The Care & Feeding of a CEO: A Marketer’s Perspective on Communication

Dane Coalson, one of Callahan’s Industry Analysts, recently sat down with John Dolan-Heitlinger, a seasoned credit union marketing executive. In a candid conversation on effective approaches to communicating with CEOs, Dolan-Heitlinger sketched out his approach to working well with a chief executive.


Dane Coalson, one of Callahan’s Industry Analysts, recently sat down with John Dolan-Heitlinger, a seasoned credit union marketing executive.  In a candid conversation on effective approaches to communicating with CEOs, Dolan-Heitlinger sketched out his approach to working well with a chief executive.

Have you discovered over time any cultural disconnect between a CEO and marketing personnel?  

A CEO perspective can be influenced by the fact that the executive has been with the credit union for quite some time, promoted up-through-the-ranks from within. If the credit union has consistently met their ROI and growth targets over the years, without significant marketing effort (perhaps resulting from strong SEG development), this CEO may not value the core strengths a marketing team brings to the table.  Marketing personnel in these types of organizations need to work to prove their worth.

However, with the local economy churning for many credit unions today, CEOs need to clearly understand the nature of their marketplace, a window of opportunity for marketing teams to show the added value of effective marketing.

Have you identified key factors that can lead to an unsuccessful relationship between a CEO and the vice president of marketing?

I find that two primary contributing factors leading to an unsuccessful relationship between the CEO and the chief marketer are the combination of cultural differences and the failure of the marketing person to understand the CEO's own paradigms. 

The vice president of marketing should have a CEO-like view of the world.  In fact, I believe that marketing vice presidents can be one of the strongest contenders for the CEO position, yet in many credit unions they are typically not on this track. 

If a vice president of marketing aspires to become a CEO, he or she has to understand where power resides in the organization and how to acquire it. CEOs are quantitative and bottom-line oriented. If marketing professionals understand this and then provide this type of information, they will become a stronger and more effective leader for the credit union staff and for members.

On the plus side, what driving factors contribute to a successful working relationship between a CEO and the vice president of marketing?

Vice presidents of marketing need to understand what role the marketing team plays in the organization and have a clear sense of how they are viewed by the CEO. The head of marketing has the potential to be the most influential and valuable member of the management team. They need to understand the overall strategic plan and should be the manager who comes to the table and lays out the map for the rest of the organization.

The marketing team needs to constantly conduct ‘strategic intelligence’ to capture accurate information about the marketplace and the competition. To gather this information, they will need to use Raddon data, general economic surveys, coupled with consistent feedback from front-line employees, branch managers, and community members.  

If the head of marketing wants to enhance their role at the credit union, what do you recommend they do?

To enhance their role in the organization, marketing vice presidents need to spend a significant amount of time with the CEO. Many credit union management teams operate with only an anecdotal view of the competition, which is not sufficient when it comes to annual strategic planning.

The marketing vice president can provide a very valuable, and continuing, service if they deliver a report that explains how the credit union measures up against major market competition. Delivering a competitive analysis report, with a high-level executive summary of key highlights, would be very valuable to the CEO and the entire management team.

Heads of marketing should also be charged with rate-setting. They need to have a sense of finance and work with the CFO to see what products and services are feasible from a pricing standpoint. They need to be aware of floor and ceiling rates, and have discussions with tellers and branch managers to see what type of products and rates members are responding to.

What does a CEO specifically look for in the optimal marketing plan, to serve as a trusted source for making sound decisions?  

  • What was the goal of the initiative?
  • What was spent (including internal labor costs)?
  • Was the initiative’s goal met?
  • Why or why not?
  • Were there any significant changes in the market during this period?
  • Be the Intelligence Source
  • Brief, Efficient, Candid Communication is Key
  • No Surprises

What typical metrics help a CEO analyze a marketing initiative?

CEOs appreciate it when marketing teams give regular updates and report back on specific initiatives and ongoing plans. For a quick synopsis, a CEO would typically like to know:

For example, the vice president of marketing might report:  “We spent $5,000 on a direct mail campaign and expected the effort to attract 200 new accounts. We have generated 250 accounts in the two-month sales window following the mailing. We have generated an average of 20 new accounts per month over the previous year.  As there were no significant changes in the market during this period, we attribute the sharp increase in growth to the positive impact of the direct mail that was sent out to promote the product.”  

What is the best approach for measuring ROI on a marketing program?

Being able to accurately define ROI for each marketing program is an important piece of the reporting process. If the marketing effort was designed to promote a specific product, the team needs to determine the profitability of the product, and will most likely have to use Raddon data to accomplish this. They need to know how many members are using the product at the beginning of the campaign, and how many members are using the product when the campaign wraps up. 

When times get tough, many credit unions look at marketing as an expense that can be cut. If the marketing team in the long run has diligently reporting their results to the CEO, this gives the CEO concrete examples of how marketing has positively affected the bottom line and he or she can draw upon this knowledge when making budgeting decisions.

What is the best approach to reporting the results of an unsuccessful marketing initiative?

Giving full and accurate feedback about both successful and unsuccessful campaigns establishes the marketing team’s credibility.  For example, if a credit union spent $4,000 on a mailing that promoted a new signature loan and there has been little increase at the end of six months, it is very important that the CEO receive prompt, candid feedback.

The marketing team should work up a brief report that describes why they thought the campaign would work, how much was spent (including internal labor costs), and the results (warts and all). Conclude with an explanation of why the campaign was unsuccessful: perhaps the local economy experienced a recent downswing, the wrong target group was identified, or there were not enough promotional mailings sent.

Marketing is an inexact science, but this type of follow-up shows that the team learned something useful from the experience, instead of simply letting the disappointing numbers speak for themselves without context. A marketing team simply cannot report their successes and leave out the failures; eventually, your CEO will catch on to this dubious approach.

How often does the typical CEO like to be updated on the progress of a marketing plan or specific promotions?

A well-crafted monthly report by the marketing team to the CEO is reasonable. It is vital for the head of marketing to be proactive with the CEO, telling him or her: “I think it’s important to keep you up-to-date with the initiatives of the marketing team, you can expect a progress report within 10 days from the end of every month.” 

The report should cover the incremental progress of the marketing plan, including updates on any specific campaigns that have recently been initiated, and any interesting competitive information that the team has collected from marketplace intelligence gathering.

Do you have other successful marketing tips that you can share with credit union marketing professionals

  1. The marketing team should consistently gather ‘outside intelligence.’  When you hear an interesting piece of marketplace information, drop a line to the CEO. Perhaps you hear that a long-time branch manager just left a competing financial institution, and their availability could be worth looking into. In sharing such information, you underscore the value of the marketing department to your CEO.
  2. CEOs need to work through and digest large amounts of important information on a daily basis. With this communication challenge, the marketing team must get their main points across succinctly; with relevant numbers on-hand to expedite this process.
  3. Never let your CEO be surprised by anything related to marketing by anyone other than you. For example, the vice president of marketing should let the CEO know immediately if there has been a major change to an existing marketing plan.


Mr. Dolan-Heitlinger was vice president of Finance and Marketing at Eli Lilly Credit Union from 1985-1988, later serving as CEO of Solidarity Community Credit Union, Kokomo, Indiana from 1988-1991.  Following 16 years as CEO of Keys Federal Credit Union, Key West, Florida, from 1991-2007, he now operates a consultancy in Key West, advising credit union clients on strategic development and tactics, effective education, and metrics.

Backgrounder:  was the plan based on the existing strategic plan for the tactical year? The marketing plan should address larger strategic initiatives, and explain how the plan can help achieve/surpass those goals. It is a source of real frustration to a CEO if a marketing plan is crafted without regard for the overall strategic plan and does not “roll up” to those same objectives.

CEOs want to see the numbers.  Specifically, how does the marketing plan achieve core goals in support of the credit union’s objectives.  If the primary goal of a marketing plan is to grow first mortgage originations by 25% over the next six months, the lending department should have already been consulted during the planning process to ensure they are on-board to handle this spike in volume.  Cross-functional departments need to work together to determine what kind of resources are needed to hit the goal, and the rate should already have been cleared with the CFO. The marketing team should have a good idea of the next steps they would like to take before they come to the CEO to pitch the mortgage campaign.

CEOs like to see relevant background research on the initiative. To deliver this type of information, the marketing team will need to draw upon financial analysis. For the previous example, a CEO would like to know how many first mortgages are currently being originated, the rates offered by our competitors, and any significant changes that can be forecast in the market. The marketing plan becomes more powerful and effective if the marketing team collaborates with other departments to pull together all the relevant pieces. Such collaboration can also enhance the standing of the department within the credit union.