I recently was invited to attend a meeting of the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD), a group of board-of-director members from the country’s most prestigious companies. The topic of the meeting was how to keep corporate boards relevant in the 21st century.

What promised to be a dry conversation about financials and governance turned out to be anything but that. The discussion that morning focused on the need to respond to and keep pace with the rapid change in customer behavior to stay competitive. It also addressed how current board members could keep up with the evolution of customer touchpoints to understand the new digitally-based strategies that are increasingly being shared with them.

What I found striking about the discussion after some reflection was that the realization of the critical importance of customer behavior on the future success of top companies has made it all the way to the boardroom. The age of the customer that Forrester first identified in 2011 has really arrived and goes well beyond marketing.

Why now? Corporate boards are starting to realize that to provide the strategic guidance and governance that their role requires, they need to better understand customers and how the relationship between them and the companies they direct are changing. And they need to understand it fast. The market is moving and changing too rapidly to be left behind.

What does this mean for CMOs?

  • It’s time for you to raise your hand and your position. As the keeper of all things customer, CMOs are in a unique position to bring the diversity of thought and knowledge about customers that corporate boards are recognizing they need. Start the discussion with your CEO now to put it on the radar screen. It will be good for you and good for your company.
  • Build the case for the business impact of customer obsession. Empowered customers are now firmly in control of their buying journey. They are defining where, when, and how they want to be interacted with. To drive growth and remain relevant, business leaders and their boards must embrace a new approach focused on customers. By putting customer obsession at the center of their strategies, business leaders can nimbly adapt and respond to changes in customer behavior to grow market share. If you are looking to broaden your CMO career, it’s a great time to position yourself as the business executive who best understands how customer obsession and understanding can affect all aspects of the business you’re in. If you have the knowledge, put it to use now. If you don’t, get it as quickly as you can. Your CEO may just come knocking on your door asking for it soon.
  • Join a board to refine and enhance your understanding. Consider joining a board and developing a board-level career to complement your CMO role. In a recent article titled "Ascending To The Board, Part 1,” Nick Corcodilos provides great advice on how to get started. Although I agree with Nick that the primary function of boards is to provide financial oversight, new requirements for skill diversity and customer understanding are emerging. As a CMO, you can bring the customer-relevant skills and experience that boards are looking for. Get ready to fill those needs now. Follow the lead of Jocelyn Carter-Miller who capped her successful CMO career at Motorola and Office Depot by serving as an independent director on three boards, including a leadership role as the chair of the strategic issues committee for Principal Financial Group.

In a world ruled by empowered customers, the knowledge of the how, what, and where of the customer life cycle and how to respond has become a core strategic asset to protect both today’s value and the future growth prospects of companies. As CMOs, you’re the best executives on the bench to provide vision and leadership in the discussion. It’s time to start and start now.

I’d love to hear your comments and perspectives about this topic. Please reach out to me at via email, on my blog, or on my Twitter account with your thoughts.