Earlier this summer, Royal Dutch Shell announced that Ben van Beurden, director of its refining and marketing operations, will be promoted to chief executive next year. Months before, RadioShack named Joseph Magnacca–previously Walgreen’s CMO–as its new CEO, preceded by Ruby Tuesday's appointment of Darden Restaurants CMO JJ Buettgen as president and CEO.
These aren't the first times a marketing executive has shifted to the CEO role, and it won’t be the last. With more companies seeking CEOs who will champion their consumers, the marketing executive or CMO is increasingly the obvious choice.
Why? Customer dynamics continue to change dramatically as consumers take even greater control over their purchasing decisions. In-depth knowledge of the customer is not a cost line item anymore. Companies have no choice but to better understand customers’ needs. It’s a necessity for success–and survival. The call for more customer-centric strategies starts at the top. And this is where marketing executives excel.
The digital evolution and social networking explosion have forever changed purchasing choices, placing the power of influence in the hands of customers’ “friends.” With real-time consumer reviews and reactions available anytime, anywhere, and for virtually any products, services, or brands worthy of your hard-earned dollars, it’s not only the marketing department that must track with and respond to customers’ needs and experiences. It’s the responsibility of the entire organization. Delivering the best customer experience builds loyalty, and devoted customers equate to recurring revenue streams necessary for companies’ sustainable, profitable growth.
This business strategy starts and ends in the corner office.
The CEO must lead the organization in this charge–de facto, the chief marketer. CMOs have spent their careers focused on identifying and developing strategies to win the hearts and minds of consumers while differentiating from competitors. In addition to the examples above, in just the past year, Audi and Mercedes Benz promoted CMOs to CEOs. Scott Keogh and Steve Cannon, respectively, were responsible for the positioning, differentiation, and development of brand equities. Each organization recognized these strengths as invaluable company assets, ideally suited to rally the organization from the helm.
Similarly, the Gilt Groupe’s nod to Michelle Peluso, Citigroup’s former CMO, came amid rumors that the designer fashion company will go public within the year. Peluso’s admired ability to motivate, guide, and bring the best out of variety of personalities–from the creative types who thrive on intuitions to the analytical who are energized by data and facts–will be essential to her success.
Communication Is King
Of course, consumer expertise is not the only differentiated trait CMOs bring to the table. Most marketing executives are also uniquely talented in communicating the message in a way that is as engaging as it is persuasive. Unlike other areas of organization, where dashboards and financial analyses tell the story, CMOs have developed the compelling skill to tell a story, reaching and resonating with various stakeholders, including employees, board members, financial community, and–don’t forget–the consumer.
As Royal Dutch Shell’s van Beurden prepares to dive into his new role as CEO, he will need to begin addressing the plethora of challenges facing the organization. But the question becomes: Is the shift from marketing operations to CEO different from any other executive transition? Not especially.
A marketing executive transitioning to CEO must focus his or her on-boarding period on establishing credibility and alignment with the other leaders in the organization and stakeholders–much sooner than later, as in before day one. No matter the title, it ultimately boils down to delivering better results faster. In the first 100 days of any new executive role, you must:
- Develop a clear vision for the company going forward.
- Identify a platform for change that will rally the organization.
- Craft a clear simple memorable message for the organization to rally around.
- Establish alignment and buy-ins to the vision across the various functions and organization supported by credible strategic path and imperatives.
- Deliver early wins, giving the organization tangible reason to embrace and believe in your vision and ability to lead as CEO.
As companies search for their next CEOs, the ability to understand consumers and communicate key corporate messaging will increasingly place CMOs among the strongest candidates for the job. Whether they make better CEOs will depend on their ultimate success in translating their abilities into results at the most senior level.