The CEO - CMO Conundrum: How to make the leap from CMO to CEO

It was way back in 1546 when English writer John Heywood conceived the oft-quoted proverb, ‘You cannot see the wood for the trees’. Back then he probably didn’t realise that his evergreen phrase would encapsulate so perfectly the difficult transition from CMO to CEO. 

Traditionally, the role of the CMO hasn’t required as broad a world view as the CEO. CEOs need to be able to distil complex information from the different strands of the business into a single vision and lead their entire team into sharing that vision too.

So if the end goal is to become CEO of the organisation, the CMO must be able to seamlessly switch their role from a microcosmic to a macrocosmic level.

Making that single letter change requires a detailed understanding of each arm of the business and an ability to make decisions which ultimately keep the organisation’s P&L sheet looking pretty.

Here’s our four-point plan for plotting a trail out of the forest…

Sticking point 1: No direct experience in functions outside marketing

Solution: The CMO needs to gain exposure working in collaboration with other teams on specific initiatives and projects outside the marketing function. It’s imperative to remember however that not all roles will augment the competencies needed to become a CEO. Experience for experience’s sake won’t necessarily cut the mustard, but taking the lead on complex global projects can summon the challenge that is often associated with the upper echelons of decision-making. As David Cooperstein, VP at Forrester Research asserts,“CMOs need to invest their time in understanding the other departments they interact with and act like a company wide leader. People who are too focused on the effort to market and point their energy on new logos and campaigns are not the long term CMOs that CEOs need today”.

Sticking point 2: Question marks remain over the CMO’s ability to drive the organisation forward.

Solution: CMOs need to position themselves at the centre of the business both on a perceptual and practical level. As successful as a CMO might be at brand building and consumer connection, their reputation as marketing specialists can pigeon hole them as the folk that simply take care of the peripheral stuff that’s not really core to the business. According to Kate Sayre, Partner at Boston Consulting Group, “CMOs focus too much on the creative itself as opposed to what’s driving the business”. However, good CEOs need to know their customers inside and out – so who better placed than the CMO to take on the role? In addition, the best CMOs know the importance of driving the internal culture of the company, the importance of employees living and breathing the brand with enthusiasm and morale. As drivers of the internal brand and messaging, CMOs know exactly what to do to cultivate a core culture that will ultimately attract more customers. Our advice, spend time educating the business as to why the customer should always be at the heart of everything your business does – and chances are the rest of the board will start taking note. 

Sticking point 3: Not working closely enough with the CEO

Solution: Where the CEO goes, the CMO should follow. Traditionally CMOs have been left to focus on the marketing and brand orientation side of the business while the CEO has been left to deliver top-line growth and plot the long-term path of the organisation. But in an age where the delineation of roles is becoming more blurred it’s crucial that the CMO and the CEO have common strategic visions. The CMO has to be able to deliver a marketing plan that is as commercially aware as it is creatively sound. Ultimately the CMO must become a lynchpin of the executive team – in doing so, the step to CEO will only be a small one. As Andrew Hayes, CEO and CMO recruiter with Russell Reynolds Associates comments, “More and more, we are seeing clients look to CMOs to be thought leaders for the corporation, providing a broad-based commercial perspective on the business as opposed to narrow brand-building mindset”. Knowledge is power – a progressive CMO who can position the business at the forefront strategically, will gain the ear of the CEO – and hopefully their seat at the boardroom table one day soon.

Sticking point 4: Having a one-dimensional view of the company’s finances.

Solution: Gaining as much financial experience as possible is a must. CMOs cannot wince at the idea of working with numbers. They must take on the ‘big 3’ of financial documents - balance sheets, income and cash-flow statements (and the associated pressures) and confidently interpret the data before developing plans to drive the business forward. CMOs aren’t number newbies, they measure the results of their ‘creativity’. All CMOs begin with a budget and clear KPIs in mind and understand the importance of calculating ROIs when evaluating the overall success. “Marketing fights an endless battle for investment with lines of business that question the actual value of the marketing spend. CMOs that can justify the expense by demonstrating how technology delivers on success metrics like acquisition, retention, and cross-selling can increase their chances for success,” argues Steve Muran, director of management consultancy ARRYVE. By doing so, you can give your CFO a run for their money – and who knows, even derail their owYour Linkn succession plans.

The bottom line: We are in the era of the ‘Eclectic CEO’. According to a recent Forbes article, CEOs now come from a plethora of backgrounds, from finance to technology. CMOs are undoubtedly great communicators, with track records of nurturing strong relationships with their teams and clients. They are astute leaders and know how to market themselves. Ultimately a CMO is at a distinct competitive advantage in their own right in claiming that seat at the top. They simply need to step back, look at the organisation as a whole and apply the same principles that have taken them this far on a wider scale. Agree or disagree? Let the discussion start here.