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Seven Ways to Bridge the Great Divide

Infighting is nothing new in the corporate world, but in today’s marketplace it can be especially damaging. The rise of web commerce and social media has exacerbated the friction between two C-suite leaders in particular—CMOs and CIOs.

By Rich Karlgaard
Rich Karlgaard

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 take a closer look at the classic fight between chief marketing officers (CMOs) and chief information officers (CIOs). When you do, you’ll see that the contention is actually about much more than just money. 

The CMO-CIO divide is exacerbated by the rise of web commerce and social media. These new marketing channels mean CMOs command a growing share of their company’s investment in technology, and CIOs are none too happy about that. But still, it’s only part of the story.

Dig deeper and you start to see stark differences between CMOs and CIOs. CMOs tend to be female while CIOs tend to be male, so you have a War of the Sexes going on. Then, you realize CMOs are liberal arts types while CIOs are technologists. As I learned from Forrester Research’s Sheryl Pattek, most CMOs think their CIOs are jargon-speaking nerds with no sense of market urgency, while CIOs think CMOs are ignorant fakers when it comes to technology more complex than a PowerPoint slide show.

So Corporate America has a dogs vs. cats problem—or perhaps a “Mars vs. Venus” problem is more appropriate. And mutual disdain and squabbling prevent the collaboration needed to thrive in a tough global economy. But can anything be done about it?

Actually, yes. Invest in your company’s “soft edge,” and while CMOs and CIOs may not start holding hands and singing Kumbayah, at least they will have the language to discuss their differences and the values to bridge them.

First, what is the “soft edge”? To understand it, picture a triangle. Great strategy makes up the base. Masterful execution makes up one of the triangle’s two vertical sides. (I call this the “hard edge.”) It’s the third side of the triangle—the oft-neglected, misunderstood, and underfunded soft edge—that consumes my new book, The Soft Edge: Where Great Companies Find Lasting Success.

It’s much tougher to quantify but might be summed up as “the expression of your deepest values” or “the heart and soul of your company.” The author describes the soft edge culture in terms of five pillars—Trust, Smarts, Teamwork, Taste, and Story—and the book, packed with real-world examples, unfolds around 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.

Look around and you’ll see 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. A strong soft edge makes a company resilient and agile— even in the face of the occasional C-suite disagreement.           

One company that has figured out how to nurture its soft edge is NetApp, the $6.5 billion vendor of computer network storage solutions, which regularly makes Clayton Christensen’s list of the World’s Most Innovative Companies and a number of the best-places-to-work lists. Specifically, look at the relationship between NetApp’s CMO, Julie Parrish, and its CIO, Cynthia Stoddard—they’re the perfect example of how a strong focus on the soft edge improves relationships, eases internal strife, and makes for a healthier company.

7 Steps CMOs and CIOs can take right now to follow their lead:

1. Strive to understand each other’s challenges. (Soft Edge Pillar: TRUST) NetApp’s CMO, Julie Parrish, wisely empathizes with the company’s CIO, Cynthia Stoddard. She’ll tell you straightaway that she thinks Stoddard has one of the toughest jobs at NetApp. 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—through the web and social media, on smartphones and tablets—is growing like crazy. Social media in particular is always tossing up market opportunities that are fleeting in nature. These must be grabbed or they’re lost.

Stoddard recognizes, as all CIOs must, 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. And in these high-level relationships, trust comes from three places—first, showing that you have the other person’s best interests in mind; second, working hard to achieve common language and transparency; and finally, doing what you say you’ll do.

2. Work together to ensure you’re mining 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. Parrish adds, “The key question for me is, where can I get data that will help NetApp be smarter? How do we mine data from the outside and pull it back into the organization? Those are the big questions.”

3. 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 departments.

No company survives solely based on its marketing, its technology, its operations, or any other factor. The company functions as a whole. In order to be successful, C-suite leaders cannot get bogged down in their own department’s issues. Every leader must recognize that the company’s overall needs matter more than an individual department’s.

In The Soft Edge, I tell of my conversations with Tony Fadell, CEO of Nest Labs. Fadell told me about the importance of team meetings at Nest. Fadell brings everyone together—from user-experience people to management people to algorithms people—so that there are people there who can speak to every aspect of their product from design to marketing to user experience. Otherwise, Fadell says, the company’s thermostat algorithms might be written solely to satisfy the “code jockeys” at Nest.

And Stoddard notes that at NetApp they use proper governance to facilitate faster learning: “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.”

My conversations with Fadell and my observations of how Parrish and Stoddard handle things at NetApp show just how vitally important it is to have analytical people and intuitive people in the room together on every major issue. You need the complementarities of the design people and execution people; the creative people and discipline people; the math people and salespeople. We have to be willing to learn from each other. We have to be humble enough to say, “I don’t know” and then seek out the answers in each other.

4. 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.

5. 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 said. 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 you can’t have great teamwork if you aren’t strong in another Soft Edge Pillar as well: Trust. And you can’t have trust 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.” Transparency increases accountability, passion, and effort; it facilitates learning and catalyzes innovation.

6. 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. Don’t bury it. Instead, use it to push everyone forward as you keep your eye on the prize. The truth is, taste evolves through disagreement. When opinions are shared, problems hashed out, 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.

Recall how Nest Labs CEO Tony Fadell likes to put analytics people and marketing people in the same room to discuss which algorithms will create customer enchantment and loyalty in Nest’s products. Rest assured these meetings aren’t spent with everyone in agreement, congratulating each other on their perfect ideas. There’s disagreement, maybe even arguing. And what Fadell, and Parrish, and Stoddard, and other soft edge leaders understand is that that’s okay. Sometimes it’s just better to argue it out.

Yes, there will be tension. It may be messy, and there will very likely be misunderstandings. It might even feel dysfunctional. But sometimes you just have to get people together, urge them to speak up, and convince them to face their disagreements. Encourage these difficult conversations. In the end, their differing opinions and interests will sharpen the company and result in better products and services.

7. Let your story drive your behavior (and solve your disagreements). (Soft Edge Pillar: STORY) NetApp keeps really, really good company. (Excuse the pun!) 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. It’s a beautiful thing.

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. Story can create legends that an entire workplace culture can build upon, grow with, and lean on. Stories capture and communicate knowledge, drive innovation, build community, strengthen organizational culture, and support individual growth.

Julie Parrish and Cynthia Stoddard realized long ago that greater things would happen for NetApp if they put their own departmental loyalties aside and worked together. They realized this would help them more easily respond to the challenges and changes constantly being thrown at NetApp. And it would let them optimize both departments’ functions, helping the company grow and innovate—one of the only roads to corporate survival these days. The confidence to do all of that comes from NetApp’s strong soft edge.

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. Recognize this truth, and live by it, and you’ll thrive. Get caught up in infighting over hard edge principles and you may not even survive.

Rich Karlgaard

Rich Karlgaard is the publisher of Forbes magazine, where he writes a column, Innovation Rules, known for its witty assessment of business and leadership issues. He has been a regular panelist on television’s Forbes on FOX since the show’s inception in 2001.

Karlgaard is also a serial entrepreneur, having co-founded Upside magazine, Garage Technology Partners, and Silicon Valley’s premier public business forum, the 7,500-member Churchill Club. He is a past winner of Ernst & Young’s “Entrepreneur of the Year” award. Karlgaard’s 2004 book, Life 2.0, was a Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Additionally, he is the author of The Soft Edge: Where Great Companies Find Lasting Success (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, 2014, ISBN: 978-1-118-82942-4, $28.00, www.richkarlgaard.com).

A graduate of Stanford University, Karlgaard and his family live in Silicon Valley.

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