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Interviews/ General Management

The Interview: Kellogg CMO Program's Eric Leininger

by Nick Corcodilos
Contributing Writer/Blogger

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Article Highlights:

  • "We have a laser focus on people who are on the rise to become chief marketing officers and on newly appointed CMOs."
  • "A CMO-like object has to be a catalyst for helping firms be more customer-focused, and that’s an enterprisewide responsibility."
  • "You have to love brands and company reputation to have impact on those in the most macro sense."

The CMO role is here to stay, and now it has an academic program of its own: the Kellogg School of Management’s new CMO Program at Northwestern University.

Eric Leininger, a clinical associate professor of marketing, is the program's executive director. He had been a senior marketing executive at Kraft Foods and McDonald’s, where he also served as a member of the senior leadership team, with a primary responsibility in consumer and business insights. The program is conducted by professor Gregory Carpenter, who moves between the business world and his role as a leading academic in customer-focused enterprise.

Leininger spoke with’s Nick Corcodilos in an exclusive interview about why it’s time for CMO education, how the Kellogg CMO Program works, what the CMO role really is, and why companies need it. The bonus: Leininger’s dutch-uncle advice about what it takes to succeed in the CMO office. Why did Kellogg decide to do this program now?
Kellogg has been the home of marketing education for a long time, and we practice what we teach. There’s not really anything for on-the-rise CMOs in a university setting as there is for CEOs and for CFOs. There are great conferences and wonderful share groups, but nothing that brings together leading-edge academic thinking with some of the great practitioners, like the Jim Stengels and Simon Clifts of the world [former global marketing officer of Procter & Gamble, and former CMO of Unilever, who both helped with the program], as well as current CMOs and CEOs talking about what this role needs to be.

We like to think we practice thought leadership, so we wanted to build our executive development offerings up toward the C-suites. You have to not be paying attention to miss all this dialogue about CMOs, and what they’re good at, and what they’re not good at. Who is the program geared toward?
We have a laser focus on people who are on the rise to become chief marketing officers and on newly appointed CMOs. By on the rise, I mean managers who are ready now or in 18 months or so. We also include SVPs and VPs of marketing for major business units.

There are all kinds of articles about the challenges of CMOs. Our thought was, why don’t we intercept folks on the way to that job as opposed to after it? Let’s find ways to help them increase the odds of success. So we viewed this as an accelerator for people, not from a time standpoint, but from a capability standpoint, so that people will go into this job better armed.

The four-day program is by invitation-only to ensure high quality peer-group learning, and includes about 20 attendees nominated by their companies. I spent 45 minutes on the phone with everybody who came to this class beforehand to figure out what their themes are. I heard fascinating things. What does the program tell us are the important skills or characteristics of a leader in a marketing organization?
We started with a hypothesis for the program, talked to thought leaders in a classic iterative process, and came up with these four buckets: first, leadership in being an effective member of the executive team and in building marketing organizations of the future.The second is centered around market orientation to lead a growth agenda. It includes influencing company strategy from the CMO seat at the same time that the CMO is aligning with corporate strategy—a virtuous circle.

Third is innovation. For example, social media, not in terms of tactics, but how do we organize for this, how do we integrate it into the firm? How do we make it work as powerfully as it can when it can’t be owned by any one group of people? And lastly, self-development. Are people aware of what the success factors and derailers are for the C-suite, in general, and for CMOs, specifically?

There was one beginning thought for us that hasn’t changed: A CMO-like object has to be a catalyst for helping firms be more customer-focused, and that’s an enterprisewide responsibility. Easy words to say, but to think about how to mobilize all the relevant parts of a company that a CMO doesn’t own, to be consistent and effective on customer focus—that’s central. Did marketing get lost in the shuffle all of these years, and did social media and digital marketing force us to pay more attention to it?
It’s funny you say that because we had a panel that included former CEOs of Baxter and Hartmarx, and the former CFO of McDonald’s. The point of discussion was, what are some of the rules of the road when you make your first presentation to the board of directors? As you can imagine, the participants were on the edge of their seats for this discussion. And a former CEO who’s a multiple board member responded, saying, “You know, marketing got lost for a while, but the opportunity is present in the omnipresence of social media.” The clear understanding that the marketing model of the past is rapidly changing has caused you to get back on the C-suite’s agenda. He said just what you asked.

[pagebreak] With all the controversy about the CMO role, what advice would you give someone who’s considering the job?
If you think about all the jobs in the C-suite, the CMO is the one with the least clear boundaries about it. It’s just the way life is. I think it takes a special breed of person to be able to deal with that ambiguity and turn that ambiguity into a positive.

I’ll contrast it and say, if you take a Type A person off the line and say, “You’ve been so hard-charging and delivered results for so long, congratulations, now we’re going to put you off into a more ambiguous situation,” some people can adapt and learn that and enjoy it, and others say, “How long do I have to do this until I can get back on the line?” I’m oversimplifying it, but I hear the laughter of recognition.

I think if you talk to a Jim Stengel, he would say, “Hey, I came right off the line, and I always delivered results, and they asked me to do this thing. I wasn’t sure why, then I realized what the opportunity was: to help guide the total corporation.”

So some people are ready to say, “I have an opportunity to guide a huge enterprise or to be completely in control of some piece of it.” And that’s an emotional and mental trade-off, so people need to understand where they are with it before they take these CMO jobs. Who are these people, and what makes them good at CMO-ing?
I would say they are the people who coincidentally have the long-term perspective, who can say, “I’m an organization-builder, and I’m going to spend a big chunk of my time in getting this organization’s capability and its people to where it needs to be for the future.”

So you have to enjoy organization building and capability building and people development to thrive in this job. You have to love brands and company reputation to have an impact on those in the most macro sense, as opposed to managing every detail of it. And you have to be somebody who can find ways to build—and I mean this in the best sense of the word—you have to build the right alliances for a sense of common purpose with the other people who touch your customers and touch your brand. So the CMO has to be great with the chief of sales, the CIO, the chief HR officer. . .the business unit heads. The CMO role seems to have high turnover. Do you see that?
You hear more about the turnover than those who are long-tenured. Data suggest tenure is increasing somewhat. I would change the question from tenure to impact. I think if companies are serious about becoming customer focused enterprises, somebody has to lead that dance.

As part of this program, we had talks from some long-tenured CMOs: Jim Stengel from Procter, Simon Clift from Unilever. They were in those jobs around seven to 10 years—it was a long tenure. They clearly went into those jobs with ideas on how they were going to deliver over the short term and how they were going to deliver over the long term. If I were to give advice to people going into CMO jobs, I would say to be real clear about what you’re going to make happen in the short term, but also what you’re going to make happen in the long term. Because as we rise in organizations, if we’re successful, those tenures are going to increase. What kind of experiences should a manager have before eyeing the CMO role?
Some prior experience moving back and forth between line and staff positions. To have this be your first staff position, after a long tenure on the line, it’s the exception to the rule if you’re going to succeed. What is the innate satisfaction somebody’s going to take out of the CMO job, where you [have] all this responsibility and no direct control—but a huge opportunity to influence? You have to have had some prior experience in organizational capability, building jobs that fill in the white space between business units. It’s not necessary, but I think it would be so helpful. That’s what being “off the line” is all about.

In today’s world, information technology literacy has to be on the list in ways it wasn’t in the past. When I was coming up, I knew enough about IT to be dangerous, and that’s not enough anymore. People used to be able to self-select themselves into jobs that were more or less dependent upon IT and analytics, but that is no longer a valid choice. Do you see IT people moving into the CMO role or marketing people taking a sidelight into technology and moving back?
I think it’s going to be more of the latter. I think there will be more recognition that to become an effective CMO you have to have IT literacy. And to become an effective CIO you must have multifunctional, multidisciplinary literacy, but it’s probably not as singularly focused on marketing. But IT is going to be central to the gravity of CMO jobs. Other than technology literacy, what’s critical to a CMO’s success?
In an organization that has significant components of B2B, there’s nothing that compares to working on a customer business team or an account team of some sort. At Kraft, for example, you could not get promoted to senior vice president in the marketing line discipline unless you spent a rotation in sales. My wife would say, “Oh, he had more fun in that job than in any other job he had!” It was hard, hard work. Fly down to Bentonville for a meeting at 4 p.m. Friday afternoon, and you learn a few things!

The relationships you build later are so powerful. I think IT, sales, and customer business team rotations—those would be classic crossover moves for me.

But the first thing is, get global experience. It’s another item that used to be labeled a luxury or a choice, but is now a necessity. Half the people in this class have global responsibilities today, and the other half know that they will have them soon, or they have had them.