The distance from the chief executive’s desk to the customer’s front door is shrinking.
Not only have organisational hierarchies flattened, the advent of ubiquitous consumer technology and social networks means the CEO is only ever a click away.
It’s just one reason chief marketing officers are being considered for the top job in many consumer-centric organisations.The distance between CMOs and customers has always been negligible: The entire raison d’etre of the CMO is to get close to the customer.
But CMOs are also playing a more strategic role in many organisations, using rich data to better understand customer behaviours and preferences, then using insights gleaned from this data to shape products, services, and, ultimately, corporate structure and strategy.
“CMOs are expected to take greater accountability and have a measurable role in generating revenues,” stated the 2014 Korn Ferry Institute CMO Pulse Survey.
Not surprisingly, CMOs are finding themselves in the running for the CEO role.
Gartner analyst Jake Sorofman noted in a recent blog that since CMOs were now expected to drive strategic growth for the business, the outlook for transitioning to the top was “better than average–particularly when brand and customer engagement really count.”
Making The Transition
Australia has been home to a series of high-profile CMO-to-CEO journeys: Tony Stuart, now CEO of NRMA, had held marketing roles at Shell and Manchester Airport before making the transition to the top job. Similarly,Taronga Zoo chief Cameron Kerr, Dulux managing director Patrick Houlihan, and iSelect chief Alex Stevens all have risen from the marketing ranks.
But Michele Phillips, client partner for consumer, retail, and health at recruitment specialist Korn Ferry, acknowledged that while CMOs are stepping up to the plate, they still have to battle other C-level executives for the CEO role. “All things being equal, they have a one-in-seven chance of selection,” she said.
Phillips nevertheless said she believes that CMOs who are able to demonstrate a broad commercial mind-set are more often being considered for the CEO role, especially in the fast-moving consumer goods and retail industries, which are leading the trend. However, she warned, “If the CMO thinks that every solution is marketing-related, they are likely to be a less strong candidate than someone who can think across the broader paradigm.”
CMOs that want to make the transition need to invest in broadening their competencies and, perhaps, consider a lateral move to sales or finance, she added. “You may not get a big salary jump, but you are getting more experience that will pay back,” Phillips said. “CMOs who make it have a true commercial focus and own the profit and loss.”
While it’s fair to say that CMOs aren’t yet flooding into mahogany row, they are making inroads–many of them supported by coaching programs run by agencies such as Korn Ferry. Such programs have been set up to support the transition.
U.K.-based The Marketing Academy is running its second Fellowship Program, developed in association with McKinsey & Co., which takes a small group of leading marketers and equips them with the skills and insights to make the transition to the top. The organisation opened its first international arm in Australia in October, and while it has yet to bring its Fellowship Program to the region, it does offer a Leaders Program intended to elevate marketers’ skills. The first 30 candidates for this program will be announced in February.
Education Will Help, Ambition Is Essential Be Prepared
Todd Forest is the CEO of Clipp, an Australian start-up selling a bar tab app with the stated aim of becoming “the Uber of hospitality.”
Since graduating from the Kellogg School of Management in the U.S. with an MBA in marketing, Forest has often worked with consumer-facing businesses such as Nike, AOL Time Warner, and Jobfox; however, he admitted to always having had his eye on the ultimate prize of becoming a CEO. Yet, he acknowledged, the route to the top varies considerably according to the company and what they value.
Organisations that see themselves as consumer-centric are probably more-suited to recruiting a CEO from the CMO role. Forest agreed with Philips that CMOs who want to make the transition should take corporate roles that not only leverage marketing skills, but also add to them. He said that taking the opportunity to work internationally provides a deeper understanding of global challenges and opportunities.
“When you look for jobs, look for a tough project somewhat out of your comfort zone–stretch yourself,” Forest said.
It sounds like a CEO’s classic job description.
As Phillips reflected: “The world is becoming more complex, challenging, and competitive. We need leaders who can look around corners. Marketers are good at researching trends and have that ability to be agile and adapt business processes.”
She said that the briefs Korn Ferry receives from clients looking for CEOs consistently refer to the need for agility in their leaders. “CMOs think about problems differently–they see around corners. They deal with ambiguity,” Phillips adds.