How Marketing Leaders Can Evolve from CMO to CGO (Chief Growth Orchestrator) with Grant Johnson

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Welcome back to the latest edition of “3-Minute Marketing”, where I talk with some of the smartest marketing leaders on the planet & uncover their most actionable tips, tactics & strategies.

On today’s episode, I catch up with Grant Johnson. He’s been a tech CMO since 2009 & is currently leading the charge at Emburse, the global leader in expense management & accounts payable automation solutions.

Grant has always been impressive to me in how he thinks on the cutting edge of marketing strategy. One of the things he is a big proponent of these days is CMOs evolving in their roles to become a “Chief Growth Orchestrator” for their organization. I was curious to unpack what that means & how / why CMOs should be making this transition today.

So my question for Grant is, “How can CMOs evolve from becoming a ‘CMO’ to a Chief Growth Orchestrator as quickly, effectively & efficiently as possible?”

Show Notes:

  • To become “Chief”, you need to be more than a “seat at the table” — be someone that the rest of your executive team looks to as a true partner & driver of key initiatives for the business.
  • To drive “Growth”, find & focus on the key levers — pipeline is certainly a big one. But also think more broadly to areas like channels, geographies, products, culture & priorities.
  • To be an “Orchestrator”, you need to be the “quarterback” that brings people & teams together, fails fast & focuses on making the right strategic moves that make an impact.
  • You have to earn the trust of your CEO & team. Sometimes that means stepping into conflict & working to build consensus.
  • If you’re a great at “C”, but don’t have the “G” or “O” yet: focus on improving on those areas. But also get the right talent onboard to plug the gaps & nurture relationships with the right people on your team (e.g. your head of sales.)
  • A major mindset shift for the CGO role: moving from “expert implementer” to “masterful orchestrator.” Let go of being the “hands on keyboard” expert in everything. Instead, learn to bring the right experts in the room & ask them good questions.
  • You have to be relevant & distinct in order to be successful in your marketing. Data & creative are two important levers to make this happen. But the key is having good “customer intuition.”


– [Chris] Hello, everybody. Welcome to another episode of Three Minute Marketing. I’m your host today, Chris Mechanic, veteran performance marketer, agency owner, and just all around marketing geek. Super excited to be with Grant Johnson here today. Grant is a long time marketing person, you’ve seen the evolution of all the things, basically. You are really right there in it, and you’re doing some very impressive work. So Grant is CMO at Emburse. Emburse is the global leader in expense management and accounts payable automation solutions. Before Emburse, Grant led marketing at several high tech companies, including Pegasystems, Kofax and Cylance. Welcome to the show Grant, happy to have you.

– [Grant] Hey Chris, it’s great to be here. And yeah, I’ve had a long career in marketing. It’s been fun, but I think now it’s as exciting as ever.

– [Chris] Yeah, and I think a lot of ideas that I’ve heard you talking about for a long time are still either hot and up and coming, or like some of your ideas on content strategy, I’ve been very impressed by over the years. And I’m super excited today because I really like your thinking on this topic. So are you ready to get right into it?

– [Grant] Ready to go.

– [Chris] All right, so the big topic for you today is on evolution from CMO, chief marketing officer, to CGO, chief growth officer, or chief growth orchestrator, as you like to call it. Talk to us about how CMOs can make that evolution quickly, efficiently, effectively and so on.

– [Grant] Yeah, I think best way to look at it, is just break down each of those three words, like how do you bite an apple? And so the chief part, and you could be CMO in title, but you’re not CMO in your influence. So you really have to have more than just the seat at the table. You got to be someone that the rest of the executives look to as a true partner, you got to build trust as an advisor to your CEO. I’ve got that great relationship now with our CEO of Emburse, Eric Freidrichsen, and that doesn’t always happen and it hasn’t always happened, and your other peers. So whether they’re product, or they’re sales, or they’re finance, you’ve got to be looked to as somebody to help drive the key initiatives for the business. Now, the second word is growth. And I like to think about growth just like key levers, and most companies have their own view on this. And so a pipeline certainly grows your business for the existing customer base market, as well as the net new, but you also have channels, and you have geographies, and you have products. And a lot of people think, well, products are just products. Well, not really, you can price them differently, you can package them differently, you can promote them differently, and that’s my four Ps of product, if you will. And there’s also the people and the culture. I really think my success has been the combination of my expertise as well as the efforts and contribution of my teams. So you’ve got to get people really excited about driving growth along with you. And then ultimately aligned on priorities. You can only do a few things well at once, and let’s get something working before we get it half baked and then do another half baked thing. So that’s growth, and the third is orchestrator. And so when it comes to orchestration, I like to think of the marketer, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on, so what’s my role? I’ve got a title, but what’s my role? And really marketing is the orchestrator, the conductor, the quarterback, whatever analogy you want to use, that really brings everything together. It’s certainly best known as go to market. But you know, we orchestrate company meetings and how to align strategic objectives. And if you can be seen as somebody that can bring people together, get one-on-one to equal three. And how do you do that? You got to have a strong sense of conviction. I like to say you should be fearless, fail first. It’s okay to fail, just make sure it’s first. And focus on making the right strategic moves so that it will have an impact. I always look at marketing on the downside, it’s death by 1000 cuts. On the upside is one major move that has the impact. So that’s what chief growth orchestrator is all about. Being the chief, driving growth and orchestrating.

– [Chris] That was awesome. So just to summarize what I heard, it’s by the letter. Chief means beyond a seat at the table, it’s like you’re the advisor. Growth, I heard various channels, there’s more than one way to earn, there’s more than one way to package and promote. But really what I heard is it’s almost as important to get buy in from the team and be a good leader really is more important in that regard. And then the orchestration, I call that the glue, which is basically get it all together. So I love that Grant. I really appreciate it. Is there any parting words of wisdom or you want to tell us where we can hear more of your thoughts and ideas?

– [Grant] Yeah, well we’re at, and certainly can discover our spend management, spend up position portfolio that covers expense, AP automation and payments and so forth. I’m at Grant Johnson at LinkedIn. So you can certainly connect with me there, share ideas. It’s a great forum for that. And certainly I felt that marketers can evolve their careers by being very intent-driven on what you’re trying to achieve. I’ve often met peers that not quite sure how they got there. I’m pretty sure how I got here. So being intentional, if you want to evolve your role from CMO to CGO or to CEO eventually, you’ve got to have a plan on how to get there.

– [Chris] Well, I love it. Hey, I have another question for you. Please stay on the line. Listeners, if you want to hear the rest of Grant and I’s conversation, there should be a link somewhere around this video that you can see the rest of that conversation. Also, if you enjoyed this, if you liked this, if you want to hear more of this less, leave us a like or a comment, we read every single one and we’ll most likely respond to it directly as well. So we love you, we’ll see you next time. Thanks Grant. The funny thing is, from what you’re saying, it’s almost like less about marketing and more, almost like being an entrepreneur.

– [Grant] Right.

– [Chris] Like if you’re a CMO at a small company, you’re almost definitely going to have the CEO’s ear, and therefore if he trusts and respects you, he’s going to look to you for more than just demand gen.

– [Grant] Yeah, that’s exactly right. And mine’s developed organic, it just we like each other, we both have three kids and this and that, it’s the best relationship of CEO. I’ve had some tough ones, where like, I don’t really want to talk to you unless you got some number to report. You know, it’s like tell me successes, or don’t give me excuses. And their trusted advisor is the CFO in most cases, could be different people at different companies, but especially on the public companies, I’ve been part of. It might be the product person if it’s a private company. But in this case, the CEO says like, “Hey, we’re going to do an offsite. What do you think?” You know, ’cause I’ve been a GM, so I’m more than marketing, but not everybody is. And like we’re thinking about this for the core values. I actually helped shape our core values. So that was a fun project when we did it a couple of years when I first came on board. But, yeah, I think those are, you sort of have to earn it, you know, and it’s not like while you’re the head of your function to really have your participation, you’ve got to step up and step into conflict sometimes, or lack of consensus that you have to try to bring together, rally ideas. I’ve always felt like I love performance marketing. I have Erin and I’ll talk about her in a minute, who runs what we call revenue marketing, which is demand gen and so forth. I think the best of what they do is performance marketing, right? Things that we can measure and improve. And some folks don’t necessarily look at it that way, but I think that’s when all said and done, that’s how you prove value.

– [Chris] 100%, 100%, yeah. So I have a couple of comments, one just on the CGO idea. So I think technically I’m WebMechanix’s chief growth officer. I nailed the C because I’m the founder, right? But I suck at the other two, and I’ll give you an example, and just kind of like a self analysis. So our challenge right now is more so on the talent side than on the client side. There’s more work than we know what to do with. It’s like a matter of finding really really good people, there’s just not many of them there.

– [Grant] It’s a war for talent in all tech industries like yours, yeah, and ours, exactly.

– [Chris] So I’ve been called upon or kind of called upon myself to take our outbound, like our revenue marketing function and point it at recruiting. So now I have like four outbound folks that usually are hunting after net new logos that are basically head hunting.

– [Grant] Interesting.

– [Chris] So this was like a fast thing because at the same time that we closed a couple of deals, this was a month or so ago, we lost a couple people, so folks were kind of scrambling. And work-life balance is hugely important, I think, for agency workers because it’s hard to work at an agency, like you can’t overwhelm people, 60, 70-hour work week type stuff. So it’s like a kind of an emergency. So we pivoted quickly, and I, so I nailed the C, but with the G part, I think I got like buy in and stuff from the sales team. Like they weren’t enthusiastic necessarily about it, but I framed it as kind of like rally cry. It’s like one WebMechanix the accounts or the ops team needs our help, like we can save the day. So I tried to do that, but I think I got like a C probably, B minus at best. And then on the orchestration, I also am not the person, that’s my co-founder luckily he is like the glue. So I’m basically a horrible CGO.

– [Grant] Well, you got the C part of course. So, you know, you got, we all have areas to improve on and some of the people have asked me, you know, reflect on some of the successes, what’s the first thing you do, and you’re the founder, so you sort of hard to go back and redo stuff, but it’s like, I really, the fastest thing I can do is get better, upgrade or talk great or fill gaps. We didn’t even have somebody who understood. I don’t know if you guys ever met, I think, I forced Holly to start with you guys and then it became Brad, I think it’s the day-to-day person. And my number sort of at a transition point, we can talk about that in a minute. But getting the right people on board was just hugely instrumental, because like if you have the wrong person on board, you can have the vision and you can’t orchestrate the talent you don’t have, or if somebody is diametrically opposed to you, then you, I’ve been at a company when I’ve always been very aligned to the CRO. I was at in a company, so I was number two in marketing. And the CRO was basically, Markting was the reason they fell short on anything. And if I were the CMO would said, look, you know, you can pick one on the two, so I’m not staying here until you, you know, if you stopped this internal battling, right? But I literally plopped my office next to the head of sales. I had a couple of choices, but I was at Kofax for four and a half year. So I said, I’m sitting next to the head of sales. “I can sit over here, it’s got a better window view, no, I’m sitting next to the head of sales.” I want to make sure that relationship works well. And that’s a lesson.

– [Chris] I mean, that’s really smart. That’s another example of just like good classic business. You know, they come up with like good, nice buzzwords, like account-based marketing to describe things that are just like good, smart selling, like don’t sell to the whole world, like choose 100 accounts, and focus.

– [Grant] Yeah, target account market has been around for decades, but everything’s ABM.

– [Chris] But now this is really interesting, been eyeopening and generally liked it. I had something else interesting I was about to say, but it has escaped my mind for the time being. But all good.

– [Grant] Well all good, yeah. If you want to go off record, I’m happy to share with you when you’re ready, on the WebMechanix, I have some feedback I could share with you.

– [Chris] I remember though. Do you remember? What I was about to say was, the older I get and the more experienced I get and the longer I’m a marketer, the more it kind of dawns on me, and this goes along with the CGO thing, is that, marketing becomes like the lesser important of the skill sets. It’s really like the eternal skillsets, are like people skills which includes leadership attributes and business acumen. Like really just finding a good deal, and like the ability to negotiate and just business acumen kind of strategy. Like, “Hey, if we did this thing, it might make sense over the long-term, that we could make way more that way.” Like that kind of business acumen and strategy. And so like, I’ve made my living up until now, like being hands on keyboard. Like I know every nook and cranny of Google ads and Facebook ads this day, you know?

– [Grant] Yeah, I mean I’ve made a few good observations Chris, I would say, I’ve been a CMOs since 2009, you know, so five times now generally companies get acquired, you know, I might stay longer, but they don’t really have a relevant role or I like reporting to CEOs ’cause I feel like I have better control over my destiny and my team. But I think you’re right that, one point in my career, I remember I was talking to a CEO and it’s like, “You’re not putting enough emphasis on some of these growth initiatives.” And he says, “It’s clear that you can do everything. You could personally do everything that’s needed in marketing, you have expertise, but you can’t do everything.” You can do anything, you can’t do everything. So I took that advice several years ago and I don’t have the same level of expertise two miles deep in digital retargeting, but I got experts who do, and I understand enough to know if something’s not going well, like you say, the beset. And this doesn’t seem right or we’re doing better here, why aren’t we doing better there, ask the right questions, having the ability to get people to work together, get them to aim higher versus accept mediocre results. There was a famous quote of a brilliant creative who worked on the Apple campaign that said, “Look, 98% of the world is happy just doing good work.” I want to be part of that 2% that just does insanely great work. And of course they were motivated by the late great Steve Jobs to do that, but that helps. I think you’re right, those other skills, you want to stay current, but you don’t necessarily have to be deep in the Google’s latest algorithm update, no.

– [Chris] But like people in business, like if you study people in business like you, you’re almost like, what do you call it? Like evergreen, everlasting, like eternal, like you can eternally be a good business executive in general, if you know people and you know business well.

– [Grant] Yeah.

– [Chris] Its kind of like in advertising, I say sometimes platforms change, mediums change, techniques change. But the two eternal things that never change, both with paid and organic, email and every single kind of marketing medium that has ever existed or will ever exist, has two everlasting things. Creative, which is what you see, feel, hear, touch, read. And data, some kind of measurement, right? So like no matter what the ad platform is or what features or things and hazard, nooks and crannies, there’s always a creative element, what’s the offer? And who are we targeting? And then there’s always that data element of like, which ad works better?

– [Grant] Yeah, no, that’s exactly right. And I would add to that, well, those are definitely fundamental that whatever the communication medium, if you’re not relevant or not distinct, you’ve got to be both, because there’s such a competition that occupy a small space in the mind of a prospect and the customer. It’s like, “Why are you bothering me? I’m already a customer.” “Well, you could get more value out of our partnership.” “Oh, okay, now I know why you’re bothering me. So go ahead and interrupt me.” But yeah, you’re exactly right on that. You’ve got to have creative, and I just think, certain things stay in your brain for, you know, persist for a long time. There was a saying by pretty famous optimist, “Creativity rules the world.” And I don’t think you can underestimate the power of really good creativity. So when you deliver that to clients, that’s where you add a lot more value. Like you’ve got to have the data, the analysis, the reporting. I remember we were first working with WebMechanix at last company I was helping out, and I thought that the reporting was really good, and we said, “Okay, now let’s take it to the next level.” And so you needed the data to do that, but it wouldn’t have gotten to the next level without good creatives.

– [Chris] 100%, 100%. Yeah, you can be as data and technically inclined in the world. And if your creative sucks, somebody with good creative that knows nothing about data will run circles around you.

– [Grant] Yeah, right, and having a sensitivity of like, what moves you? What might move others? I used to always say to people outside of a good customer intuition.

Grant Johnson

Grant JohnsonCMO at Emburse

Chris Mechanic

Chris MechanicCEO & Co-Founder

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