Advancing from CMO to CEO

As a marketing recruiter who on any given day is spending time recruiting for a VP of Marketing or a CMO, it is truly exciting when one of my placed candidates eventually gets tapped for the job of President or even CEO. That’s happened to several of them in just the past couple of years. I actually placed one of them very early in their career more than two decades ago. Little could we have imagined that some day he would be running a $150M company, most recently advancing from CMO to CEO

Back then, practically all of the Presidents and CEO’s I knew and worked with started out in finance or operations. That’s what I saw almost always in the early years section of a President’s or CEO’s resume. Maybe only around one in five started out in marketing. When you thought of the marketing executive in corporate leadership roles, you usually thought mostly of consumer product companies (CPG).

While the need to understand the financial drivers of a business certainly hasn’t changed, and while all organizations still require their top boss to be a strong operator, what HAS changed is the need to transform and reinvent, and many of the VP and CMO-level candidates who I’ve worked with and placed in recent years have done just that. Digital has reshaped the landscape, and disruption has become the norm. I talk with my top marketers practically every day, and they talk about how they’re reinventing business models and creating new markets. They talk about how they must align teams and marshal resources to enable enterprise transformation. They tell me how they are moving businesses from being operationally-focused to more marketing driven. They talk about how they influence and bring together a wide and sometimes siloed spectrum of other stakeholders including creative, IT and finance. They tell me how they are having more influence over growth than anyone else in the business.

These highly impactful marketing leaders seem like a logical choice to be advancing from CMO to CEO. Many are, but it takes a lot more than just strong marketing chops to run a big business. It takes a highly strategic, visionary leader who can execute on that vision, and who also has a strong understanding of the financial and operational aspects of running a large company. Clearly, not all marketing VP’s or CMO’s have the business acumen to be advancing from CMO to CEO or President, leading functional departments that they haven’t led before or dealing with boards and shareholders. Most of the top executives I work with today did not come up entirely through marketing; many of them cycled through finance or operational roles before moving into the corner office. But I am seeing more executive-level marketing candidates move into top leadership roles at smaller companies, particularly highly customer-centric, early stage digital start-ups. Recently, I had the opportunity to work with such a client, and for this particular marketer, the pieces just seemed to come together: The digital technology, the customer-centricity, the heavy use of data and analytics, the “all hands on deck” collaborative culture, the marketing-driven and innovative nature of the business, his proven financial discipline, and the opportunity to be that “big fish in a small pond.” It all played well for this new President who previously had been a GM at a more established multichannel corporation. Plus, this had equity where his previous role did not.

These kinds of capabilities will serve top marketers well as they aim to advancing from CMO to CEO