How to progress from CMO to CEO – advice from Spencer Stuart

Here is something for all you ambitious marketers out there. How do you make the leap from being head of marketing to CEO? The general view is that this is very rare, more often CEO’s come through the route of general management, finance or operations. Frank Birkel and Jonathan Harper from Spencer Stuart, one the world’s leading executive search firms, have done some research and published their findings. We have it on good authority that one of the people they interviewed, a CMO who has become a highly successful CEO, is my old mate, Martin Glenn. The full article is available from the Spencer Stuart web site. Marketers can read it for advice on how best to position themselves to be considered for the top job – in most companies the board overlook their own CMO when discussing candidates for CEO – people in other functions can use it to make the argument against appointing someone with a specialist marketing background. There should be strong competition to be the boss.

Here are some of the highlights:-

1.    CMO’s (or marketing directors) often have to make a double transition. They have to move company and move function to get considered. Hardly anyone promotes their own incumbent CMO to CEO.
2.    The main reason is that CMO’s are seen as too specialist and too ignorant of other functions and finance in particular.
3.    It is marginally easier in marketing –led businesses like consumer goods but nowhere is it easy or common.
4.    There are ways around this – volunteering to get on cross functional project teams builds your experience. CMO’s also need to demonstrate their willingness to learn, hands on, about other functions and to present more data driven evidence of marketing success to build credibility.
5.    More often than not they will first need to take a sideways move into a general management role e.g. running a division.
6.    Not all marketing directors sit at the very top table, the senior leadership team. If they can break through to the board this obviously gives them the chance to see how the whole business works together.
7.    CMO’s need to appreciate that the kind of leadership skills a CEO has are different to leading a marketing team. It is not just that they have to be broader in their scope; they have to be prepared to penetrate the bullshit CEO’s get given (everyone tells them what they want them to hear) and often make decisions on less than perfect data.
8.    CMO’s may have the advantage of being naturally good communicators and may think they have great people skills but again the CEO has to have a different kind of communication and people skills. They talk to vastly different audiences and they have to persuade other people to get along with each other, not just get along with other people.
9.    Finally, the CEO’s in the research who had come through the marketing route seriously questioned whether most CMO’s really wanted their job. It can be lonely at the top; you need to get a buzz from financial data and investor meetings; you need the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of job.

It is comforting to hear from the CEO’s that the worst mistake a CMO can make, if they do make it to the top job, is to forget about marketing. They need to stop playing at being brand managers but they need to retain their obsession with the customer and top line growth.

You have been warned.

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