A successful CMO has many roles, including leading an organization's marketing department, establishing marketing strategies, and tracking successes and failures. How can a CMO create a highly successful career? What tools, strategies, and approaches can a CMO use to be successful? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Keith Alsheimer.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! To 'get to know you' a bit better, can you start by sharing your personal backstory?
I grew up in a military family and studied engineering at Vanderbilt on an ROTC scholarship. My time serving as an Army Officer after graduation shaped my love of high-performing teams and deepened my understanding of values-based leadership. My first job out of the military was with a manufacturing company where I first discovered marketing.
I later went on to found eSpendWise, an eBusiness-systems provider for indirect spend management, which I ran for 12 years before a successful exit. From there, I have served as CMO for three B2B tech companies (two with successful exits), before landing at Unravel Data. Marketing has proven to be the perfect career for me as it joins my skills as an engineer in solving problems with my love for leading and being part of high-performing teams.
What do you think was a pivotal moment that led you on your path to becoming a CMO?
My first job out of the Army was as a plant manager for a manufacturing company. I already knew I enjoyed analyzing data, solving problems, and leading teams, so when the CEO offered me a role in marketing, I jumped at it. I soon discovered that marketing is a problem solver’s dream given its continuously evolving nature across product, market & customer dimensions.
What’s more, it is also the ultimate team sport since each marketing team member provides different subject matter expertise that must all be blended together to achieve company goals. It was definitely love at first sight for me!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The story is still being told, but what has fascinated me most is how quickly the data analytics cloud market is evolving. Two years ago, companies were in the early stages of moving big data infrastructures to the cloud, and people did not yet know about DataOps or Data Observability. Today, companies are well into their cloud journeys and are discovering that the cost and complexities are much higher than expected.
At Unravel, we started out focusing on helping companies migrate and manage data pipelines, whereas our emphasis now is almost completely on helping companies optimize the cost and performance of their cloud data workloads. This rapid shift in customer needs has also made product positioning a bit challenging. I have re-read April Dunford’s great book, Obviously Awesome, several times now and am definitely putting its tenets to good use!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you're grateful for?
My dad, without question. He was a West Point grad and a career Army officer who taught me the value of service, honor, and never giving up. When I was later in the military myself and attending the US Army Ranger School, I learned that leadership is about who you are more than your rank or even the actions you take in a given moment. Who you are is defined by your values–and having the courage and discipline to live them to the best of your ability every day. My Dad lived this better than anyone I have ever known and set an amazing example for me to try and live up to.
Can you please share your favorite 'Life Lesson Quote'? How is it relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote comes from Teddy Roosevelt: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
I love the idea of “daring greatly” in all you do with the understanding it comes with toil and failures as much as triumph. The idea that the true definition of greatness is the earnest pursuit of excellence, in whatever one chooses to do, really resonates with me. Great joy can come from living with this perspective.
Can you share with us three strengths, skills, or characteristics that helped you to reach this place in your career? How can others actively build these areas within themselves?
I love solving problems and building things. I’m highly analytical and am continually looking to understand how and why things work. It made sense, therefore, that I would study engineering in college and eventually choose a career in marketing. Marketing presents a multi-dimensional problem that is continuously evolving. The complexity makes it challenging while the constant change keeps it interesting.
I also thrive on leading and being part of high-performing teams. I grew up playing team sports and went on to serve in the Army, which depends on strong teams and a great deal of trust and mutual respect among its members. In business, marketing is definitely a team sport, where each member has a specialized role and success requires that each member work together not only with their marketing teammates, but also sales and other GTM functions.
I am always amazed by the power of high-performing teams. When great people are able to come together with a selfless commitment to a shared and meaningful purpose, the potential is truly limitless. The greatest achievements of my career came from being part of high-performing teams. And truthfully, as much as I value those achievements, I cherish the intensity of the experiences and the friendships I still enjoy from them the most.
Great marketing teams combine problem solving and teamwork to create predictable and sustainable outcomes for their companies. To succeed, you have to have an almost maniacal desire to measure, analyze, and understand things, coupled with an intense focus to add, adapt, and evolve them. To enable this, a CMO needs to ensure there is strong alignment across their teams and empower individuals to operate freely within a shared framework.
Which skills are you still trying to grow now?
Our company is 100-percent remote and as someone with a rather short attention span, I prefer to be doing things rather than sitting in meetings. It’s therefore hard for me to stay focused and attentive given the higher number of Zoom meetings, so I am continuously working on staying in the moment and really listening to understand.
I also work on showing-up to every meeting with my full self and being as vulnerable and transparent as possible, which helps others on the team feel safe doing so as well. As for more technical marketing skills, I am currently working on my product positioning acumen as our market is quite nascent and rapidly evolving, which makes finding the best way to help people understand the value of our product a bit trickier.
Having reached this space, what do you believe are the five things you need to be a highly successful CMO?
1 . Be a student. Just as any great athlete continuously works on their physical fitness and individual skills, even the most experienced executive must never stop learning and growing. Market trends, emerging best practices, new technologies, and generational/cultural differences must be continuously understood and integrated into your thinking.
2 . Be an architect. Every situation is different. Professional acumen and related experiences are just table stakes. Winning requires a deep understanding of your unique business situation in order to then design, implement, and continuously adapt your go-to-market solution over time.
3 . Be a great leader. Inspire, encourage, teach, empower, and guide your team. Find great people and help them to be successful and grow. Build trust, cooperation, and great communication amongst all team members. Focus on results, demand greatness, celebrate success, and learn from failures. Your job is not to have all the answers, but rather to create a high-performing team that achieves amazing outcomes for your company.
4 . Be a great teammate. Listen, communicate, show-up fully, deliver on your promises, have the courage to be vulnerable, have the humility to embrace others’ ideas, and never care who gets the credit. As much as a CMO’s success is dependent on creating and leading a great marketing team, they must also be great teammates to the other executives and leaders across the organization. As companies grow, it can be hard to prevent silos, fiefdoms, and power struggles from emerging. Being a great teammate can set an example for others and help define a winning company culture.
5 . Love what you do. Every CMO has different skills and experiences to bring to their unique situation. The one common denominator for any CMO, however, should be an intense love for what they do. Whether they derive joy from solving problems, working with people, strategic thinking, driving growth, or all of the above–great CMOs must love what they do in order to have the drive, determination, and wherewithal to do what is needed throughout all the many challenges, ups and downs they will undoubtedly face.
Are there any underrated skills or qualities that you encourage others not to overlook?
My experience has been that the most powerful—and most frequently overlooked—attributes that drive success are simply having the right attitude and willingness to work hard. Whenever I have met people with these qualities, regardless of their level of skill or previous experience, they have grown very rapidly and simply wouldn’t quit until they succeeded. I love being on teams with folks like this because they not only deliver on their own areas of responsibility but also inspire everyone around them while enhancing the overall trust and collaboration within the team.
What are some of the main issues that other CMOs commonly struggle with? What can be done to address those challenges?
Thinking there is a “right way” and “wrong way” to do things. My experience is that every company and every GTM situation is different. Having an understanding of technical best practices and marketing strategy is essential for success but not determined by it. Success comes from doing the hard work to really understand your customers, product, market, and competitors and then applying those principles thoughtfully to the intricacies of your business.
I have seen many previously very successful CMOs fail when moving to a new company because they tried to implement their former programs in their new environment. CMOs must be great architects–building their GTM and product marketing strategies based on each unique situation.
What do you believe is the most effective way to stand out and make an impact as a CMO?
It’s not flashy, but I believe the thing that makes the greatest impact is simply results–for business growth, for the people on your team, and for the company overall. Real impact requires doing thousands of little things with thoughtful intent and a strong sense of urgency. Charismatic speeches, flashy presentations, and using a lot of buzzwords in meetings can certainly impress, but real impact can only come from a lot of hard work, done well, over time.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring a great amount of good, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
I believe anyone with the heart and determination to pursue their vision of greatness can be wildly successful if given the means and the opportunity. There are so many people with enormous desire and potential who never get that chance. Imagine how powerful it would be for those people and for society as a whole if we could find a way to tap their potential more. I think it could result in unimagined innovation, dramatic economic growth, and transformed communities. My dream is to give back by supporting small business incubators in struggling communities.
Lastly, is there a person with whom you would love to meet, and why? You never know, he or she might just see this!
I think the essence of great leadership is having the courage and conviction to live one’s values every day–despite the risks and regardless of who may or may not be watching at the time. I think Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been an amazing example of courage, living his values, and inspiring people across the world to achieve a great purpose. I would love to hear his perspective on how he dealt with all the uncertainties he must have felt and how he continues to fight through what must be enormous pressure to do what he feels is best for his country each day. That would be a very enlightening discussion!!