From CMO to CEO: The Route to the Top Job Widens

Still an Exception to the Rule, CMOs-Turned-CEOs May Soon Rise

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When Steve Cannon made the leap last year from CMO at Mercedes-Benz USA to CEO, he became the latest exception to a previously long-standing trend: CMOs don't often rise to their companies' top jobs.

But for CMOs with the right set of skills, that may very well be changing as marketers evolve beyond simply building brands, opening the way for more CMOs to ascend to the CEO spot. A recent poll of over 100 business executives, conducted by Korn/Ferry International, found that 54% believe their current CMOs have the potential to one day take over the CEO role. And Darwinian forces in business are aligned to further reinforce that sentiment.

The shift is due in part to the fact that CMOs are increasingly being charged with driving enterprise-wide transformation and creating measurable results. Often they are responsible for redefining business models or go-to-market strategies, driving a strategic agenda that will create significant value for the business and its stakeholders, and leading at the highest levels to drive change across organizations. Traditionally, these responsibilities fall under the territory of the CEO. Today, more CMOs are working closely with their CEOs to drive the evolution required to succeed in a rapidly changing landscape.

Over the years, in many cases the CMO role actually devolved into one where the primary focus was the brand, targeting customers and creating traditional ad programs. Plenty of CMOs excel in those areas. But the CMOs who go beyond the brand, are strategic partners to the CEO and who have had a mandate of fundamental business transformation are the CMOs who are most likely to become CEOs. These are the leaders we refer to as "transformative CMOs" -- CMOs who adapt well to a world of constant change and who possess the leadership competencies required to be successful in this high-profile, high-stakes role.

The best CMOs understand that the need for change will continue to accelerate, embracing Jack Welch's advice to "change before you have to." In order to stay at the forefront of these conversations, transformative CMOs must have three core competencies:

Vision. Marketing is a balance of art and science, but beyond those two components, it is a job of breakthrough thinking and ongoing innovation. A CMO must be motivated by the need to leave a mark on an organization and the larger world. They are outer directed and leverage change in their customers to the advantage of the business. They use analytics to drive creativity and innovations that drive results across the entire value chain of a business.

Results. Historically, marketing's Achilles' heel had been the tangible -- proving business outcomes and demonstrating return on investment. But today, technology and data are making it possible to link initiatives to outcomes. Technology and data are going beyond ROI and allow a real understanding of the customer.

Leading. Although vision can be transformative, a vision without the right leadership will never be translated into results. Above all, inspirational leadership is how a marketing executive can affect an organization. No two people think alike, no two people are motivated by the same spark, and no two people hold exactly the same values. CMOs need to communicate their clear, developed vision to each core constituent in a manner that will inspire and motivate across functions and up and down the organization.

True transformative CMOs are able to show people where they are, show them where they're going and help close them close the gap between. They lead teams to turn a vision into a business reality that creates value for multiple stakeholders. Doesn't that sound a lot like what we expect of CEOs?

Caren Fleit is senior client partner and leader of the Marketing Center of Expertise at Korn/Ferry.
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