Training: Have the drive? Now get the know-how

Is rising to a board-level position just a matter of gaining the right skills or are there tougher lessons to learn from the prejudices held by those at the top table?


Marketers are the equivalent of the shy kid in the playground when it comes to being chosen for board level positions: they rarely get picked and many confess to feeling left on the sidelines even if they do make it on to the top team.

Of all the non-executive directors analysed from 350 FTSE company boards (the consumer-facing companies from the FTSE 500) only 50 individuals have substantial marketing experience, according to recent research, ‘Bringing the Consumer Voice Back to the Boardroom’, by Norman Broadbent, an executive search company. So without marketers represented at the very top level, are companies missing a big opportunity to put consumers at the heart of their business?

Report authors Laurence Vallaeys and Sarah Taylor certainly think so, believing it is “irresponsible” not to have marketers represented at the very top level.

But those who hold board level positions and operate outside of marketing are reluctant to explain why there is no room on their team for marketers. One finance director, who wants to remain anonymous, says its board operates efficiently without the need of a member from marketing; another managing director believes that even without a marketer at the top table, the “consumer voice is well represented” in the company. Does that mean marketers simply haven’t done enough to convince the right people that they have enough business acumen to justify a place on the board?

During a panel discussion at the ISBA conference last month, Alan McWalter, a former marketing director at Marks & Spencer and current non-executive director of several companies, acknowledged that in the boardroom there can be “too much concentration on the financial agenda” but he also blamed marketers for their own lack of success in the C-suite, saying that they are often guilty of “focus[ing] too much on their department” rather than leading marketing process across the entire business.

Mike Hughes ISBA
Mike Hughes, speaking at the ISBA conference

Mike Hughes, director general of advertising body ISBA is forthcoming about why marketers rarely make it to the top table.

Hughes, a former marketing director at Coca-Cola, says: “Marketers are often known as the directors of spending. They don’t do themselves any favours because if they do have a seat on the board they make the mistake of talking about their shiny new advertising campaign.”

Because of this reputation, “it can be a very lonely position as marketing director, second only to chief executive,” he adds.

Instead, Hughes says marketers need to drop the jargon that engulfs the marketing profession and stop talking about advertising when speaking to chief executives and chief financial officers.

“I recently gave some frank advice to a frustrated marketer. I told them to stop talking about advertising to directors and to talk to them about business models – talk to them in a language they understand.”

Learning the right lingo to gain entry to the exclusive top spot will make up part of the new Marketing Academy’s Fellowship mentoring programme, which aims to prepare marketing directors and chief marketing officers for a place on the board.

ISBA, a sponsor of the board-level training scheme, was spurred into action on the back of research of its members which highlighted that there was a need for training to help marketers reach the C-suite.

The year-long programme, which will be co-produced by partner McKinsey, will be revealed in May, and will offer 15 marketers the opportunity to be mentored by non-marketers that have held board-level positions such as chief financial officers, HR directors and former chairmen.

Hughes, who has held various board-level positions, says marketers want to know how they can be considered for such positions, adding that “criticism is rightly levelled at marketers” for their lack of representation at the top.

“Marketers are brilliant at understanding the consumer and creating campaigns around that but they need to look inward and convince people on the board why they are worthy of being an equal of the chief financial officer.”

Sometimes, he adds, marketers’ actions show a leaning towards the creative and not enough attention to the business side of things. “Procurement is here to stay but marketers often let this department have the difficult conversations about finances and step away to concentrate on the creative – that’s a cop-out.”

He believes that mentors outside of the marketing department are essential to boost the marketers’ chances of making it to the top because they’ve “been there, done that and made it”.

While non-marketing mentors can certainly broaden perspectives and coach on the right language to use in the boardroom, nothing beats leaving the marketing department for a better understanding of the C-suite, according to Kathleen Mitchell, vice-president EMEA at Stella & Dot, a jewellery brand founded in the US.

Stella & Dot, which operates a direct sales model, is unusual in that it does have a former chief marketing officer on the board: Converse CMO Mike Maddocks. Mitchell is a non-executive director and while she has held marketing director positions, she deliberately stepped out of the marketing department to become a sales rep for three years. This experience, she says, enabled her to see another side of the business, preparing her for a general manager position (see How To Make It, below).

Hughes agrees and says that ISBA panellists also raised this issue. “Too many marketers walk up a silo. They need to think about their career and step outside of marketing, the country that they work in, the sector they work in, to get a broader experience.”

Mitchell also advises ambitious marketers to network with the right people in their business, and forge close links with them. “You have to get close to the influencers. If it’s the oil and gas business then you have to get close to the geologists and engineers,” she advises.

Simon Carter, marketing director, UK and Ireland at Fujitsu agrees, but argues that if you make the right connections then you don’t necessarily have to be on the board to get your ideas to the table. “You just have to find the right person to pass on your messages,” he says.

He believes “it’s a nonsense” that marketers need to be coached for board-level positions. “Marketers at senior level already have the right skills and knowledge for the board. It’s a matter of company culture. Some companies have marketing at the heart of business and others are more engineering or technology-based. If anything, it’s chief financial officers and other board members that need to be trained on why marketers need to be on the board.”

Something proactive needs to be done to address the current situation where marketers are not fairly represented on the board, argues Sherilyn Shackell, founder and chief executive of the Marketing Academy, that will be running the Fellowship programme.

“Without experience on the board, marketers are missing out on learning about how other parts of the business operate.” The Marketing Academy wants to tackle this by giving marketers chosen for the programme access to those who have made it. At the end of the year, each of the 15 marketers will be given a board-level position so that they can experience what life is like at the top.

While Shackell agrees with Carter’s idea of a training course for the board, she adds: “The reality is that while the board needs to be educated on why marketers should have a place there, marketers need to understand what is required of them to make it to the top. We believe this programme will help them take that next step in their careers.”

By teaching marketers what they need to do to succeed and also feel like an equal around the boardroom table, perhaps they will be able to stop feeling like the kid left out in the playground and instead be confident enough that they not only deserve a place on the top team but comfortably belong there steering the business to success.

Marketing Academy Fellowship Programme Highlights


Fifteen senior marketers will spend around 12 full days learning about what it takes to be a board-level marketer. The Marketing Academy’s founder Sherilyn Shackell promises that the selection process will be “gruelling” to ensure the crème de la crème of marketing directors and chief marketing officers are selected to take part in the free Fellowship.

The programme will be co-produced by partner McKinsey and will kick off with a ‘bootcamp’ in the autumn with invited top-level speakers sharing the secrets of their success. Mentors from outside of the marketing department will give one-to-one coaching sessions to the chosen marketers. At the end of the course marketers will be placed in board-level positions so that they get real-life experience of what it is like to be a board member. The aim of this programme is to equip marketers with the skills and experience that will enable them to be promoted to a board-level position.

How to make it to the top (from those who have done it)

Kathleen Dot

Kathleen Mitchell
Vice-president EMEA
Stella & Dot

Past roles include: Various general manager roles at L’Oréal (2006-2010), regional sales manager at Kerastase/L’Oréal (2002-2006), marketing director at Enviego (2000-2001)

You have to take personal responsibility for your career progression. I always knew that I wanted to be a general manager so I went from being marketing director at L’Oréal to being a sales rep for three years. Never be afraid to take a couple of steps back to take 15 steps forward. By stepping outside of marketing I learned about another side of business.

Simon Carter

Simon Carter
Marketing director, UK and Ireland

Experience includes non-executive director at Coventry University London (February 2013-present), non-executive director for The Small Business Consultancy (June 2010-present) and executive director, marketing at Thomas Cook (2006-2008)

I’ve worked at companies where I’ve been on the board and others, like at Fujitsu, where I’m not. While I’m not on the board at Fujitsu, I’ve been at board meetings for the past two days and fully expect to have a position on the board at some point. Being on it does make things easier, but it’s not essential.

You need to get close to someone who can pass on messages on your behalf. It is possible to have influence without being on the board.

Mike Hughes

Mike Hughes
Director general

Past roles include group chief executive at Bulmers (1998-2002), managing director for Guinness Great Britain (1992-1997) and marketing director UK at Coca-Cola (1980-1984)

Criticism is rightly levelled at marketers because they concentrate on outward activity – they are brilliant at understanding the consumer and creating campaigns around that but they need to look inward and convince people why they need to come on to the board and why they are worthy of being an equal of the chief financial officer. They can do this by leaving behind marketing jargon and instead speaking in business terms that other directors understand and respect.

Sherilyn Shackell

Sherilyn Shackell
Founder and chief executive
The Marketing Academy

Roles include being a trustee of Plant for Peace, and managing director and chief executive at Highfield Human Solutions, an executive search and talent management company (1994-present)

How are marketers supposed to learn about other parts of the business other than through board-level positions? Mentors will be so important on our programme to prepare marketing directors and CMOs for the next level. They won’t be from marketing backgrounds but will be chief financial officers, past chairmen, management consultants – the kind of people who can coach about what it’s really like at that very top level.



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