Why More CMOs Are Wanted as Board Directors

Experience in Digital, Mobile, Consumer Insights and Diversity Sought

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Boards of directors at the country's largest companies are in dire need of digital and mobile expertise, consumer insights and diversity -- and they're looking to top marketers to fill those gaps.

Executives sitting on boards overwhelmingly are white males over 60 who are either current or former CEOs and chief financial officers. Increasingly, say recruiters, those boards are realizing they need to diversify both in terms of skill sets and demographics. According to Spencer Stuart, just 38 of the more than 9,800 board seats available at Fortune 1000 companies are filled by a chief marketing officer.

"Boards are really looking for fresh perspective and strategic business insights," said Bonnie Gwin, CEO of the board practice at Heidrick & Struggles. "There's an agreement among board members that somebody who has deep marketing skills will also bring good business insights, is strategic and creative. ... Many of those CMOs can also bring diversity, in terms of gender or ethnicity," including international experience, which she said is "a plus."

Ms. Gwin said companies in the midst of a transformation -- such as a transition to an online mentality from an offline one, or from business-to-business to business-to-consumer -- are more inclined to seek out marketers for their boards.

In the past month, Cigna added Michelle Gass, chief customer officer at Kohl's, to its board, while Ruby Tuesday named Mark Addicks, CMO at General Mills, to its. Cigna cited Ms. Gass' customer-focused expertise, while Ruby Tuesday, in the midst of repositioning itself as "more casual, energetic and broadly appealing," cited Mr. Addicks' marketing chops.

Meanwhile, marketers like Mondelez's Mary Beth West and Kimberly-Clark's Anthony Palmer have been sitting on boards for years.

Greg Welch, a consultant in Spencer Stuart's marketing-officer practice, said his firm is seeing increased demand for marketers across sectors. "In particular, boards that are committed to embracing digital, from not only the philosophical perspective but also in terms of the very real financial investment that is required, need CMOs capable of asking the right questions," he said. "CMOs can offer perspective on the ideal organizational structure, how to assess the relevance of new technology to the business, choosing appropriate external partners and how to best eliminate internal roadblocks."

Proven leaders who have been involved with corporate strategy, run a P&L or have been closely involved with digital and social media are particularly attractive, added Carter Burgess, head of the board practice at RSR Partners. "Utility and relevance are big themes for boards -- utility meaning bandwidth -- they're not just good at [marketing], but provide perspective on other things," he said.

While recruiters agree marketers are increasingly attractive to boards, and say they are seeing an uptick in interest, it's still a shift in its infancy.

John Abele, global managing partner for the marketing, sales and strategy officers practice at Heidrick & Struggles, said he's been contacted by colleagues who recruit for boards twice in the last 12 months. "I didn't get a single call like that in the four years prior," he said. "Boards are waking up to the fact that they need more commercial orientation. They need to understand their customers."

Here's How To Get a Board Seat

Marketers looking to land a board position should approach it as a career-development exercise and maintain an open dialogue with their own CEOs and boards. In some cases, companies have policies preventing anyone but the CEO from sitting on a board.

Greg Welch
Greg Welch

"There is not a week that goes by when I don't hear from a top CMO who wants our help in landing them a new board position," said Greg Welch, a consultant in Spencer Stuart's marketing-officer practice. "In most cases, CMOs are free to sit on boards. However, a great first step is to speak to your CEO to ensure that you do in fact have the company's blessing. Working with your company to identify which industries would be beneficial to your current role, as well as those that may present conflicts, is essential."

Mr. Welch also advises marketers to think broadly -- a large, public company is unlikely to be anyone's first board experience. The boards of local nonprofits and universities, as well as smaller or private companies, are a good place to gain experience.

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