Thoughts from Maria Hwang,
Growth Marketing Co-Practice Lead at CōLab
13 December 2023

Lessons Learned from a Leader-on-Loan

Over the past two years, I’ve completed a few different engagements where I was embedded full-time in our portfolio companies as their interim head of marketing. While I’ve led marketing teams in my past roles, doing it as a temporary assignment where I had to figure out what’s going on, build the necessary relationships, and gain enough trust to pivot or charter a new course for the marketing team – all in a very short period of time – was new and challenging. Many things went well, but admittedly, many things could’ve gone better. I’ve completed a few tours of duty at this point, so I’ll share some insights gained from these experiences, valuable lessons for anyone considering or currently in a similar role.

TLDR: Set expectations early and revisit them consistently throughout the engagement. As part of setting expectations, define your priorities, and ensure you have access to people, information, and other resources necessary for aligning strategies and execution. The approach below will help establish a framework for success by promoting accountability and minimizing the risk of misunderstandings.


Tips for a successful engagement

Define the project scope

Hone in on key areas where you can make the most impact in a fixed timeframe, usually about a quarter. Even before agreeing to an engagement, I’ll do my due diligence and have conversations with stakeholders to get an initial diagnosis of the company’s current state and how I can accelerate progress. For instance, if a company’s top priority is to improve unit economics, I may consider narrowing the scope to some combination of auditing the marketing goals and strategy, testing a new, low cost channel, scaling a successful tactic, and restructuring the team. Take the time to decide what you’ll prioritize and clearly state what will have to be put on the backburner.

Secure a seat at the table

Visibility and access to key business discussions will be the lifeblood to your decision making process. Without it, you run the risk of operating in isolation, leading to potential misalignment and inefficiencies. As part of the onboarding process for a new engagement, I make sure that I’m included in all executive meetings, that I have recurring 1:1 sessions with the leadership team and that I am added to internal communication channels (e.g. slack). If you’re unsure on where to start, ask your stakeholders how they stay informed and make sure you have a front row seat.

Have decision-making powers

Knowledge itself doesn’t have much currency if you’re not empowered to use that knowledge to effect change. This often requires resources, such as budget, headcount, or team bandwidth. In the example of improving unit economics, I may audit the team strategy, which may highlight gaps in skill sets critical to achieving the company’s goals. As the head of marketing, ensure you’re empowered to make decisions such as transitioning people out or bringing freelancers in and that you have the necessary resources for implementation.


Own the hand-off

One could argue that the ultimate goal in this type of engagement is to hire yourself out. In which case, ensuring that the portfolio company hires the most qualified, long term head of marketing fast is the most impactful contribution you can make. This type of position can take 3-4 months to fill, so you can bet that onboarding an executive recruiting firm is usually my first order of business. I prefer to work with an agency that specializes in hiring marketing executives for their expansive network and their familiarity with the nuances in the industry. This will ultimately save time. Take ownership of the process and remember that if an agency can find a better candidate and do it fast, the extra cost will be more than worth it.

Lean into your strengths

This is wisdom imparted to me by a friend in a similar role. Do you like to write? Develop content to share. Do you like to host events? Bring together a roundtable to discuss industry trends or invite a guest speaker. Recognize and leverage your strengths. Keep in mind that embedding is only one of many ways you can support a portfolio company.

About the contributor

Maria is CōLab’s Growth Marketing co-practice lead and advises WestCap portfolio companies on their marketing strategy and acquisition efforts. Prior to joining CōLab, Maria served various marketing roles at Airbnb, Thomson Reuters, and Google. Maria holds a BA in Statistics and Molecular Cell Biology from the University of California, Berkeley, and a MPH in Epidemiology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.