Five actions for CMOs aspiring to become CEOs

Like it or not, CMOs are rarely prime candidates when it comes to filling CEO vacancies.

This remains the case even in today’s data-centric world, where marketers have first-hand access to a spectacular array of information that can help steer an organization towards untapped opportunity and revenue growth.

“It’s a great shame that more CMOs do not become CEOs,” WPP’s Mark Read told me recently, because the “key attribute for growing shareholder value is top-line revenue growth, and that’s after all what CMOs are focused on delivering.”

Read believes a CMO who wishes to rise to the top needs to focus on quantitative results and ROI. “The success of CFOs in becoming CEO is because they find it easier to demonstrate their impact,” he said. “That’s something that CMOs could learn from.”

“The success of CFOs in becoming CEO is because they find it easier to demonstrate their impact. That’s something that CMOs could learn from.”

Mark Read, CEO, WPP

Bridging the gap between what the data is telling you and how to act on it to affect results and enhance the customer experience is a game-changing first step. Armed with empirical evidence on the course of action an organization should take should favourably position CMOs for the coveted CEO role (and perhaps quieten executive team meetings when presenting ads…).

But is that enough to convince boards their CMOs can successfully lead their organizations? What other steps might brand leaders take to help boards notice them for the top job? Here are five that may help shift the balance:

Get radical about digital

Learn anything and everything you lay your eyes on. No matter where your organization is along its digital transformation journey, it’s going to have to go further and it’s never – ever – going to be as simple as it was before. For those who can master the language of digital, decipher data, extrapolate insights and help push their company’s digital agenda, the future will be bright.

Broaden your horizons

While marketing is typically focused on external facing challenges and solutions, the success of an organization ultimately relies on its ability to develop, finance, produce, distribute, maintain and expand what it does. In order to be successful, aspiring CMOs must therefore find ways to gain a deeper understanding of their organizations through adjacent departments such as finance, sales and supply chain management.

Learn the language of business

Whether we realize it or not, marketers speak a unique, sometimes unintelligible language, that peers may not understand. I’m talking CASL, CMS, CPC, CPL, CTA, DM, GA, PPC, RSS, SEO, SEM, UV. Yes, those. But what about the language of business such as EPS, IRR, NAV, PV, ROA, ROE? Because, IMHO, aspiring marketers must be as fluent with their peer languages as they are with their own if they are to properly lead an organization.

Be patient

This is a difficult one, because one of the biggest challenges CMOs must overcome is tenure. History shows us that boards are typically skeptical of appointing anyone into the CEO position who is either not a proven CEO from another company or someone who has been with the organization for an extended period of time. And with CMO tenure down to about 41 months – according to SpencerStuart’s latest CMO study – marketing leaders must find ways to retain their positions or expand their roles until boards can be confident in them as CEO.

Get international

International experience can be incredibly valuable to aspiring CEO candidates and can even be the tie-break between one candidate over another. I can personally attest to the fact that working internationally throws you into the unfamiliar territory where you are forced to sink or swim. The pay-off is accelerated personal growth, increased cultural awareness, courage and social skills, as well sharpening your initiative and appreciation for home.

Nobody said the road to becoming CEO would be easy, but if you’re serious about a CEO role, none of this should be discouraging. Even if the opportunity hasn’t presented itself yet, some of these ideas may at least offer CMOs a stronger voice in the C-Suite.

This article first appeared in Strategy on March 16, 2021.

Stephan Argent is Founder and Principal at Listenmore Inc  offering confidential advisory to marketers looking for truly independent insight and advice they can’t find anywhere else. Read more like this on our blog Marketing Unscrewed / follow me @StephanArgent

Photo: Tony Hisgett

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