Dr. Leslie Gaines-Ross, a senior executive at the global communications consultancy Burson-Marsteller, is the chief architect behind landmark CEO and corporate reputation research. She is the creator of ceogo.com, the acclaimed Web site devoted exclusively to CEO news and information and the author of CEO Capital: A Guide to Building CEO Reputation and Company Success (John Wiley & Sons, 2003).

I spoke with her recently about where marketing fits in the leadership agenda of the CEO and what marketers can do to have influence at the very highest levels of an organization.

Young: In general, how do you believe that CEOs think about the marketing function?

Gaines-Ross: I believe that they think about marketing their company's products, services and overall corporate brand frequently. Most executives profoundly realize that it's more important than ever to communicate—internally and externally.

They need to articulate what the overall corporate brand promise is to customers, how the company is differentiated from its competition, how its customers' environments and purchasing decisions are changing, how its products/services are innovating and high quality.

Unfortunately, during the go-go '90s, many companies focused too heavily on Wall Street and forgot about communicating with their customers. CEOs better understand today the importance of marketing themselves to a portfolio of audiences.

Young: Is it true that CEOs rarely come out of the marketing function?

Gaines-Ross: There are very few of them. According to research by Spencer Stuart in Chief Executive magazine, finance and operations are the top two most common functions among Fortune 700 CEOs. Marketing and sales come out as a distant third and fourth.

Young: Why do you think that is?

Gaines-Ross: Most Fortune 700 CEOs have engineering backgrounds (19%) and business administration (16%). They are usually more analytical and quantitative. Marketing and communications are generally not CEOs' strong suits.

Unfortunately, many CEOs have to learn these “softer” skills too late. The next generation of CEOs will probably have more marketing experience because it will be part of everyone's job to listen and communicate to various audiences.

Young: In your book, CEO Capital, you say that Michael Dell listens to customers and considers that his job. Is it unusual for a CEO to consider that his job?

Gaines-Ross: Nearly all CEOs today say that they listen to customers. And to some extent, they do. However, the CEO position today is very complex and demanding.

CEOs are spending more time communicating with their boards, the press, employees, Wall Street and special-interest groups. Customers are the ones who tend to lose out. A CEO like Michael Dell makes sure to fit “the voice of the customer” into his weekly schedule.

Another example is CEO John Brennan of Vanguard, who mans the phones once a week as customers call in. Customers are what a business is really all about, and building time into CEO schedules to engage in the customer experience is critical to success.

Young: Speaking about size, David D'Allesandro, CEO of John Hancock, says in his book, “We're not watching sumo wrestling anymore. Size doesn't necessarily rule.” And I think what he's really talking about is that, in fact, big companies are threatened by midsize and small companies that are more lean and hungry and less bureaucratic, and they can react to the marketplace faster.

Gaines-Ross: Size can be a disadvantage. JetBlue is a good example of a company that can be nimble because of its size. As it grows, however, JetBlue will undoubtedly experience growing pains.

Smaller companies can have an advantage, but not all large companies are dinosaurs. Wal-Mart, IBM and HP are master marketers. They have been able to cut out the bureaucracy and act like gazelles, not elephants.

Young: And what do you credit that to?

Gaines-Ross: Burson-Marsteller's research consistently points to management quality as a prime factor in company success. Behind every successful company is a solid CEO and executive team with vision and the ability to execute. Good leadership can drive company success and inspire a work force to reach its goals.

My book, CEO Capital, describes how Lord John Browne of BP repositioned the oil giant as an environmentally responsible company that is “beyond petroleum.” Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of mega-GE, has done an excellent job of focusing on the customer and strengthening its marketing know-how. GE now has its first Chief Marketing Officer.

Young: And Jack Welch did not have that philosophy?

Gaines-Ross: Welch had the customer focus as well, but Immelt has taken it to a new level.

Young: You talk in your book about the importance of the first 100 days for the CEO. How does marketing fit in during this critical period?

Gaines-Ross: A CEO's first 100 days should be spent listening to employees and earning their trust and respect. The first 100 days set the tone for the CEO's tenure. In a sense, the CEO is marketing himself/herself because without employee support little can be accomplished.

CEO Michael Capellas's first 100 days at WorldCom were spent positioning his company's return to integrity and high ethical standards and encouraging employees to join him. Of course, turnaround situations are quite different. Most CEOs have more than 100 days to strategize their marketing plans. By the end of year one, CEOs should have a handle on how they want to position their companies in the marketplace.

Young: In what ways has the Internet changed the CEO?

Gaines-Ross: Technology has changed everything. CEOs can use technology to communicate with employees, customers and all stakeholders in real time. The Internet has also placed CEOs and their companies under greater scrutiny. No mishap goes unreported.

CEOs are under a magnifying glass like never before. For example, Martha Stewart's problems were heard around the world in seconds. Financial irregularities at Parmalat, Enron and Arthur Andersen made headlines instantaneously. Employees chat about CEO compensation in discussion groups. It's a brave new world for CEOs.

At Burson-Marsteller, we've been examining how companies can use their CEOs to more effectively market themselves. Some company Web sites have a CEO letter welcoming prospective recruits. Other companies use their Web sites to catalogue CEO speeches and presentations. What we're learning is that CEOs and their companies can do a better job of managing their reputations online.

Young: So, the Web should be considered a reputation-management tool?

Gaines-Ross: Absolutely—Web sites should not be overlooked as marketing tools.

Another ongoing Burson-Marsteller project involves reviewing Web sites of companies in crisis using our auditing tool, PRePARE. The vast majority of companies do a poor job of managing their reputations online when crisis strikes. Information or breaking news is usually buried deep within the Web site, and crisis-specific contact information is hard to find.

Our research also found that media and financial analysts frequently check company Web sites when rumors or crises are spreading. A lack of information is equivalent to a “no comment” for these influential visitors.

Reputations online and offline must be managed continuously and consistently. It should be part of the integrated marketing mix.

Young: You end your book by saying that you posed the question to CEOs as follows: “If you're going to leave a note on your desk for your successor, what would you say?” I was wondering what would you think would be said about marketing in that note?

Gaines-Ross: To pay close attention to how your company is perceived by all its many different stakeholders, not just shareholders. CEOs should listen carefully to the naysayers as well as the yeasayers.

Reputation is in the eye of the beholder. It is earned and cannot be dictated.

Young: How can marketers get CEOs to listen?

Gaines-Ross: We need to build better metrics to prove that marketing efforts pay off. The return on investment must be quantifiable.

Young: One of the frustrations that marketers have is that ROI tends to be short term and not long term.

Gaines-Ross: Another way to think about it is that a new CEO is usually swept in by the time the long-term results come rolling in. Then companies start all over again.

Young: Is that the reality?

Gaines-Ross: Reality is that too many people are in their jobs for the short term, and marketing is a long-term process. However, I do think senior marketers and chief marketing officers will have an easier time in the future because more CEOs will have marketing experience in their backgrounds and will understand how good marketing drives results.

Young: That's an optimistic point of view.

Gaines-Ross: Hope I am right.

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image of Roy Young
Roy Young is coauthor of Marketing Champions: Practical Strategies for Improving Marketing's Power, Influence and Business Impact.