Friday, February 23, 2024

In Praise of Deborah Conrad, Intel’s Departing CMO

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This week I learned that Deborah Conrad, Intel’s CMO, is stepping down. I doubt most understand the heroic job Deborah has done at Intel and how she performed excellently while overcoming personal challenges that would likely leave most of us unable to function.

I don’t want her to leave unnoticed or unappreciated so, if you’ll bear with me, I’d like to cover how Deborah earned my everlasting respect this week.

The CMO Job

I recall a movie that came out decades ago called “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” It was a musical comedy but one part hit a lasting chord with me.   The hero at once point takes the VP of Marketing job and this is cited as a huge mistake because that job, what we call the CMO today, is suicidal.   The reason this has always stuck with me is because I’ve observed this to be true.

Marketing/Advertising is a skill like any other specialty, but in an engineering company it is not only undervalued but everyone seems to think they have a better idea of how to do it.  I have several degrees in marketing, let’s just say that most of the folks that have these opinions couldn’t even define the word and I’m not speaking metaphorically. I don’t know of any other executive job in any company from Finance to Sales where someone with no knowledge about the specialty will act as if they absolutely know more about the field than the poor sap in the CMO job.  

This speaks to why the average tenure of a CMO in the technology market tends to be under 24 months. It generally is a no-win job.

The CMO Job At Intel

If the CMO job is tough in an engineering company, Intel sets the bar for this toughness. At Intel they have a culture that is defined by the term “constructive confrontation,” which translates into promoting outspoken criticism. It is a firm that still uses Forced Ranking (a process that Microsoft killed a few months back because it was identified as the key reason the firm could no longer effectively collaborate). So you take a job that everyone thinks they can do better and you place it in a company which has institutionalized a process of robust confrontation, and then wrap it with Forced Ranking, all of which combines to create a degree of difficulty on a scale of 1 to 10 of at least 11.

Deborah Conrad lasted an amazing 6 years as CMO and that has to be a record at Intel.

Deborah Conrad at Intel

Over the last six years I watched Deborah’s performance at Intel closely, first because I was convinced she wouldn’t last two years, and later because I was amazed at both her survival and execution. She effectively worked around Forced Ranking and in talking to the folks that reported to her she improved collaboration and execution in Intel marketing significantly. What is even more amazing is she did this while personally experiencing a set of catastrophic health events that I won’t share but will say they would have left me whimpering in the corner, and yet she continued to function at nearly peak levels for much of this time.

Perhaps the most telling thing was what Mary, my wife, said (Mary was a Creative Director at Intel and left after a decade at the company never wanting to return). She said she’d go back any time to work for Deborah Conrad. That’s an incredible legacy, and I know that her folks will miss her at the company.

Wrapping Up

I think there are two measures for an executive like Deborah Conrad, how well you performed against the degree of difficulty and whether your staff is loyal.  The first represents the effort that it took to do the job and the second tells me whether the executive was a critical asset in that effort or one of the liabilities that needed to be overcome.

Often the success of a unit is despite the top executive and not because of them and loyalty is the best measure of whether the executive leads the team or was painfully carried by it. At Intel the CMO job has a high degree of difficulty yet I sense that Deborah’s staff would follow her anyplace. We rarely see this combination and when we do I think it is a magical moment.   Deborah Conrad created this magical moment and will be deeply missed at Intel when she steps down. But she’ll always be able to look back at a job she performed with extreme excellence. We’ll miss you Deborah, Vaya Con Dios.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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