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Big to Small: CMOs Share Their Journeys

“You’re leaving?!?”

  • März 2023

When CMOs at successful companies decide to take a chance on life at a smaller company, they get a lot of wide eyes and shocked exclamations. After all, who would walk away from a position that so many would love to attain? 

But CMOs who have made the leap from big to small say the rewards are worth the reactions. Small companies afford them the chance to lead transformational change, to be the disruptors instead of the disrupted, and to build new, authentic brands. It is an opportunity to wield big company skills in a way that can remake industries. It’s a chance to leave a big machine and be the change they want to see in the world. 

Egon Zehnder tracked the journey of some who made the decision to leave Goliath companies for David-sized challengers. It is a rollercoaster of emotions, they told us, but a ride they’re glad to be on. 

Making the jump took courage. “I hear my dad’s voice in my head,” confessed one CMO. “Why are you taking such a pay cut? What if it doesn’t work out?” And my own questions are loud: “Will I be able to hire a team? Are they funded?” You do as much due diligence as you can, but it’s definitely the riskier choice. “What if I missed something?”

But with the jitters come the positives you can only experience at a small company. “There is a feeling of freedom – freedom to test and to learn new things,” said another big-to-small CMO. At her big company job, everyone embraced the successful processes of the company as carved in stone. There was little appetite for new ideas. It was a bit cult-like, she said. But in her smaller company, the attitude is different. “There’s a curiosity and openness from everyone.” That mindset, she said, is inspirational. “For the first time in my career, I’m consciously choosing to go to the office.” 

‘Flexing New Muscles’ to Drive Growth

Life in a small company calls for muscles many of the CMOs say they haven’t flexed in a while. “I’m doing things I haven’t done in 15 years. I’m reviewing equity attribute statements on a survey. I’m reviewing a direct mail drop and coupon code redemptions,” said a CMO. But, he added, it’s fun. And it gives him the detailed knowledge he needs of the company to lead strategically. “It’s helped me learn the business and get traction. I’ve laid out a vision for growth that I’m presenting to the board. I’ve created a structure and a framework to help us drive this next phase of growth.”

In some cases, small company life demands an entirely new approach to the job. One CMO recalled that in his previous position, the size of the firm dictated that he led change by what he called “choreographed change communication.” At a smaller company, he said, you lead by doing. “If people see me willing to get in there and roll up my sleeves and make things happen – actually do it, not ask people to do it – that’s what drives change here. Do. Excite. Inspire.”

To be sure, there are elements of their old jobs that they miss. The power of being a category giant is one. “I used to be able to call any company and they would help out. Now I don’t have that negotiation leverage,” said one. 

Resources is another. “At scale you have a certain amount of operating leverage. You can move money around to make things work,” said another CMO who made the shift. “To go at this early stage, everything is a series of trade-offs and choices. You have to experiment your way back up to scale. In some ways, you can go faster. But with no fat on the bone, you have to be super methodical.” 

But ultimately, they see the opportunity to create something new and be immersed in start-up passion that as exhilarating. This is a chance to create something that will be a beloved brand, said one. It’s an opportunity “to be a force in the world,” he said. 

And let the shocked colleagues back at the old company raise their eyebrows, said another CMO. “We who have made this leap know why we’re here”, she said. “Big people help small companies scale.”

Is Smaller Better? Key Questions to Ask Before Leaving the Big League

Are you considering a leap from big to small? There are several factors to take into account. Below, we outline the key questions to ask yourself before making this career-changing decision.

1. What matters to you? There are tradeoffs to both big and small companies. Big companies typically offer bigger teams, bigger budgets, access to high-profile, expensive agencies and “cocktail party brand recognition.” They also typically involve more decision-makers and move a bit slower, and there may not be as many opportunities to expand the scope of work. Smaller companies offer impact, speed and skin in the game. You may not lead a brand that people know (yet!), but you can be the reason they know about it soon. You’ll need to be ready to dive in and do more execution in a smaller environment where all hands are on deck and teams are lean and scrappy. 

2. Is now the time? Can you speak to impact and success in your current role? Are you still on the journey? Are you and your company both getting benefits from you in the role? Running to something and not away from something results in happier executives. 

3. What does that inner voice say? In a world full of data, there is always a gut instinct. When it comes to passion, excitement and motivation, that little voice matters. 

4. If you enjoy leading a large team, engaging high-profile agencies and have big brand recognition, the move perhaps isn’t for you. Ask yourself if you are willing to compromise on the level of support big companies rely on for a more entrepreneurial, hands-on context. While acquiring such experience is an enriching and rewarding leadership opportunity, it may not fit everyone’s bill.

Going Smaller, Unlocking Growth

The key insight we take from these CMOs and from our work with several executives over the years is that talent should go from big to small. Large corporations and growing companies offer incredibly distinct challenges and demand different skillsets from these leaders, so there’s a lot to learn both ways. There is a steep learning curve for those who transition from big to small, a learning opportunity that is hardly acquired by executives who stay in one lane. While deciding to leap is ultimately a personal decision, doing so can spur unique versatility, creativity, and adaptability skills to solve complex challenges that leaders can apply wherever they land next.

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