How CMOs Can Get Their Priorities Right

Executives and their teams have to be wise about allocating their time. One CMO at a U.S. carmaker found the answers during a momentous afternoon meeting.

How CMOs Can Get Their Priorities Right

What’s the most common struggle for customer leaders? Relentless time pressure! Never before have executives had to deal with so many priorities, tasks, deadlines, and, most prominently, emails. It’s time leaders ask themselves and their teams a very simple question: “How do we allocate 100% of our time?”

When a CMO, let’s call him David, took the helm at a U.S. carmaker, he had his work cut out. Five new car models were about to hit the market. A mega customer-database project just got stuck. His team was given a 10% cost-saving target. Two high-profile team members had announced their departure. And in David’s first week, the company announced its biggest car recall ever—marketing had to handle the communication with over 1.5 million annoyed customers. He remembers: “My first weeks were hell. It was crisis management from day one.”

Unsurprisingly, David’s team worked crazy hours. But even with all hands on deck, the workload simply was too high. One evening, a young manager came to see him and burst into tears, saying: “I love to work hard. I love my job. But I just can’t handle it anymore.”

Before joining, David had already planned to reshape his organisation to better cope with future demands. He had analysed the organisational structure and reviewed all the job descriptions. He had drafted a new team structure and a proper plan to align his team around priorities. But now he realised, this can’t wait. I must act now.

A coach who helped David with his onboarding suggested a radical approach: “Agree as a team how you spend your time.” What followed a week later was the most powerful team event David had ever experienced.

David booked his team into a conference room for five hours one afternoon to answer three questions:

1. What matters most? To kick off the meeting, David asked: “What are our top three business priorities?” A fierce debate followed. It took almost two hours for the team to agree on (1) new model launches, (2) Q4 sales promotions, and (3) product recall. While the data project mattered and the cost savings had to be done, success for the company was about hitting priorities 1-3.

2. How will we spend our time? Next, David’s coach pointed to a white sheet of paper on the wall, drew a line at the bottom, wrote 100% under that line, and asked: “OK, guys, as a team, how will you spend 100% of your time?” Another intense debate started, as everybody wanted his or her pet projects listed. It took another two hours to agree that 40% of time would go to new model launches and sales promotions, 20% to the recall, and so on. More important, a number of other activities got moved to one of two other lists: “Stop” and “Delegate”—the latter listing activities the team would give to other departments.

3. How will you spend your time? When everybody thought they were done, David made things personal, saying: “Let’s now do a list for each of us. Your day has only X number of hours. How will you spend your time?” Everybody wrote their 100% lists and shared them. While people were already pretty focused, pet projects and “other things” still cropped up. David courageously challenged people to drop non-priority items. In some cases, people even felt relieved that David gave them the licence to focus on what really matters.

The results of people’s 100% lists were dramatic. After just one afternoon of prioritising, morale went up, people had more focus, and, most important, they delivered priorities 1-3 successfully. All because they together answered one very simple question: “How do we allocate 100% of our time?”