Four barriers stopping marketers making CEO and how to overcome them

In the challenging macroeconomic environment, bringing marketing expertise into boardrooms may be more important than ever. However, experts say there are some significant barriers that must first be overcome.

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For those who have made it into a top level marketing director or CMO position, there are usually two primary directions for further career development. Searching for a marketing job with a new challenge and broader remit, or moving into senior general management.

Historically, however, there have been significant skills and experience gaps blocking CMOs from making the jump to CEO and other board-level positions, with those coming up through finance or operations more often taking the jobs.

Back in 2012, “there was a massive amount of publicity in the market about the fact that CMOs were very rarely seen as credible successors to the CEO,” says Marketing Academy founder and CEO Sherilyn Shackell.

“We were in a lot of conversations with CMOs at the time who were really expressing their ambition to do more in the boardroom, but were a little unaware of what that really meant and where the skills and experience gaps were.”

That year the Marketing Academy launched its Fellowship programme for senior marketers, a course designed to equip CMOs with the skills they need to take on a CEO or board-level position. Developed in partnership with management consultancy McKinsey & Company, the course provides masterclasses, coaching, media training and mentoring sessions with high profile directors.

The annual programme claims more than 200 global alumni, with 11% of CMOs who participate going on to a CEO position within two years and 36% taking on a different board-level role.

As the Fellowship hits its 10th year and searches for its 10th cohort of 25 marketing leaders, the tide has definitely begun to turn, says Shackell, coinciding with a broadening of many CMOs’ roles to include elements of the business beyond communications.Marketing Academy opens applications for 2023 Fellowship programme

For McKinsey senior partner Dieter Kiewell, who leads the consultancy’s marketing and sales practice in London, getting more CMOs into boardrooms has been critical over the last decade in driving a “shift” from cost management to growth.

“[A decade ago] you saw almost every company struggling a little bit to deliver their growth objectives, while they were always meeting the cost objectives. And we thought, yes we do need more people who actually talk the language of customer, the language of growth, to get into the boardroom and actually to lead companies like CEOs,” he explains.

Senior marketers are also generally skilled at extracting two to three key insights from a large amount of data and using them to create focus and drive change, Kiewell adds. “That is enormously important as a CEO [and] a huge strength.”

He expects demand for CMOs in boardrooms to increase as discussions turn towards sustainability, new business models and value propositions, all of which “need to be customer-backed”.

This is even more the case amid the current economic turmoil, with costs rising and consumers’ wallets squeezed by the cost of living crisis, Shackell adds.

[Vertical] marketing will never generate CEOs. Horizontal marketing generates CEOs.

Antreas Athanassopoulos, Eurobank

“In terms of understanding immediate sentiment of the customer and consumers, the CMO has it minute by minute, and that’s so vital when you’re in a fast-changing, volatile, tough market,” she explains.

“The remit of the CMO is becoming absolutely core and fundamental to any really good CEO’s remit to be honest…There is no end to the need to have that capability front and centre in the boardroom.”

Nevertheless, in practice, the difference between the role of CEO and CMO is still “mammoth”, she adds, and there remain some considerable barriers to those looking to make the career jump.

1. Own your customer

While some CMOs take responsibility for everything from communications and product development to pricing and technology, for others the senior marketing role is still primarily in service of branding and communications.

But without seizing ownership of the end-to-end consumer experience and customer journey, a marketer’s ability to get on boards is limited, says Eurobank deputy CEO and chief transformation officer, Andreas Athanassopoulos.

“Many marketers make a mistake. They talk too much, too frequently and for too long with advertising agencies. And then they think, act and behave as if they were the long hand of the advertising agency within the company,” the former marketer and Fellowship alumnus argues.

“This type of marketing is dead marketing. This type of marketing is like a project management officer, not somebody that understands the future relationship of the company with its dependency, which is customers.”

Being a leader is setting the vision and setting the direction, but doing it through others.

Katherine Tulpa, Wisdom 8

Athanassopoulos says his current role at one of Greece’s biggest banks might not be one some would envisage for a former marketer, but his experience as group chief customer officer at Dixons Carphone between 2018 and 2020, where he looked after marketing insights, customer strategy and customer experience, continues to guide him.

“Even in a mega transformation project of a bank, what prevails? The customer,” he says. “Whoever wants to succeed going forward in this arena must be trained thoroughly on the concept of a customer from a holistic point of view.

“What motivates people, what discourages people? What do people feel in their interaction with the company? Then you formulate an understanding that can guide you towards getting the trust from shareholders and getting the trust from group CEOs to give you that CEO or managing director position.”

Agreeing with the importance of having a “deeply rooted belief in the customer”, Sally Abbott, Weetabix’s marketing director turned managing director, adds that without understanding how to “delight” the customer the business “wouldn’t get very far” in delivering shareholder value.

“At the moment with the economic crisis we’re really understanding what that means, and anticipating what the shopper needs and what the consumer needs should direct business strategy – or certainly in our world. Having that deep rooted understanding of consumer need and valuing what the consumer needs should give you an advantage,” she says.

2. Build a holistic view of the business

According to Shackell, one of the biggest challenges CMOs face in the transition to general management is a lack of understanding about different areas of business and how to engage at a board-level, something they may need to seek training in.

“One of the most challenging things that a CMO can find is that if they’re not already on a main board, and rarely CMOs are, it’s extremely difficult for them to really get an understanding as to all the different levers that are required to steward a board, because they’re not exposed to or aware of everything else that’s happening in the business,” she explains.
MO to CEO: ‘The numbers will only rise if marketers become more commercial’

Indeed, according to a 2019 report from recruiter Spencer Stuart, the number of marketers serving as directors on Fortune 1000 company boards was “surprisingly low”, with only 26 of the thousands of public company board seats occupied by marketing leaders holding a CMO or similar title.

“There’s therefore this gap between [the CMO and] the CFO, CEO and rest of the board, that is really about a deeper understanding of all of the other functions around the business. A lack of understanding about what keeps the CEO awake at night,” Shackell says.

Agreeing, Kiewell notes that while CMOs have excellent marketing skills, they can lack understanding of how to connect to the manufacturing side of the business and logistics, as well as finance and operations.

Getting exposure to the different types of roles and challenges that are out there broke down some of my preconceptions about what I thought a CEO’s role looks like.

Sally Abbott, Weetabix

By taking full ownership of the customer, however, Athanassopoulos points out that a marketer’s job begins to touch on all these different elements, becoming more than a “vertical function” which only “coexists” with its counterparts.

“The minute you [take on] customer journeys and customer experience, you touch the elements of operations, logistics, etc,” he says.

“Successful marketing nowadays is not vertical marketing, it is horizontal marketing. [Vertical] marketing will never generate CEOs. Horizontal marketing generates CEOs.”

3. Learn how to lead

Another barrier, which isn’t necessarily specific to marketers, is a lack of confidence in their ability to lead, says Katherine Tulpa CEO of Wisdom 8, the company which runs the Fellowship’s coaching element. Fellows are matched with a one-to-one coach and take part in group coaching, in both the EMEA and US regions.

“What happens for so many is they might not think they’re good enough or they might not think they have everything for that role,” Tulpa explains. “There’s no one way to be a CEO.”

Good leaders must learn mastery of the word “discernment” and know what they should do themselves, and what they should do through others, she adds.

“Really the theme of this is that you build the capability around you, you really build strong teams…Being a leader is setting the vision and setting the direction, but doing it through others,” says Tulpa.

“You’ll have heard time and time again from CEOs that it’s lonely at the top. And it can be. Which is why successful CEOs and execs have a network, have coaches, have mentors, have their personal advisory table…Being resourceful in building strong capability around you is wisdom for any leader in any exec.”

For Abbott, building confidence was essential in enabling her transition into a managing director position and came through having her ideas and preconceptions challenged by mentors and peers. From marketing director to MD: Weetabix’s Sally Abbott on ‘failing forward’ and driving growth

“Just getting exposure to the different types of roles and challenges that are out there broke down some of my preconceptions about what I thought a CEO’s role looks like,” she says.

“[As a result] I understood what I wanted. More so, when the job offer came, I was in a much better place to feel confident about taking it and knowing it was the right step in my career. I suspect that part of that confidence was evident to the new owners of our company…And that would have made them feel more secure about offering me the MD role.”

Abbott advises marketers to “keep your mind open” and “gather as much learning as you can”, to improve their chances of successfully stepping up into any senior role, whether that be CMO or CEO.

Agreeing, Kulpa says marketers don’t have to make the jump alone. “That’s very powerful [to understand],” she adds. “And it starts with being deliberate about it.”

4. Turn a crisis into an opportunity

However, while Shackell, Abbott and Kiewell may be right to suggest that boards need marketing expertise now more than ever, Athanassopoulos’s final advice for marketers looking to make the jump is to “be patient”.

“During crisis, there may be a slowdown of things,” he explains. “[And] in crisis, people look for veterans of crisis who they call back at arms, people who perhaps wouldn’t be first in line [normally].”

However, now marks an opportunity for marketers to build their understanding and position themselves as a candidate for the future, he says, and that will require moving outside their comfort zones.

“If you want to position yourself for the future, participate in difficult projects. Now that there is crisis, there will be difficult and risky projects. Often people are risk averse for various reasons, but if you are risk averse at the moment of truth for your company, don’t expect to be first in line when promotions come forward,” says Athanassopoulos.

In periods of crisis, marketing budgets are often the first to be cut. Indeed, last week’s IPA Bellwether report showed a cut to UK media budgets for the first time since the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. But Athanassopoulos advises marketers not to obsess over budget cuts and to instead look at the opportunity to claim other responsibilities.Media budgets slashed for the first time since the height of Covid

“If you are a marketer and the only thing you care about is that next year you’re going to have a smaller marketing budget, you are very myopic,” he argues.

“It’s very myopic to look at your role and your influence within your organisation from how big your budget is and how many advertising sites you’re going to have during the year. As a matter of fact, you should step forward yourself to propose to sacrifice certain parts, but at the same time claim different parts.”

Senior marketers should utilise any “excess time” they may find themselves with as budgets fall by participating in projects outside their comfort zone, he adds.

“If you want to step out of the marketing function, you have to step out of your comfort zone and a crisis period is the best period to do that.”