoeft: You have a blank canvas in front of you. It’s not defined. The colors are up to you. The shape is up to you. There is no right or wrong way to paint your canvas. But it is up to you to make it special, unique and impactful.

This article was originally published on . All content © 2024 by The Financial Brand and may not be reproduced by any means without permission.