The marketing world waits for no one. Marketing leaders are asked to maintain stability and seek innovation all at once. We come up with ideas, test them out, succeed or fail, and try again. Trends are bucked, processes improved, and technology is discovered that helps us do our jobs better and faster. Talk with top execs, and you’ll feel both the excitement and the challenges they face each day.

That’s why we’re launching our new Ask The CMO interview series. In this series, we’ll meet regularly with the titans of our industry, so to speak, to find out what motivates them, what keeps them up at night, and what they see on the horizon.

For our inaugural interview, we were pleased to sit down with Kevin Fliess, CMO of Altum, a provider of cloud software for research grants management. Kevin has had a successful career leading marketing teams at technology companies ranging from venture-backed start-ups to global F1000 organizations.

Here are the highlights from our conversation with Kevin.


Ask A CMO: Kevin Fleiss

Kevin Fliess, CMO, Altum

CT: What do you credit with helping you get to this point in your career?

KF: I’d start by saying my career has been more lattice, less linear. I started in management consulting, which helped give me a broad understanding for how organizations work. While a consultant, I developed a product idea which I sold to SAP. I joined SAP as the product owner, which made the path to product marketing natural. Since many marketing leaders come through the communications and demand gen side of marketing, my path through product management gave me a slightly different perspective.

Ultimately, what I credit to getting me here (and what I’d recommend to anyone else) are three things:

  1. Performance – do the job you have to the best of your ability, even if it’s not your ideal job. Delivering results will open doors for new opportunities.
  2. People – surround yourself with the best people possible. A great team can pivot and find ways to forge ahead when confronted with adversity. And learn everything you possibly can from managers, peers, and your staff. If you’re learning, you are growing.
  3. Be willing to take risks – take on roles in your current organization or even outside that make you uncomfortable. This will help you grow.

CT: If you were building a marketing team from scratch, who would be your first three hires?

KF: In my opinion, as CMO you need to own the brand, positioning, messaging, and go-to-market strategy. So, I’d look to bring on a web designer, writer, and growth marketer to kick-start the marketing engine.

  1. The website is the front door to your business – whether you’re purely online or brick and mortar, customers expect an outstanding digital experience. And your brand begins with your website.
  2. Writing for me is so essential to everything that you do in marketing, from positioning and messaging, to creating high-value assets, to email — all of it.
  3. In growth marketing, I need someone to be three steps ahead of me and thinking of novel ideas to grow. I want someone who can move fast, break things, test, and learn.

CT: What is the one skill that you want every marketer on your team to have?

KF: Communication! I want everyone to have great communication skills, of which the ability to write is a key part. I also want everyone proactively communicating to keep stakeholders and teammates informed. Marketing is a team sport. The only way to keep the team on the same page is great communication.

CT: What are the contributing factors to the CMO position often having the highest turnover in the C-suite?

KF: There are lots of great articles on this from MIT and Harvard Business Review. Here’s my take:

  1. The rate of change is unprecedented in marketing, so you’re constantly having to learn new things and reinvent yourself. CMOs who can’t keep up or get off track move on quickly.
  2. The CMO and CEO need to be in alignment and have a shared vision of success. For example, if a CMO is hired with the charter to focus on brand transformation and messaging, but upon her/his arrival the focus flips to top-of-funnel demand gen, there is a strategic misalignment. Aligning strategic objectives, budget, and tactical efforts are all significant.
  3. CMOs have a growth mindset and are typically more comfortable with taking risks than other disciplines. This means they may be more inclined to leave than others in the C-suite to take on a new challenge.

For CMOs, there’s a silver lining to changing jobs. CMOs must be versed in the full marketing “stack” – product marketing, demand gen, etc., but also have to understand finance and product. You may not get all those experiences in your current job. So, every time CMOs change positions, they pick up skills to make them more complete leaders.

CT: What’s the best business advice you ever received?

KF: That’s such a great question, I’ve had so much. It sounds like a pat answer, but it’s so true: putting the customer at the center of everything you do. In product management, customer needs are at the center; the force that’s driving the product roadmap. It’s the same thing in marketing. We need to be using what the customer wants to create excellent positioning and messaging. Capture your customer success in testimonials and case studies, and your customer is doing your marketing for you. I’ve seen companies lose that connectivity by not putting the customer first. It’s foundational to building a high-performing marketing function where the messages you are delivering are in line with what the market wants and needs. The stories you are telling are backed up with evidence which, as we marketers know, is the single best way to succeed.

CT: What was the first concert you ever attended?

KF: I’m not proud to admit it, but it was ZZ Top in the 6th grade. I was taken with a parent and friends. My first album, perhaps even less proud to admit, was the J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold”.

CT: What is your desert-island food?

KF: We have this conversation often in our house. My cuisine would be Thai food, specifically drunken noodles. With five-star heat.

CT: What would you do if you weren’t a marketer?

KF: It would be something in outdoors or travel. In our house, we are big believers of giving “experiences” over “things”. Maybe I’d be leading trekking expeditions or fishing expeditions – or something like the Kentucky Bourbon Trail event I just organized. We are also big on the “Four Rs”: Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and Roaming.

We’d like to thank Kevin for sharing his insights with us. We can all take a page from Kevin’s playbook for something in our world…except maybe that J. Geils Band purchase. On that one, we will smile, nod and try to get “my angel is the centerfold” out of our heads.

Stay tuned for more Ask The CMO interviews in the future.