How to Prepare for Your Move from CMO to CEO

September 4, 2015

As someone who moved from CMO in one Fortune 100 company to CEO in another, I do have a rare perspective on this move. In the 1960s and 70s, Marketing was the way to the top in many Fortune 500 companies.

Moving from CMO to CEO has become harder now. This is not because Marketers are any less smart or hard working but because the business environment has changed. It was widely recognized that creating a customer was the core of running a business. These days businesses have become more complex, and it has become harder to connect Marketing to the fundamentals of businesses—finance, operations, IT, or logistics. Since Marketing skills have become more deeply technical, it is more difficult for Marketers to demonstrate their ability to run a manufacturing business or an engineering company.

As Marketing has become more technical, Marketers are less exposed to other functions and have less opportunity to learn them. When CEOs talk to the Board, they are talking to people who live with Sarbanes-Oxley, can calculate the Net Present Value of an investment in their heads, and can talk knowledgeably about implementation of massive new ERP systems. Most Marketers have not been much exposed to this, even less immersed in it. Yet after moving from CMO to CEO, you may have to make decisions about mergers and acquisitions, global expansion, or new supply chain alternatives.

Building the Foundation for Your CMO to CEO Move

So, if you are aspiring to make the CMO to CEO move, the time to learn these is before you become a CEO. Take advantage of any rotational opportunities that come your way. Do as I did: run a factory and sales force, understand compensation and organization, and implement large Enterprise software systems. Spend time riding a delivery truck, being in Finance, rating jobs, working in a hospital, or anywhere you can broaden your perspective.

Most important of all, remember that the curious and those hungry to learn will succeed. Each and every day of my like, whatever situation I find myself in, I wake up with excitement, saying to myself, “what new and interesting things can I learn today?” You learn from people, so surround yourself with people who have something to teach or who are great role models. To prepare yourself for a move from CMO to CEO, seek out advice and mentors and listen. When you find yourself resisting new ideas and saying “we tried that” or “that won’t work” too often, then you need to look yourself in the mirror.

Given the half-life of knowledge these days, you need to spend up to 20% of your time learning new things. If you can’t find things to learn, you aren’t looking hard enough. If you are ambitious, be prepared to do what has to be done to make the CMO to CEO move.

Lastly, Marketers are often not good people managers because they are used to managing ambitious professionals. Running a company where most employees may be hourly workers who simply want to do their work and go home is a very different task. Learn to work with unions because even if the company you lead is not unionized, understanding that perspective will be important. People management is rarely as good as it can be, and Marketing departments are not a good place to learn it.

If you can do all of this, you have the potential to be an outstanding CEO.

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