The Path To Becoming A CMO

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This is a podcast episode titled, The Path To Becoming A CMO. The summary for this episode is: CMOs have one of the shortest job tenures in the C-suite. What gives? In this episode recorded live at HYPERGROWTH Boston, DG sits down with Leela Srinivasan (CMO of SurveyMonkey) to find out. DG and Leela talk about what career progression looks like for marketers, why she thinks marketers shouldn't get hung up on their title, and the number one thing she's learned from each of her roles at Bain, LinkedIn, OpenTable, Lever, and SurveyMonkey.

DG: Hey, what's up everybody. It's DG back with another episode of The Swipe File. This time this was a conversation live from HYPERGROWTH 19 in Boston when we took over the Wang, graffitied it, it was amazing. I got the privilege of interviewing the CMO of Survey Monkey. Her name is Leela Srinivasan. She is amazing. I first met her at SaaStr last year and we did a podcast interview there. This conversation was way different, way better, because instead of talking about whatever she talked about at SaaStr, we talked about her as a CMO, the path to becoming CMO. She was VP of marketing at OpenTable, CMO of a company called Lever and director of marketing at LinkedIn. So we talked about the path from director to VP to CMO, what she learned along the way. This was all live onstage from HYPERGROWTH 19. I know you're going to love this episode so much so that you're going to say, DG, you need to get Leela on this podcast to finish your conversation. Here it is, I'll shut up now. Here's my conversation with Leela, the CMO of Survey Monkey onstage live at HYPERGROWTH 19. I have a tough job right now, which is you always want to start by telling the audience how hard your job. It's a speaking tip, if you want to steal that. I have to try to interview you in 20 minutes and you and I traded a bunch of emails this weekend. We kicked around a bunch of questions, but here's where I want to start. We don't need to go through intros. Everybody's going to look you up on LinkedIn and go find you on Twitter, so we're not going to talk about your bio. I've got to be honest, most marketing interviews, they're like," So you worked at Bain, tell me about that." Okay. Here's what I want to do, though. I want to take each one of your companies that you've been at, Lever, OpenTable, LinkedIn and Bain and Business Wire, not to forget them. What's one thing now, as a CMO of a publicly traded multi- billion dollar market company, give me one thing from each of those companies that's helped shape you as a marketing leader. Let's start with Bain.

Leela Srinivasan: Wow. Okay, so Bain, we're going back some ways, right?

DG: Let's go back.

Leela Srinivasan: A management consulting company, I was there from 2006- 2009, straight out of business school. They had 10 values, one of which was be at cause. I looked at it the first time I was like,"What the hell does that mean?" Actually what it means is if you see something is broken, then you're allowed to gripe about it for about 30 seconds and then you have to quickly shift gears and figure out how you're going to make it better.

DG: You saying," Oh, that's not my job, that's not my problem," doesn't fly.

Leela Srinivasan: Absolutely not.

DG: I love that lesson. LinkedIn.

Leela Srinivasan: Oh, goodness, so many lessons. Let's see. Can I do two?

DG: Sure.

Leela Srinivasan: Okay, so first, one of their values, again: relationships matter. I've always prided myself on being a connector and really trying to help people and bring them together. I found at LinkedIn and since then, it's really been all about relationships, relationships with peers, with customers, with colleagues, with vendors, with whoever it happens to be in the community. That was one thing. The second was as a marketer. I joined LinkedIn as their first product marketer for talent solutions, which was their largest, fastest growing business. The dirty secret was I had never been a product marketer before and didn't really know what I was doing, it turned out. There was this terrifying meeting on Mondays called the monetization meeting, and I would troop in there with a bunch of product managers and everybody was so buttoned up and knew exactly what was going on. Again, it was terrifying to begin with. What I found is if I took the right data into that conversation, then I was fine. People really, really were looking for a data- driven approach and pretty early on, I latched onto the fact that I was probably closer to my customer, so the unique insight I could bring on the customer was what was going to set me apart.

DG: Actually being close to the customer probably made you a good product marketer, even though you had no prior background as a product marketer.

Leela Srinivasan: Absolutely, yeah, I would say. I think you've heard a lot this morning about customer experience and marketing is playing an increasing role in that. The single thing we can do to be valuable, more valuable than ever before to our organizations is to be close to the customers and know what they need, what their challenges, pain points are and so on.

DG: Yeah, I think today, it's so easy. You can get so much of that online and obviously, through something like Survey Monkey, right? Quick plug. I think the value and the reason we love doing events like this is because you're going to bump into a customer in the hallway and they're going to tell you something that's not going to show up in some spreadsheet or some research that you went out and did. That's an insight that you can go back to take to your team. You're standing on that saying like," I actually met this customer at HYPERGROWTH; here's what they had to say."

Leela Srinivasan: Yeah. We actually have, at Survey Monkey now, we have a Slack channel, which we call Customer Interaction Reports. I've challenged every single employee at Survey Monkey at some point during the year to file one of these reports. It's just a quick writeup of a customer that you met, what services or products are they using? What's their feedback? How happy are they? What's an insight you took away? These all get pumped into a Slack channel, so the entire organization can see those.

DG: I love that, and it's all real conversations.

Leela Srinivasan: That's right.

DG: Okay. OpenTable.

Leela Srinivasan: Well, it's surreal to be on the stage after Danny Meyer. I had the privilege of getting to know Danny while I was at OpenTable and I learned a lot from Danny himself. I think the last couple of weeks the papers have been full of... I just said papers! Are they still a thing?

DG: Yes.

Leela Srinivasan: The media has been full of stories around the business round table and just this focus on stakeholders as opposed to narrowly focused on profits. Danny has been walking that talk for years now. I definitely learned a lot of that from him. I think as a marketer, what I learned was just the importance of balancing global and local. OpenTable was in six different markets at the time, and our success in those markets ranged from wildly successful, U. S. for example, to dismal, Japan, and so just figuring out what we could repurpose from HQ in every market versus what we had to make unique to that specific market in order to be successful. It was a lot of hard graft, but I think it was probably the single thing I took away from there.

DG: Okay, last one is Lever, which is your first CMO game.

Leela Srinivasan: Yes. For those who don't know Lever, it's a recruiting software company. I was with them from series A through C and again, so many learnings. What I would focus on is everything related to design thinking. Lever CEO, Sarah, is a design thinker. She, she graduated from the D school at Stanford. At all times, we were asking ourselves the question of why. One of our company values actually was know why. I found that, at Lever, we went deeper and deeper into really, again, understanding pain points, challenges, not just what were customers doing, but why, so that we could in turn, build better products, services, experiences, marketing, material, you name it.

DG: Okay, so you're a CMO now and CMOs notoriously, maybe this is only in marketing circles, but I think whenever you talk about CMOs, you hear about how CMOs have one of the shortest job tenures in the C- suite-

Leela Srinivasan: Yep.

DG: You say that very confidently.

Leela Srinivasan: If you think it's bad out here, you should see it in Silicon valley. It's doubly worse.

DG: Okay, so I wanted to have some structure for this interview, so I wrote notes. Right? Imagine that. I looked it up and there was a story in the Wall Street Journal earlier this summer that said the average tenure for a CFO is 43 months.

Leela Srinivasan: Um- hmm( affirmative.) I know what's worse? 31 months.

DG: 31 months.

Leela Srinivasan: Yep.

DG: Okay, so from your seat now, why is that? Why is the CMO job so hard? Is it that marketing is just hard and everyone has an opinion? There's a comedian that I listen to, and he says the funny part about standup is that everyone's made their friends laugh, and so everyone thinks," I could do standup; screw this guy." I sometimes think it's the same way with marketing. They're like," Well, I know what good stuff looks like and I can design, I can write.

Leela Srinivasan: Oh, I've got stories.

DG: That's a long- winded way of me saying why is the CMO job so short, and do you think that's ever going to change?

Leela Srinivasan: I hope it's going to change. I think there are a few reasons. One is, and I think this is improving, but I don't know that marketing leaders build tight enough relationships with the internal stakeholders and partners that matter. I joke about being joined at the hip with my chief sales officer. We actually literally came on stage, an all hands with ties, like a three legged race, just to prove the point in a really obnoxious way, but people have not forgotten that. It's really important to have that tight relationship with sales and also with product. We're stuck in the middle and I don't know, again, that all marketers necessarily spend enough time cultivating those relationships, making sure that your incentives are aligned, your goals are aligned, etc.

DG: I want to go deep on that because I feel like you live that, but I also feel like talk to any marketing person and they will say something like," You've got to be tight with sales." How does it actually play out with you and the sales team, whoever runs sales at Survey Monkey, because I think it is easy on services level. Yeah, you've got to be tight with sales, but how do you actually do that? What does that relationship look like between you two?

Leela Srinivasan: Yeah, I think it comes down to holding one another ridiculously accountable. I'll give you an example. If we are in a meeting and either one of us has concerns about something, I typically will call John on his commute home or he'll call me on the commute to work, and we will just have a real conversation. I think we genuinely know that we are in this together. Sales can not be successful without marketing. If sales is not successful and marketing is not doing its part, then this is back to the 31 months median tenure. I think we understand intimately that we have to work together really closely in order to drive mutual success. Sometimes where things fall apart is not shining a bright enough light on the metrics and on the stats. I go back to my time at Lever where, for a while, we didn't have a head of sales. Basically, the entire executive team carved up the sales organization and we all were caretaker and leader of part of it.

DG: That must have been a real treat.

Leela Srinivasan: Well, maybe not for everyone. I think it was probably deeply uncomfortable for our CFO, but for me it was great. The other secret that you didn't get to in the bio is, actually, I spent five and a half years in sales before I went to business school. I actually was a sales person in Boston for two years. I worked at Two Center Plaza Dentistry.

DG: Love it.

Leela Srinivasan: Yeah? Anyway, I really empathize with the salesperson. I've carried the bag. I've walked in the shoes. I know how hard is. Back at Lever, when we had the situation where we didn't have a sales leader for a while, I actually called a daily standup. It was me, my director of demand, Jen, marketing ops, two sales directors, sales manager and sales ops. We would sit down and we would look at the funnel. We would hold our reps and our SCRs accountable to their SLAs. We called the meeting. We were Team Squelch, which I think my team thought was something I'd made up, but actually, it's an anonymous word from the UK. Anyway, it was Team Squelch.

DG: Team Squelch!

Leela Srinivasan: Yes, because we're SQL's, right?

DG: Nice.

Leela Srinivasan: It was the quest for SQLs.

DG: Love it.

Leela Srinivasan: We would sit down in this meeting for half an hour every day and I think the SCRs would sit there, nervously waiting to be pinged for all the things they hadn't done. We would sit there and we would Slack someone, saying," Hey, Bobby, what's up with this lead, check it out. You need to close it out or advance it." It was only by peering deeply into the funnel and getting really aligned with what was working, what wasn't, that we were able to move forward.

DG: I love that example because I think sometimes, as marketers, we get in our own way and we just like to sit back and only look at the metrics and only look at the dashboards in Salesforce and only look at that stuff. I think it was golden, what you said, as you all sat around together and did this, right?

Leela Srinivasan: Yes.

DG: It's one thing to ping a sales rep and say," Why didn't you follow up on this lead?" Right? Then if you're actually having this conversation and you're talking to the funnel in person, that's something we did in the early days at Drift that I thought was great, but now you have 90 people on your team, right? There's 90 marketers at Survey Monkey. How do you still create some of that magic from the early days of we're all sitting down and looking at the funnel together? Have you been able to replicate that at all?

Leela Srinivasan: Yeah. It's a different conversation as you scale. Across our different brands, by the end of the year, we'll be close to a hundred, I think it is. There are pieces where you have to be comfortable to get deep and go into those details now and then. These days I spend less time doing that than I would like, but I trust my team to actually accomplish that.

DG: Yeah. We traded emails last night. I wanted to ask you some questions about stuff you bought and you said," I actually haven't bought anything because I have trust in my team and they do it." It probably does come back to, instead of you being the one in that meeting, you now have to build a team that you trust and you trust that they're having those conversations.

Leela Srinivasan: Yeah, and it comes back to are we aligned on the goals so they know what they're trying to accomplish. They're far closer, in the case of B2B, they're far closer to the sales experience and funnel than I will be at this point. I trust them to know what to bring in. I will have questions around whether it overlaps with other technology and obviously, is it in budget and are we just buying technology for the sake of it? Not that marketers ever do that, but-

DG: No, there's only like 12 SAS products today anyway. You're fine.

Leela Srinivasan: 12, 000?

DG: Yeah, it might have changed by now.

Leela Srinivasan: Yeah.

DG: Okay. I want to get to some other stuff. There's a lot of marketers in this room and I think the one thing we don't hit on enough is career progression as a marketer. We've talk to a lot of CMOs, but a lot of you haven't dug into how you actually become a CMO. Just going back from each stage, because if we go back to each of those jobs earlier, you went from director to VP to CMO. Let's go unpack each of those stages. What did it take for you to go from director to VP of marketing? What was the biggest change and what things did you have to do?

Leela Srinivasan: In full honesty, one of the things was a company switch. I'm at LinkedIn, a 6, 500- employee company at the time, director level. LinkedIn had a notoriously conservative structure at the time, so I had clawed my way to director. I was offered a role at OpenTable at the VP level. I went from a 6, 500- person company in mid to senior level to VP level at an 800 or 900- person company. I think the reason that made sense for OpenTable was the scope of my responsibility, my team size, the budgets I was in charge of and so forth actually mirrored fairly well what-

DG: I think sometimes people get caught up in the opposite of that.

Leela Srinivasan: Right.

DG: The perspective is you were a director at a 6, 000- person company. That very much can be a VP at an OpenTable. I think the places where I've seen some people get stuck in their career is there's 40 people at the company and you're in that role. I think that's when you don't really see how you can connect the dots.

Leela Srinivasan: Yeah. I know it's easy to say when you have the title, but I try and encourage marketers not to get too hung up on title, focus on the experiences that you're building, what you're learning, because that's really what matters. That is what is going to catapult your success.

DG: Was there anything you had to change or did you feel like you were already doing the VP level job at LinkedIn?

Leela Srinivasan: I think, in some ways, I was. What changed, of course, in moving up the chain was just proximity to and frequency of contact with the C- suite. I was one level down and actually, I was super happy at LinkedIn. I bled blue. I mixed the Kool- Aid. I dispensed it. I was really focused on LinkedIn. I had no intention of leaving. In fact, I relocated my family back from the East Coast to double down with LinkedIn. The eve of my one- way ticket, I got this unexpected offer and I was just so confused. Anyway, the reason I took it was realizing that in my sly and sneaky interview process that didn't feel like it was one, I spent quality time brainstorming with the CEO. I spent 45 minutes with Matt Roberts at the time who was the CEO. I realized that was the kind of experience I wasn't going to have for quite some time at LinkedIn. I had probably present it to Jeff Weiner four or five times in my life, which was still a thrill, but it just wasn't the same as week in, week out contact.

DG: Okay, what about from VP to CMO?

Leela Srinivasan: Can I tell you another secret?

DG: Yes.

Leela Srinivasan: I think the job description was originally written as VP and in negotiating, I asked if we could make it CMO and they said yes.

DG: Have a good day, have a good night. We're all set.

Leela Srinivasan: Seriously, back to that, 27 or 31- month, 44 month thing, there just aren't enough really strong marketers. Part of that is the job of marketing is really hard, but part of it is supply and demand. Don't be afraid to ask for the things that really matter to you. In some ways, titles are actually pretty cheap for organizations, especially in an earlier stage. Again, going back to what was I coming from and to, I went from, by then OpenTable was probably a 1, 200- person company, although it had been acquired by a much larger organization, to a 40- person series A startup, so you can bet I was going to ask for a different title.

DG: Yeah, and you could offer them a lot more at a different stage, because you'd just seen a 6, 000- person company, a 1, 000- person company. Now there's 40 people in the same room. You can control everything there.

Leela Srinivasan: That's right, yeah.

DG: Okay. These prep notes are so good. It hurts that we've got to go so fast. I'll share them later. Okay? They're only good because you've said a lot of good stuff that I was just able to grab. One of those things was every marketing leader you talk to, they say," Leela, how are you measured?" You talk about MQLs and pipeline and revenue and meetings. One thing, in every interview I've seen with you, you mention how you want to be goaled on also marketing team happiness. Can you talk about( a) how you measure that and( b) how you move the needle on that? I think a lot of people in this room know how to make the difference and hit the MQL number, but how can you actually move the needle on team happiness?

Leela Srinivasan: Yeah, I'm going to step back for a second and tell you why this is so important. Customer experience is super important; so is employee experience. I like to think of this age as the feedback economy where anything that can be known about your organization will be known. The web, social, everything is super transparent so if your employees aren't happy, that's going to show up on Glassdoor. They're going to talk to one another. Thinking about the fact that it's so visible and adding to that the fact that the way you treat your customers, a lot of it is about your team and the team that you're building, and then coming back to this churn that goes on in marketing, it's really hard to hire marketers that are qualified to all levels, right? I believe what we have to do as leaders is provide learning experiences, provide development and so on and so forth to every marketer in the organization. I think it's what people are looking for in this day and age, and if they're not finding it with you, they're being tapped on the shoulder by your competitor in that neighboring town and being offered everything, basically. I think it's a smart business move that's essential in this day and age if you want to retain your people to offer learning development and everything else. Also, just listen to your employees and understand the feedback. Working at Survey Monkey, we do have tools and technology that help with this, of course. We happen to use a purpose- built solution that we built called Survey Monkey Engage. Within that, we have a series of pulse surveys that come out every other month, super short, that you can take in two minutes of a time on your cell phone, and that helps us measure how employees are feeling about five factors that we've shown scientifically are proven to be correlated with engagement and retention. We do that. We do that regularly. We also send out a bigger survey twice a year, and we talk about the results as a leadership team. We talk about the results back out to the organization, and then we make changes based on that. One example, for me, on this learning and development piece is one of our scores for the factor that ties into that was lower than I would like. Looking through the color commentary, I realized that we weren't doing a good enough job of figuring out how we could help marketers learn and grow in their role. From there, I ran a followup survey. We did some focus groups. We came up with some very specific tactics that we are going to roll out to the organization to help them learn from one another, and also for marketers that we're now bringing in on a regular basis to inspire the team, basically. It comes down to listening to feedback, figuring out what to do with that feedback and then taking action.

DG: I love it. Most people would answer that question and not gone into detail, so I love that because I can hear literally hear somebody over here typing and writing notes about all this stuff. Okay, we want to wrap up. We've got to wrap up. I'm sorry to have to do it, but we're going to fly through these. Okay?

Leela Srinivasan: Okay.

DG: I'm going to put you on the spot. I want to do a little word association. Did I say that right? Association.

Leela Srinivasan: Association.

DG: Association with you, a big time CMO. I'm going to say a word and you've got to give me like a couple words, a sentence is okay, on just whatever comes to mind. Events.

Leela Srinivasan: Workload. Seriously.

DG: Did we plant that?

Leela Srinivasan: No. I was behind the scenes at LinkedIn's Talent Connect. Well, it's a labor of love is my point, right?

DG: I tweeted out a week ago the cycle of an event is like we're going to do the event; all year, you're like," Why the hell are we doing an event?" Then this day, you're like," Let's do more events. This is amazing." Then on Thursday, we're like," Oh, my God. We've got to do this again." That's the cycle of events.

Leela Srinivasan: It's like babies, actually, in that way, right?

DG: Yeah, my wife and I just had our second and we said," We're never having kids again."

Leela Srinivasan: But they're so cute!!

DG: I know, and in six months, we're going to... Yeah, it's going to happen. Whatever.

Leela Srinivasan: You heard it here first.

DG: She's not here yet. Leela's not coming until two, so it's fine. Okay, webinars.

Leela Srinivasan: Tired.

DG: Ooh.

Leela Srinivasan: I say that. Well, can I at least give a...

DG: Please.

Leela Srinivasan: My team will hate this. We're actually running a virtual conference in two and a half weeks and it will be fantastic. The point is that the format is a little bit tired, so I think the onus is on all of us to liven it up, to figure out how to make it more interactive, to layer in questions, all that good stuff.

DG: Preach, podcast.

Leela Srinivasan: Commute.

DG: Commute?

Leela Srinivasan: I have a long one so I listen to a lot of podcasts.

DG: What do you listen to? Give me one.

Leela Srinivasan: Oh, boy. I knew you were going to say that. I go in and out of Reid Hoffman's Masters of Scale.

DG: Yes.

Leela Srinivasan: It's a little theatrical, even for my taste sometimes, but there's some really good guests.

DG: LinkedIn.

Leela Srinivasan: Connections.

DG: Connections?

Leela Srinivasan: Actually targeting.

DG: Okay. Your others were better, but it's fine. YouTube.

Leela Srinivasan: Ubiquitous.


Leela Srinivasan: Hyped.

DG: Ooh. Stick around.

Leela Srinivasan: Are you with me? Not all AI is created equal. That's all I've got to say.

DG: We've got to go. Give it up for Leela. Thank you. Hey, what's up, everybody? It's DG and I hope that I'll see you at HYPERGROWTH in San Francisco. It's November 18th. The venue is amazing. We were there last year and it's going to be even better this year, but I want to hook you up as a loyal listener of this podcast. If you use my code, SwipeFile99, you'll get a huge discount on a ticket. It's something like 300%, 400%. I don't know, I'm not a math guy, but you'll get a huge discount and we'll see you there. I'm going to be there. I'm flying out to San Francisco. I think I'm going to MC that day, so I'll be there. It's going to be an amazing day, lots of learning. If you're in marketing, if you're listening to podcast, you've got to go. Okay? HYPERGROWTH San Francisco, November 18th. Use my promo code, SwipeFile99, and you can go and get your ticket at HYPERGROWTH. com. That's pretty simple. See you.


CMOs have one of the shortest job tenures in the C-suite. What gives? In this episode recorded live at HYPERGROWTH Boston, DG sits down with Leela Srinivasan (CMO of SurveyMonkey) to find out. DG and Leela talk about what career progression looks like for marketers, why she thinks marketers shouldn't get hung up on their title, and the number one thing she's learned from each of her roles at Bain, LinkedIn, OpenTable, Lever, and SurveyMonkey.