A CEO choosing to become a CMO? It seems counterintuitive. Articles today usually focus on the reverse—how CMOs are ascending to CEO roles.
And, yet, Jim Melvin, CMO at SevOne, an infrastructure performance monitoring company, did exactly that. The former CEO of AppNeta and Mazu Networks defied the natural progression by deliberately moving out of the chief executive role and into the CMO role at a different company.
I reached out to Melvin for a deeper understanding of his unique move. What follows are excerpts from our discussion, followed by my own takeaways.
Whitler: You don’t often see an individual deciding to move from CEO to CMO. What were the primary factors that drove your decision?
Melvin: I am fortunate to have worked in both startup organizations and large, blue-chip companies (Cisco, EMC). Throughout my career, I’ve gone back and forth between small and large firms. This is logical in the tech sector where the objective in a startup company often is to be acquired by a larger firm.
Over time, I’ve come to value the role that I play within the firm more than the title itself. The reality is that a CEO and other C-level executives in a small startup will often take a lesser title in a large firm, and these titles are more of a function of the size of the firm than the work that you are actually doing.
CMOs today are really in the driver’s seat in terms of focusing the organization on expanding the value of the enterprise. CMOs and other C-suite executives are essentially leaders of the company along with the CEO; they focus on using analysis, market and customer insight, and product knowledge to identify opportunities to accelerate sales growth. While SevOne is beyond the startup phase, the CEO in a firm our size tends to have to focus on working with investors. That leaves the CMO and other executive leaders to create sales-enhancing value for the company.
That’s my favorite part of the job and why I chose to take this position—the potential impact I can have. Great CMO roles enable you to drive business performance and, in my opinion, there is no more exciting or dynamic role in the company.
Whitler: Most CMOs don’t have the luxury of sitting in the CEO chair. What do you know now about being a great CMO from having had the CEO experience?
Melvin: When I took the CEO job, I became aware of three ways in which CMOs can have greater impact. First, CEOs are looking for C-level leaders to step up and identify problems that the CEO may be missing. At the C-level, it isn’t enough to execute your strategic plan. You have to see opportunities and threats that others don’t. And given the CMO’s unique insight into the market, customer, and competitor, CMOs should be taking a lead to uncover opportunities and problems.
Second, as a CEO, I wanted a balanced C-suite. I didn’t want to be a single dominant player. I wanted to make sure all voices and perspectives were heard. As a result, I expected my CMO to help facilitate the development of a strong leadership team. CFOs, CMOs, and sales leadership can often, because of their positions and access to data, play a dominant role. I counted on my CMO to act as a true peer on the leadership team.
Finally, especially in a tech/B2B industry, the CMO must have a deep understanding of the product and of the customer. I personally believe that training as an engineer or in computer science can help with the foundational skills required to be strong in marketing or sales in tech/B2B. If you don’t have these skills, you have to figure out what you bring to the table.
Whitler: What advice would you offer CMOs who aspire to obtain a CEO position?
Melvin: It’s pretty simple on one level. The CEO role is about achieving top- and bottom-line growth. Managing top-line growth is significantly harder than bottom-line growth. And marketers are in the best position to know how to accelerate top-line growth. Those who make it to the CEO position have convinced others that they excel at driving growth. Those who consistently deliver growth stay in executive roles. Learn how to create meaningful value for customers, and this will drive growth and propel you to the CEO’s chair.
Whitler: What advice would you give to undergraduate students?
Melvin: [First, figure out] your competitive advantage. No matter what field you go into, you have to answer this question: Why are you going to be successful? You need to have an angle. What is your plan and how will you rise into a leadership position? I believe that for tech/B2B, having an engineering/tech background is a significant advantage. However, if you don’t, you will need to have a distinct advantage in terms of understanding the distribution model, customers, or technology. You will need to obtain skills that give you a competitive advantage in one of these areas.
[Next], understand selling. There is a rapid change under way in the tech distribution model. In the old world, the external salesperson would develop deep relationships and sell. As the consumerization of tech continues, the external salesperson model is eroding and being replaced by call centers. I encourage students to spend time in one of these call centers understanding the customer and how the product does or doesn’t meet their needs. It’s tremendous on-the-job training and provides knowledge about the mechanics of a company. Within nine months, we have students go from not understanding anything about the selling process to closing deals. It’s terrific experience.
[A third piece of advice is to] ace analytics. For grad students, the question is centered on which path to pick--finance, marketing, sales, operations, etc. Analytical ability is the new gold. If you are good at analytics, you are a keeper. Learn how to connect disparate data systems to make sense out of difficult-to-understand data. If you can, you will rise quickly.
Impact Over Title
After listening to Melvin and contrasting this discussion with one I recently had with a friend who wants to be a CMO, I realized that the aspiration may be misplaced. It isn’t about the title. It’s really about the job and the potential to have impact. As Melvin pointed out, having impact often requires you to identify the opportunity or problem—it isn’t handed to you.
As I’ve witnessed through the years, there are people at all levels and with all sorts of titles who have more (or less) impact. I was reminded of Jeremy Cappello, a marketing director at David’s Bridal, who was treated by everyone like a C-level leader. He was invited to meetings that nobody at his level attended, was in charge of teams where everybody else on his team was senior in title, and was asked to lead the development of strategic plans well beyond what his title called for. Why? Because he stepped up and identified opportunities and problems. And at some point, he became judged by his impact, not his title.
Perhaps there is a hopeful message in what, at first blush, might seem like an incongruous move.
See what the Twitterverse is saying about the CMO role: