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Insight/ General Management

Ascending To The Board, Part 2


by Nick Corcodilos
Contributing Writer

See More by this author >

Article Highlights:

  • Boards choose new members based on what they can bring to three oversight functions.
  • CMOs face two particular challenges in their executive careers, and serving on boards can be an excellent strategy for meeting them.
  • Acess to sprawling C-level networks may be the best reason for a CMO to work up the board food chain.

Corporate boards appear to be anything but diverse or risk-taking in their selection of new members. Boards are commonly filled by CEOs, and they tend to want new members who are similar to themselves.

Truth is, when considering new members, boards are going to ask, “Who’s going to look good in a press release?” says Larry Stybel, a corporate leadership consultant and board-level headhunter who runs Stybel Peabody Lincolnshire.

This is where it can get rocky for CMOs.

“The reality is, there’s an unwritten courtesy that CEOs extend toward each other,” Stybel said. “CEOs are more likely to be understanding about why CEOs ask for high compensation because they’re doing it, too, whereas a CFO or a CMO is more likely to say, ‘This is outrageous, it’s inequitable, it doesn’t make sense.”

Even so, you don’t have to be a CEO to get onto a board—especially boards lower on the food chain, where, as discussed in Part 1 of this two-part article, special skills might matter more and members work more closely with the management team. Indeed, boards will favor candidates who can contribute significantly at the full-board or committee level, Stybel said.That’s why you should start thinking about what you can offer by considering the three main committees every board has:

  • Audit
  • Compensation
  • Nominating (of other board members) and Governance

Stybel suggested looking deep into your skill set and experience. Boards choose new members because of what they can bring to these three oversight functions. If your expertise is limited to marketing, then you can see why it’s more challenging for a CMO to get onto a board than it is for a CEO or CFO. As we discussed last week, a board of directors’ main function is financial oversight. (I also discussed the repercussions of this in Monday’s Ask The Headhunter blog, “The Well-Behaved Board Of Directors: Nose In—Fingers Out.”)

Then there’s the contribution you might make at the full board level, when the board takes up other issues. Which of these areas does your resume address? Stybel offered this list to help you review your relevant competencies:

  • Managing crises
  • Finding new sources of revenue
  • Initial public offering
  • Evaluating strategic alliances
  • Hiring and firing CEOs
  • Review of financial performance
  • Risk management
  • Succession planning
  • Mergers and acquisitions
  • Opening plants and offices in new regions of the country or globe
  • Review of corporate strategy
  • Major gifts
  • Planned giving
  • Foundation alliances

Suddenly a few doors open for a talented CMO. But it’s up to you to make your case.

One tip Stybel offered: “If there’s already a CMO on a board, out of seven to nine people, why would it need two CMOs?” So if you’re a CMO, consider finding a board without one. The nominating committee might view your marketing acumen as very desirable. Just as a CFO on the board might serve as an important adviser to the company’s CEO, you might be the CEO’s marketing tutor.

Why It’s Worth Climbing The Food Chain
CMOs face two particular challenges in their executive careers, Stybel said, and serving on a board can be an excellent strategy for meeting them. The first challenge is how to shift into new lines of business.

“It’s a great way to move outside your industry because one of the problems CMOs have is their careers will gravitate toward a stovepipe industry. ‘I will spend the next 20 years in telecom, so I’ll know everybody in telecom marketing, but I won’t know that many people outside telecom. I may know people in adjacent industries, but not that many people outside,’” he said. “I think the greatest benefit for a chief marketing officer, of being on a board, is that this is a great way to meet leaders in other industries.”

The other challenge is that it can be difficult to expand a career beyond the limited scope and responsibilities of marketing. In the rarefied atmosphere of corporate boards, the big picture is everything, and the view suddenly opens up for talented board members. Gaining top-level perspective is probably the biggest reason a CMO should work his or her way up to significant board assignments.

Successful board-level executives deal with two sides of corporate life, Stybel said, and CMOs are often weak in one of them. A board seat can change that.


“The marketing world lives on the asset side of life. For them, life could always be better and rosier; their greatest thrill is adding more value, more money, and more opportunities,” he said. “But life is also lived on the other side of the basic equation—the liability reduction side, where the CFOs live. And their life is full of risks and uncertainty.”

This distinction brings the role of the board into sharp focus. The board of directors sits at the top of the corporation and holds the scales that balance the books. This is why CEOs make such good directors, Stybel said: “It’s the role of the CEO to be the one to look at both the asset and the liability sides of life. And to make judgments.”

This is the challenge for CMOs considering board slots.

“If you’re a chief marketing officer, your job is to be the chief advocate for asset enhancement: Why we should do this advertising program? Why we should do this new alliance? That’s your job. But being on a board puts you in a different mindset, where you have to have an enterprise-wide perspective. A lot of CMOs think they have it, but do they?”

Sitting on a board is where CMOs can get that, Stybel added, and it’s what makes board membership such a worthy component of a business career.

Off The Normal Path
It seems obvious that one way for a CMO to get on a higher-level board is to first work up to a CEO position. But Stybel suggested it’s smart (and perhaps more fun) to get on a board—almost any board—early in your career. Start lower on the food chain, at a level where you’re really needed and can make a significant impact.

The food chain includes companies whose objective might be an IPO or to get acquired. “As you think about your career beyond in the next phase, I think it’s great to get involved with early-stage startup companies, help them grow, and get a piece of equity,” he said. “It’s like teaching a kid how to play softball. There’s a lot of satisfaction.” There’s also the chance to be recognized, both within the company and within the industry.

Stybel shared the story of one CMO who leveraged two years on a board into a CEO job, against all odds. He joined a board that needed marketing expertise, even though the industry the company was in was a stretch for him.

“He was CMO for a low-tech manufacturing company: They made file folders. But he got on the board of a small-cap telecom company. They were interested in him because he was a very smart marketing guy,” Stybel said. “Something happened to this company, and the CEO was fired. Now the board was looking to replace the CEO, and they were just shell-shocked at what transpired. They wanted a CEO they could totally trust.”

The board turned to one of its own. Even though he was in a low-tech business, the CMO had invested two years on a board. He had developed high-tech knowledge, experience, and insight. So they gave him the job of CEO of a small-cap public company. He grew the company, and it was acquired. “The idea here is this: No recruiter would have ever gone to a board of a public company and said, ‘Here’s a guy who’s a CMO of a company that makes file folders. I think he’d be great for your telecom company!’ It just wouldn’t happen,” Stybel said.

But a low-tech CMO serving on a high-tech board taking over a telecom company? That can happen, said Stybel, delivering the takeaway to his Cinderella story: “You sort of go around the recruiting process because you develop relationships on the board.”

And that’s the potentially big payoff of serving on boards: networking.

Do The Math
Exposure to CEOs who will help a CMO gain asset and liability perspective is one benefit of board membership. The chance to leapfrog into a new industry is another. But access to sprawling C-level networks may be the best reason for a CMO to work up the board food chain.

To make his point, Stybel walked me through a Google search that’s worth following.

Google the words “investing Businessweek Sheryl Sandberg,” including the spaces. Click the first result. In Sandberg’s Executive Profile section, click “See Board Relationships.”  Check her board affiliations. (There’s my Disney connection!) Then look over to the right, at “Most Connected People To Sheryl K. Sandberg.”

You just found the “LinkedIn” of boards of directors. Stybel pointed out that “most people on a board are on three or four other boards. Assume you have seven people per board, each of whom is on three other boards with seven other people. Start doing the math.”

Why should a CMO invest in a climb up the board food chain? “You want to be on a board because you get access to this explosion of great networks.”

First Steps Onto Your First Board
I asked Stybel whether there’s a secret to moving quickly up the chain to a top-level board. “Marry very, very well,” he half-joked. But the real path is to start wherever you can, make increasing contributions, and leverage each board contact you develop to move up. At each step, get recommended by someone a board trusts.

If you read my weekly Ask The Headhunter column on, you know that I believe the best way to get the job you want is to go hang out with people who do the kind of work you want to do, where you want to do it.

Stybel confirmed this approach. To get on your first board, you need someone credible to recommend you and to forward your resume to a nominating committee. He offers this list of couriers for you to cultivate:

  • Business (not litigation) partners at law firms
  • Partners at CPA firms
  • Partners at compensation consulting firms
  • Strategy consulting firms
  • Insurance agents
  • People who serve on boards
  • Bank presidents
  • Business owners
  • Ministers
  • CEOs who serve on trade association boards
  • Church board members
  • Chamber of commerce members

(So I’ve found the first step of my path to the Disney board of directors. I’m going to get introduced to the board of a local media startup through its insurance broker.)

Rank order the people in that list by the likelihood that they can help you, and start moving up the board of directors food chain now. A CMO who makes it to the top finds the climb was well worth it.

About Nick Corcodilos

Nick Corcodilos writes "Ask The Headhunter," a weekly blog on in which he shows you how to tackle the daunting obstacles that job hunters and managers face when trying to work together. From time to time, Corcodilos also will provide feature stories offering insights into various management career strategies, In addition, his newest books, Keep Your Salary Under Wraps, How to Work with Headhunters and How Can I Change Careers?, are available as PDFs.