Of all the amazing traits and skills of the leading CMOs we’ve had the privilege of working with for 40+ years, what is the number one skill that sets the most effective CMOs apart from all the others?

I believe the answer is simple: the ability to build consensus for meaningful change.

Let me explain.

Health care CMOs face a very special kind of consensus challenge that CMOs in other industries don’t face: the consensus around investing in marketing. I might be wrong, but I doubt the folks at Amazon or Coca-Cola disagree often with the merits of marketing and branding. I also know that the CMO’s role in impacting the brand along the touchpoints of the patient journey is—to use a technical term—fuzzy. For example, when does marketing end and patient experience begin? And when does marketing “return” to mattering for long-term patient engagement and loyalty? I seriously doubt such debates occur at Taco Bell over what marketing’s role and purpose is, but I may be wrong.

When we look at building consensus for meaningful change, this doesn’t mean diluting the strategy or ad campaign so that everyone “agrees to agree.” That tactic doesn’t serve an organization, especially the patients and people it seeks to help and heal.

Building consensus for meaningful change means aligning stakeholders with a common purpose. Without a common purpose, there’s no vision for change. And change only occurs at the organizational level when the pain of remaining the same is worse than the pain of changing.

Highly exceptional CMOs deal in the currency of change. They balance the need to preserve and protect the status quo among stakeholders with the desire to make a meaningful difference in their lives and work.

Most often, CMOs skilled at the art of organizing meaningful change leverage the “What’s at Stake” conversation. That conversation often looks like this:

  • Describing the current landscape
  • Addressing the storm clouds in the near distance: in the form of competitive threats, changes in regulation, and other factors that can negatively impact the organization’s ability to thrive
  • Clearly stating that there will be winners and losers as the storm clouds converge
  • Inviting the stakeholders to ask themselves: if we remain the same and do nothing different, will we be winners or losers?
  • Inviting stakeholders for meaningful change

We’re often called in to help shape the meaningful change conversation, whether it’s with health care branding, service line marketing, strategies for new client acquisition, or simply lowering the cost of new patient or client acquisition.

It does not surprise us how challenging it is for stakeholders to embrace change, even when what the organization is doing isn’t working. This is not meant to slight an organization or its stakeholders. It’s just the reality of today’s business climate. The pressures are immense and given a choice of changing or not, most people would prefer to stay where they are. If nothing else, they know what they’re dealing with and the fear of the unknown, like the fear of public speaking, keeps people stuck.

To help our CMO clients, we often engage their stakeholders and decision-makers in reframing the problems and opportunities. For example, we may bring credible evidence to stakeholders that what they believe about their audiences—their preferences, health care purchasing patterns, etc., is incomplete, or even incorrect. (This is always handled delicately, of course. Being diplomatic is another trait of highly effective CMOs.)

We find that stakeholders have different agendas, so we look for common purpose and shared beliefs. These shared beliefs may be around patient care, a desire for high quality, innovation, and winning the future. We then look for opportunities to illuminate a perspective, backed by data, that helps our client and stakeholders to see the problem or opportunity differently.

What do I mean by this?

For example:

  • Stakeholders may want a larger pipeline of prospective patients for a service line campaign. But in our research, we may see a significant drop off among prospective patients from interest to making the health care decision. By putting more emphasis on nurturing the current prospect pipeline, we help our clients to convert more patients or customers than if the client had focused on growing the pipeline.
  • Another example: the CMO recognizes the need for a rebranding effort but isn’t getting traction with stakeholders for the funding and long-term commitment for a rebrand. We might present research that demonstrates that audiences in the client’s service area or territories are ambivalent to all health care solutions available. This presents a mighty opportunity for the organization because it’s far easier to encourage preference when sentiment is neutral. Because of this, a rebranding effort is seen internally as a strategic priority positively impacting all departments and stakeholders.

As we look to the future of health care, we see winners and losers. The winners will be the ones who embrace consumerism in health care, who know the most about their patients and audiences and are willing to embrace meaningful change. The CMOs who win are the ones who serve as expert guides in managing change for their organizations, one boardroom meeting at a time.