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October 5, 2022

How to Hire a Marketing Leader (When You’re Not a Marketer)

company interview

Let’s get vulnerable, CEOs. Hiring your marketing leader can be scary. Marketing budgets often represent the largest non-headcount discretionary spend in your company. You’re placing deep trust in your marketing team to perform, so you need confidence in your leader’s sound judgment, expertise, and raw talent.

It’s also an exciting decision! Selecting the right marketing leader can rapidly propel your business forward. No matter your funding stage or how big your org is now, the principles outlined here will prepare you to evaluate marketing talent and make your match.

1) Learn the 5 marketing skills and 4 leadership styles.

Several years back, I worked at a rapidly growing company that hired an eager, but inexperienced operations manager. He frequently misrepresented engineering capacity. The mistake? He looked at every engineer on the team as interchangeable. The R&D leadership had to teach him that a devops engineer could not do the same work as a front-end UX developer!

Similarly, marketing is not a monolith. The function spans a nuanced set of skills. And knowing and demonstrating marketing expertise is not as binary as programming languages (which you either know or you don’t), making it harder to distinguish the difference in what you need in that “head of marketing” seat. Don’t worry, we’re going to break it down for you.

Marketing acumen can be grouped into 5 distinct functions. Most seasoned marketing leaders “major” in one of these skill sets and “minor” in a couple of others:


Product Marketing

Product marketing represents your classical marketing strategy. These marketers will drive market research, market segmentation, product positioning, differentiation, and enablement. They also serve as a hub between the field and R&D to improve product capabilities based on market reception.

Demand Generation / Acquisition

Demand generation is performance marketing. These marketers take the audiences and messaging–usually established by product marketing–and package up different offers into different channels to drive awareness and engagement with your audience. Depending on your sales velocity, this can be direct marketing (promotion leads directly to a sale) or indirect marketing (promotion builds interest and trust over time to pull more people toward a buying decision).

Content & Communications

Content marketing is crafting and controlling a narrative. These marketers create stories and resources in multiple formats to educate the market and drive interest in your company’s offerings. They create this content both for your own channels (website, social, blogs, podcasts) and through third-party publications and media stories.


Branding is the essence of who you are. These marketers help you establish and tell the world why you exist, what you stand for, and why it matters. This is accomplished by creating systems of consistent, repeatable expression (how you talk, how you look, how you make others feel) to build your brand recognition, awareness, and sentiment.

Marketing Operations

Marketing operations is the production of your marketing programs. These marketers touch every function, using technology to administer campaigns and measure outcomes. Most often they also integrate into other functions, building collaboration across systems and processes to align marketing with adjacent teams like sales, customer success, finance, and product.


In addition to the technical know-how, every leader brings their own leadership style to the role:


Hands-On Doer

A hands-on marketing leader is typically someone who is not far removed from their time in an individual contributor role (but not always–I’ve also known 25+ year experienced leaders who fit this style!). They are comfortable producing deliverables, which could mean conducting their own research, writing collateral, and building campaigns in platforms. They are capable of managing people, but they aren’t just giving orders. They’re contributing right alongside others on the team.

Team Builder & Coach

A team-builder and coach is a strong people-leader who knows how to design an organization and help the people on their team stretch and advance. They articulate the purpose for how each role contributes to the output. Their clear communication and leadership style conducts a smooth orchestration of campaign deliverables between the different members of the team.

Vision Caster

The vision casting leader is a showman. They are an ambassador for the brand—and for the product or service—rallying people behind the company’s mission. Internally they sell others on the long-term vision and inspire teams to think bigger and work toward common goals. Their entrepreneurial spirit is infectious.

Cross-Functional Collaborator

A cross-functional collaborator creates alignment with their leadership peers. They effectively communicate the marketing objectives and initiatives to build cooperation across the revenue function and back into product development. They may be the first leader in the org to recognize when teams are moving in opposite directions, and they’ll work to adjust programs and create clarity to move forward.


Think of the above like cards where you pick a couple cards from the “skills” pile and one card from the “leadership style” pile.

Skill Sets + Leadership Style = Candidate Persona

As you select and pair cards from each pile, you get a “mix-and-match” matrix of personas. There’s no one pairing that’s always “the best choice.” You have to pick the right marketing persona for what you need at this stage in your business.


2) Establish what your business needs in a marketing leader.

Now that you know the various marketing skill sets and leadership styles, it’s time to “pick and choose” cards from each pile. Do you need a Hands-On Demand Gen Marketer? Or a Team-Building Product Marketer? Or maybe a Cross-Functional Content Marketer?

You may be thinking, “Why do I have to choose? I need a well-rounded leader who can do all these things!” I promise you, even if the terms “guru,” “ninja,” or “wizard” appear in their CV, there is no magical marketer who can put a strong checkmark next to each of those boxes above.

So—much like dating—self-awareness is key to creating a successful match! Answering these questions can help you document the type of marketing leadership your org needs at this stage of your growth:

    1. Who will the marketing hire report into?
    2. What talent and skills are represented on your team today?
    3. How mature is your business, and where are you going next?
    4. How well defined is your go-to-market strategy?
    5. What are the most pressing initiatives you need them to lead?


Let’s look at a few examples to see how the answers to these questions can influence the persona your business needs:

Scenario A: Early-Stage Companies

Norwest’s portfolio services team has had the honor of working with many founders on their first marketing hire. We often hear they’re ready for marketing because they need to start filling pipeline. A demand gen marketer is naturally the profile they need, right? Not necessarily. We work together to take stock of how well established their go-to-market strategy is first.

Ramping up demand gen will fail if you haven’t demonstrated success in onboarding a few customers already. Or if you haven’t clearly documented your market segments, your core value prop, and your positioning in the market and against competitors. To get that right, you need a leader experienced in product marketing.

Think you need a demand-gen marketer? Not so fast! If you have no messaging & positioning platform, personas, ideal customer profile, demo script, or enablement collateral, you need a leader experienced in product marketing to build these foundations first.

And at these earliest stages, you need a candidate who’s comfortable rolling up their sleeves and doing the work solo or with the help of one or two others. They need to be resourceful.

For this type of company you may need: Product Marketing + Hands-On Doer


Scenario B: Positioning for Scale

Or maybe you’re further along. You may be $15 million in ARR and targeting 75-100% YoY growth over the next couple years to reach $50 million. At this stage, many companies realize that what they need out of marketing has grown beyond a scrappy leader and skeleton team.

Sometimes the hands-on head of marketing who you hired early on can grow with you and become more of a team-builder. But it may be time to evaluate bringing in new talent who has the gravitas from experience with this stage of growth.

One of the trickiest considerations here is leveling. Do you bring in a VP or CMO? Reporting structure impacts this decision, as does the type of leadership persona you’re going to hire. At this stage, you may need a gregarious, vision-casting, experienced marketing leader. Many who fit this mold will expect the CMO title, reporting into the CEO.

Don’t expect a 2x CMO to join a team where they won’t have a seat at the table with executive leadership.

And a visionary marketing leader with a successful record of scaling companies of your size should be part of the strategic fabric of your executive team. They won’t be content reporting to a CRO who has never done the job of marketing. So if you currently have marketing reporting into your CRO, or are exploring this reporting structure, you have a couple of choices:


1. Reevaluate the profile of candidate you need. If your CRO is capable of developing the go-to-market strategy across the end-to-end customer acquisition and lifecycle, then a vision-casting marketing leader may not be the best fit.


2. Adjust your expectations about team structure. If your CRO isn’t able to set the vision for the marketing org, maybe this is time to change the executive team structure to bring in the marketing talent at the C-Level.


If you find yourself in position 1) above, which persona should you consider? At $15 million in ARR, you’ve found repeat success in revenue generation and are looking to scale. There may be friction to overcome in how pipeline is created, whether that’s in the process that exists today or needing to enter into new markets.

In this scenario, you might need a VP-level leader who can dig in to understand what has been working, the opportunities to create efficiency across teams, and how to generate ideas for new growth tactics.

For this type of company, you may need: Demand Gen/Acquisition (with Marketing Operations secondary) + Cross-Functional Collaborator


Scenario C: Preparing for Exit

As a later stage company, you probably already have experience hiring marketing leaders. At this point, maybe you’ve had CMOs previously, and you’re looking for the next candidate to join the team. Or maybe this is your first C-Level marketing hire. You need someone who will help build and execute a plan for IPO in 2-3 years. You also expect to fundraise once more before then.

A strong content marketer may also have deep experience in branding. But they may not. Be mindful of what you need before you start interviewing candidates. Rank what’s important to you and identify the problems you need to solve now.

Here you need a leader with executive presence. This leader will help you master the story you want to tell to the market and investors. Maybe the market perceives you too narrowly, and you need to change that perception. Here branding and communications are both important, but you need someone who can work industry and media relations to disrupt the narrative.

For this type of company, you may need:
Content & Communications (with Branding secondary) + Vision Caster


3) Evaluate the fit of your candidates.

You’ve looked in the mirror and done some soul searching. You know what you need. Now it’s time to build the candidate spec and start interviewing.

Here are some interview questions that can help you evaluate the candidate:

Interview Questions to Determine Leadership Style

Hands-On Leader:

    • When was the last time you were on a team of fewer than 3 people?
    • Talk me through the process you went through when…creating your content calendar and writing, setting up a campaign, building a demo script, etc. (Here you want to see what steps and details they can speak to. Did they do the research, discovery, technical pieces themselves?)
    • Have you ever decided to let go of an agency and take the work on yourself instead? Tell me about it. (I’ve found multiple hands-on leaders who have experiences like this. They realize it’s more efficient and higher quality for them to learn the skill in-house. They enjoy the challenge of teaching themselves new systems and skills.)

Visionary Leader:

    • What experience do you have with category-creation?
    • Have you ever taken a company from $50 million to $100 million? How do you do it?
    • Tell me about a time you had to make a risky decision that did not pan out? (We all want to hear the success stories, but willingness to take risks that are not sure bets can show comfort with ambiguity, creativity, and entrepreneurship.)

Team-Builder & Coach:

    • Have you ever taken a company from $5 million to $50 million? How did you know who to hire when?
    • Can you tell me about someone who reported to you that has moved up into expanded roles?
    • Tell me about a time when you had the wrong fit on your team, whether org structure or someone in a role that didn’t suit what you needed? What did you do about it?

Cross-Functional Collaborator:

    • Describe your process for developing…messaging, campaigns, a new brand, etc. (It can be anything. Here you want to hear if they include internal research with stakeholders in their answer.
    • Do they talk to sales, product, customer success, other leaders?)
    • Tell me about a time where you were met with disagreement to a proposed plan. What did you do, and what was the outcome?
    • Have you ever led an initiative that required you to manage a project team of people who did not report to you? Tell me about that experience.
    • How have you built trust and collaboration with sales teams?


Interview Questions to Determine Marketing Skills Fit

Product Marketing:

    • Show examples of messaging, positioning, market analysis. Talk me through the process that went into developing them?
    • Do you have examples of where your positioning missed the mark? How did you know? How did you fix it?
    • Tell me what you think of the messaging on our website.
    • What does a successful product launch look like? How do you know it was successful?

Demand Generation:

    • How do you measure success? (Is it just leads? Or are they specifically tying their answers back to revenue creation?)
    • Tell me about a time you executed a failed campaign? Why did it fail?
    • How has demand generation changed in the last 5-10 years? How did you adapt to that change?
    • What are your thoughts on marketing attribution?

Content Marketing & Communications:

    • How do you build your content marketing strategy? (You want to hear how plugged in they are to your audience, how they identify topics that matter, and if they are KPI-driven.)
    • Tell me about a PR campaign you’re really proud of. Why do you think it was so successful?
    • Tell me about a PR campaign that flopped. What could have been done differently?
    • What new content formats are gaining traction? Do you think it’s relevant to our audience? (Here you want to see if they have a pulse on trends, but that they’re not going to apply fads without a strategy.)


    • On resume pre-screen, you want to see if they have worked for enviable, well-known brands before and what their role was in establishing them. Many brand marketers will also have a mix of agency and in-house experience.
    • Tell me about the process of making XYZ brand into what it is today?
    • How would you help us identify our brand essence and establish it?
    • How should we think about measuring the impact of our brand? How do we know what we’re doing is working?

Marketing Operations:

    • What tech stack have you worked with in the past?
    • Tell me about a time you’ve had to cut the budget. What adjustments did you make to systems and processes? Why?
    • Tell me about a time when you led an initiative that brought two or more functions together. What did that look like?

4) Lean on your marketing advisors.

Trust your marketing experts! Even before you get to the interview stage, reach out to your portfolio services team or your own advisory network, and start a conversation about what you need. An experienced marketer can act as your “matchmaker.” Because there is no one-size-fits-all typecast you should hire, an advisor will help you with the process of self-reflection, writing the job spec, and pulling sample profiles of candidates to give your recruiting team.

And give yourself enough time! The process of finding the right candidate is going to take months, not weeks. If you rush and compromise, you’re likely to end up disappointed. You may lose months or even years if you hire a marketing leader who isn’t the fit for what you need right now. Taking the time to find the right match is worth the payoff in performance.