Can CMOs make the transition to CEO?

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When Hewlett-Packard Co. named Mark Hurd, who had been CEO of NCR Corp., as its new president-CEO last week, his previous experience as NCR's VP-worldwide marketing and Americas sales, seemed, at best, a secondary factor.

Instead, HP was primarily concerned with Hurd's operations experience and his quick turnaround of NCR since he took the top spot at the company in 2003.

In the b-to-b and technology arenas, the CMO and other top marketing posts are generally not the most direct route to the CEO position. In fact, some argue that such experience hinders the ambitious.

"It's the end of the line; it's a dead-end job," said Al Ries, chairman of branding consultancy Ries & Ries.

There are signs, however, that marketing experience is no longer taking a back seat to finance, engineering or operations when it comes to assembling a resume for a CEO slot. Martin Reynolds, VP at Gartner, speculated that Hurd's marketing experience, while not a primary concern, was a positive.

Reynolds said that under Carleton Fiorina, a marketing veteran who resigned as CEO at the board's request in early February, HP strengthened its brand, and it is important that the new chief understand the value of marketing and not tear down what has been built up. "They wanted someone who is well-rounded," he said.

Additionally, a recent survey by the Institute of International Research indicated that business leaders believe that marketing will be a critical skill for tomorrow's executives. Of 1,300 respondents, 31% said that marketing would be an important area of expertise. Operations (20%), financial (16%), sales (11%) and engineering (6%) were all deemed less critical leadership skills than marketing.

Donovan Neale-May, executive director of the CMO Council, agreed that marketing is a critical business leadership skill and said he has seen some CMOs moving to the top spot. "It's certainly happening, but it's not happening at anywhere near the frequency it should," he said.

Some high-profile b-to-b executives do have experience in the marketing department, although it is often a minor part of their resumes. At General Electric Co., Jeffrey Immelt, chairman-CEO, did a stint in the company's marketing department. John Beystehner, COO of United Parcel Service of America, was senior VP-worldwide marketing and sales, but he also had extensive operations experience with the shipping giant's airline.

Office Depot last month hired Steve Odland, the former chairman-president-CEO of AutoZone, as its chairman-CEO. Odland spent 16 years at Quaker Oats Co., a renowned training ground. An Office Depot board member said that Odland's "marketing and merchandising" experience factored in the decision to hire him.

Observers said IBM Corp.'s Abby Kohnstamm is among current CMOs who should receive consideration for b-to-b CEO openings.

John Shomaker, group VP at sales and marketing consultancy MarketBridge, said b-to-b companies with a retail presence, such as office products suppliers, tend to value marketing experience at the top more than traditional b-to-b companies. "I think the reason is that SMB [the small and midsize business sector] and consumer is where really marketing is sales," he said.

Nonetheless, executives with marketing backgrounds have risen to the top at b-to-b companies. Bruce L. Claflin, president-CEO of 3Com Corp., was in sales at IBM when he attended a marketing seminar in the 1970s with executives from Cadillac and Purina. "With all the arrogance of an IBMer in the '70s, I wondered what I could possibly learn from a car company or a company that sold kitty litter," Claflin said. "The answer was, a lot. I was thoroughly impressed with their marketing capability and was humbled to learn what a true craft marketing was."

Claflin said his marketing experience helped prepare him for the corner office. "It should be one of several valid ways to develop executives to become CEOs," he said. "A strong marketing executive plays a strong cross-company role, which will be invaluable from a developmental standpoint."

Marketing could prepare

Bill Campbell, current chairman and former CEO of Intuit Inc., agreed that a marketing role could provide preparation for a CEO position. Campbell, whose career has included stints as Columbia University's head football coach, an executive at J. Walter Thompson Co. and VP-marketing at Apple Computer Corp., cautioned that a CMO must be involved in using marketing intelligence to help develop new products to be properly prepared to be a CEO.

"If a CMO is really only in marketing communications, then I don't think it is the path to CEO," Campbell said.

SAP's Martin Homlish is an example of a CMO who, despite reporting to Leo Apotheker, the head of sales, has a broad range of responsibilities well beyond branding. Among his other roles are overseeing sales, consulting and customer education. An important part of his job is communicating customer feedback to help the company develop new products.

Homlish said his role touches almost every corner of the far-flung global company. "The marketing organization has become the decoder ring," he said. "The ones that do it exceptionally well will have a much bigger seat at the table than the ones that don't."

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