From CMO to CEO: the route to the top

From CMO to CEO: route to the top
Market Leader Autumn 2009

With average tenure somewhere between two and three years (depending on the region) the odds are stacked against CMOs progressing into general management and then the top slot. As leaders of the marketing function they are often the first casualty when growth targets are not met. Positioned at the intersection between innovation, sales, supply chain, manufacturing and business leaders they are among the most exposed members of the executive team. What's more, CMOs rarely (if ever) get promoted to CEO in the same company. To become a CEO, a CMO must almost always make a double transition, out of their function and into a new company.

The obstacles facing CMOs with ambitions for the top job are considerable, and likely to be too great for those who are unwilling to step out of their comfort zone.

It is therefore vitally important to prepare properly by developing the right set of skills and experiences that will make the transition possible, and to understand the pressures and challenges that come with the top job.


Marketing is an area of vital strategic importance, and successful marketers are valued above all for their strategic perspective. But even those who have reached CMO level can sometimes find themselves isolated at one end of the business, too far from the core processes.

Successful CMOs may be perceived as experts in brand building, brand equity and consumer insight, able to mobilise an effective marketing department. But if they are understood as specialists with experience only of the marketing function, they may be overlooked as potential regional or commercial leaders capable of running a business in their own right.

A criticism of marketers was the lack of a real thirst for understanding the implications of what they are doing; One CEO said, 'This is my great frustration and I am probably more intolerant of marketing managers because of my journey. While every other function in the business is reinventing itself, marketers have a contentment that is unsustainable, relying too heavily on research as if that's some panacea. Focusing on a great campaign is not enough. The CMO should be the instigator of the debate about what can be improved, about new directions.'


Another CMO commented that the time spent on the senior leadership team had given him the opportunity to influence the broader business and learn from the CEO. 'It was a valuable step because I didn't know what I didn't know. Sitting at the top table and seeing the breadth of issues being dealt with – from finance to people to external stakeholders – gave me a useful perspective.'

It was also clear from our discussions that marketers hoping to move into the top job need to obtain exposure to international markets. Significant roles and responsibilities in several other functions – for example, being vice president of sales in a region or implementing a global project – help prepare for a general management role in the future.

Some cautioned, however, that not all global projects are equally valuable. One CEO cited implementation of a SAP project as an example: 'At the end of the project you certainly know more people in the company, you have visited more markets, but as a manager you have not added competencies crucial for a future CEO. On the other hand, there is no question that it is strategically valuable for a CMO to be part of an M&A team, or better still, to lead such a team.'


When considering CEO succession, the board will often overlook the CMO in favour of those more centrally situated within the company's executive ranks. And even those who have made it to the top are quick to point out that progressing from CMO to CEO rarely occurs without a move first into general management or a spell in category management.

Understanding day-to-day operational realities helps you to appreciate the issues faced by those responsible for operations, and enables you to form a more complete picture of the business. It encourages you to think from a general manager's point of view, thereby broadening the insight you can offer to the company as a whole.

Looking beyond the marketing function and being intellectually curious about how all the pieces of a business fit together is essential. One CEO recounts how he visited several warehouses belonging to the food retailer where he was CMO: 'The distribution director told me that I was the first CMO that he'd taken around the warehouse in his 35-year career. It was a valuable experience on two counts: first, I learned things that helped me understand how I could influence the business better; and, second, it helped build my credibility.'

The legacy of the 'silo' corporate structure and the perception of marketing as a cost centre rather than an engine of growth and profitability means that board members and shareholders may feel more comfortable promoting a CFO than a former head of marketing.

Consequently, CMOs will have to work hard to demonstrate an analytical mind and an understanding of the factors that positively influence the P&L. They need to ensure that the company doesn't construe them solely as a driving creative force who is frustrated with financial and other limitations set on them.

This means that the CMO will, at some point in his career, ideally have had responsibility for P&L across brands, channels, customers and countries, almost certainly having had to search out such opportunities even if it means temporarily moving backwards.

Does this mean that CMOs are not natural contenders for CEO positions? Not necessarily. Several CEOs we spoke to see CMOs as the best candidates for CEO roles, not least because they are responsible for the positioning, differentiation and development of brands (which are increasingly valuable corporate assets) and because it is their business to understand consumers and their needs.

Also, CMOs tend to be good communicators, able to engage and motivate people inside and outside the organisation. In order to get into contention for a CEO role in the first place, the CMO will need a strong personality and the ability to use all his communication skills to persuade the executive team, the board and other stakeholders of the value that marketing brings to the organisation.

A CMO who is driving top-line growth and who exerts a strong influence over the business planning process is in an ideal position to make the leap to CEO because he or she understands what the consumer is looking for and what the company's capabilities are, and is able to bridge those two things and come up with commercially viable products.


CMOs looking for a move to CEO status will find it easier to demonstrate their leadership qualities in some types of company than in others. Fast moving consumer goods (fmcg) companies, dependent on building relationships with customers and securing their loyalty, tend to place great value and expectation on the marketing team. CMOs in these organisations will be at the driving end of the business, creating demand, engineering growth, and steering business development and transformation.

CMOs in fmcg companies tend to be closer to product development and can measure response to marketing initiatives more quickly and with greater accuracy than their counterparts in other sectors. By contrast, CMOs in financial services or business-to-business sectors are less likely to be perceived as drivers of the business because the correlation between marketing and top-line growth is less clear.

Whatever the sector, it is essential that CMOs can demonstrate data-driven evidence of success in order to gain the support and respect of colleagues outside of marketing. This can be a challenge when the marketing ethos is not shared throughout the organisation, as one CEO pointed out: 'Share of market and brand equity are harder concepts for managers outside the marketing function to understand than a P&L or financial ROI.'

Perhaps the point is that, if you move into a business that is not about directly satisfying consumer needs, you will only really be able to leverage your broad-based leadership skills as opposed to your full armoury of marketing capabilities. If you demonstrate exceptional leadership and communication ability you can succeed as a CEO in a different sector, but may not use the full scope of your professional skills.


Some of those we spoke to stressed that, as much as you try to ready yourself for the role of CEO, there are some aspects of the job that you can never prepare for. The nature of the leadership required of the CMO could not be more different from that of a CEO, who operates at a much higher level than anyone else in the organisation and who has to work through people from all disciplines.

Rather than being hands-on, a CEO steers the course with a clear direction, getting less bogged down with the details. And though this may sound attractive, a CEO needs to be ready to make tough, even risky, decisions. This is made even more difficult by the fact that as a CEO you will have less information on which to base decisions than you were used to as a CMO – there are more variables, more unknowns, so good judgement is critical.

What's more, as CEO, people will treat you differently. They become highly selective of the information they give you. Consequently, you have to learn to read between the lines, ask difficult questions and ask the right questions. One CEO explained: 'There is more leading, less doing. It's as simple as that. It took me six months or so to really appreciate that when I asked for something people dropped everything and did it. This caused chaos! My CMO would repeatedly plead with me not to set so many hares running in my well-meaning enthusiasm. It was good feedback.'

For all the differences between the CEO's role and that of the CMO, one of the areas in which the CMO is often strongest – the ability to influence and communicate the marketing message throughout the organisation – is a prerequisite for the CEO. However, one recently appointed CEO warned: 'The biggest mistake when moving into general management from marketing is the temptation to see the job as “beyond marketing” or to shed the marketing mindset. Make no mistake – the CEO ought to be the chief marketer.'

As CEO you will have to learn a new degree of objectivity, consciously listening to viewpoints from different parts of the business, from IT to manufacturing, from HR to operations. This is made easier the more exposure you have had to other functional areas during your career: 'I had to tell myself to stop playing brand manager, to take off all my hats. When you become CEO you see connections between functions that you were not in a position to see before. You can only win by playing together.'


Nearly all the CEOs we spoke to said they had always taken a genuine intellectual interest in broader business issues and enjoyed being involved in different things, seeking out opportunities that would enhance their experience and skill set.

If you are having to convince yourself to be involved in different aspects of company management as a necessary evil in order to rise to the top, then the move to CEO may not be right for you. As one CEO remarked: 'If you don't genuinely love getting out there with customers, and you're not genuinely interested in how the factory works – and you don't really care about your working capital situation and how the P&L is adding up – then don't bother to apply for the top job.'

Aside from the obvious weight of responsibility and pressures that come with running a company and sitting on the board, the CEO must get used to the fact that it is lonely at the top. When you become CEO, a certain distance inevitably opens up between you and your reports, in contrast to the camaraderie you may have enjoyed as a functional head. This is not an easy adjustment to make, which is why so many CEOs who have made the transition retain the services of a personal coach or mentor in whom they can confide when the going gets tough.


As the role of mrketing continues to evolve, many CMOs find themselves assuming greater leadership and responsibility for growth, while exerting more influence over strategy. With the increasing number of CEO positions being filled by former CMOs, those in marketing should be encouraged that there is a clear route to the top, although it is not an easy one to take and often requires moving outside the current organisation.

Careful thought needs to go into preparing for the transition over a significant period of time. The CEOs we spoke to were united in the view that CMOs wishing to become CEOs must grasp every opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and expose themselves to situations and challenges that will help prepare them for a corporate leadership role.


  • Take on a general management role in an emerging market.
  • Broaden your skill set at every opportunity.
  • Gain experience in at least one non-marketing role.
  • Get involved in mission-critical, non-marketing projects as you can.
  • Demonstrate your credibility and track record as commercial leader.
  • Develop close working relationships with other functions,
  • Work with the CFO to value the company's brand assets.
  • Hone your communication skills.
  • Learn to make the tough decisions.
  • Find a mentor who is already a CEO or in a general management position.


Jonathan Harper leads Spencer Stuart's European Marketing Officer Practice.

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Frank Birkel is head of Spencer Stuart Germany.

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