From the April 2006 issue of Entrepreneur

There's a new top job at big businesses nationwide. It's that of chief marketing officer, and the men and women in this challenging post are responsible for driving the marketing direction of their companies and brands. As an entrepreneur, you're the single most important force propelling your company's growth. Can you learn to think like a CMO? It requires an up-close and personal understanding of your customers, a dollop of innovation, and the ability to follow through on marketing plans and programs. The payoff for all this synergy is enhanced development of new products and services, as well as superior returns on customer acquisition and retention efforts.

Ready to give it a try? Here are five important tips to help you perform like a CMO:

1. Become proactive, not reactive. One of the chief advantages you have as both head of your business and CMO is the ability to easily align the marketing function with your business goals. This can be extremely difficult in large companies, where multiple business units and profit centers vie for dollars and attention. Where do you want your company to be next year? How about in five years? Set your eyes on the prize, and develop proactive marketing plans and programs to achieve your goals.

2. Let your customers lead you. There are two very important pieces of information a CMO must find out. First, it's essential to know how your customers or clients actually use your products and services. It's also vital to know which media and other communications affect your customers' decisions concerning what you market. To find the answers, you need a combination of pure research--data and studies supplied by the media, and primary research including surveys and informal focus groups--and one-on-one interaction with customers in their homes or offices. There's no substitute for direct experience when it comes to learning how your products--and those of your competitors--impact your customers' or clients' lives.

3. Stay one step ahead. Learning from your customers will give you insight into their present habits and needs. But don't expect them to ask you to take the next step. Starbucks' customers, for example, may not think to request a new kind of beverage, yet they embrace the company's product introductions as they're rolled out. Follow trends and forecasts to anticipate the types of products or services your customers will welcome. And use what you learn about them to figure out what they need, even before they know they need it.

4. Reward employees for ideas. It's up to you to create a culture that rewards individuals for creativity. The key is to have multiple avenues for employees to contribute ideas, and to encourage everyone in the company to come up with and share ideas without judgment. Combine this informal culture of idea generation with formal methods of collaboration. The marketing and sales teams should meet regularly so frontline salespeople can share customer insights, and marketers can keep the sales team abreast of new, creative programs. Company retreats can be used to bring staff together for idea-generation sessions, which are often more productive away from the limitations and stress of the office.

5. Schedule time for strategic thinking. Great marketing requires planning, so work with your team to create a strategic marketing plan that puts your creative thinking into action. A good marketing plan must outline measurable goals and the tactics you'll employ to reach them. We've all heard stories about marketing plans scribbled on the backs of napkins. But in the real world, a well-thought-out marketing plan--even if it's just a few pages long--will provide a road map that everyone in your organization can follow.