Want To Be A CMO? The Career Path May Surprise You

Think that being a wizard at developing splashy ads, branding, and social media campaigns generates an automatic ticket to become the next CMO or VP of Marketing? Think again.

Think that being a wizard at developing splashy ads, branding, and social media campaigns generates an automatic ticket to become the next CMO or VP of Marketing? Think again. According to a new study, only one-third of CMOs and VPs of marketing arrive at the top post because of their experiences in marketing. But what backgrounds do the other two-thirds of marketing senior executives come from?


In the recently released book, Getting to the Top: Strategies for Career Success executive search consultant and career expert Kathryn Ullrich shares groundbreaking research on career path categories to CMO and other functional disciplines in marketing and sales. She also shares a ton of real-world executive examples to highlight career paths and leadership skills needed for advancement drawn upon her senior executive recruiting practice and work as a career advisor for UCLA Anderson Business School alumni.

According to her research, the career path categories to reach the role of CMO or VP Marketing are as follows:

Ullrich analyzed hundreds of resumes in her search database to categorize the backgrounds of executives reaching Chief Marketing Officer or VP Marketing titles. She also dug into hundreds of senior executive interviews she has conducted for her Getting to the Top career seminars that have been held at Stanford GSB, UCLA Anderson, and London Business Schools. With an executive search practice based in Silicon Valley, Ullrich’s database skews toward high technology companies and contains both marketing executives from major corporations as well as start-ups.

Domain Expertise A Key Ingredient

A quarter of CMOs/VPs of marketing have deep domain expertise, whether in an industry or other specialization ranging from high tech, health care, consumer packaged goods, or financial services to small-medium business, mobile applications, consumer products targeting teen boys, online payments, or many more. A marketing executive with deep domain expertise understands the target customer extremely well, including how best to market the company’s solutions to that target market.


And while most people think that being a generalist opens more opportunities, Ullrich as an executive recruiter finds that having a defined domain expertise can actually make an executive more attractive. She says that companies seek candidates with specific domain experience and therefore executives need to think about specific areas in which they excel.

Strategic, Analytic Backgrounds Address Contemporary Challenges

The next category includes former strategy consultants and investment bankers who bring strategy and analytical rigor to the role. Marketing done well includes analytic measures of fairly subjective marketing activities. With the prevalence of search engine marketing and social media, we’re seeing marketing becoming even more analytical.

Cross-functional and sales background categories involve working in other functions, whether at a different level or a lateral move. Imagine the marketing executive who sells an information technology product. A stint in the IT department, where you work with and go to lunch with your typical customers provides incredible insight into the psyche of your customer. You’re learning what their major concerns are as they approach their jobs, what products/solutions they admire, and messaging that will work with your customers outside the company. The background in the sales organization is obvious as individual gains first-hand knowledge about selling to customers. What do you do as a marketing executive to gain knowledge about your customers?

As an added benefit, working outside your functional area builds your network and exposure within the company for future opportunities and promotion.

Filled with hundreds of real-world paths to the CMO and other senior executive positions, Getting to the Top points out that you can now understand how to position yourself during your career and develop skills needed during your own advancement. To learn more about career strategies from senior executives go to Getting to the Top.


Library Journal says Adrian Ott is, “revolutionizing marketing by adding the concept of time.” She is the award-winning author of The 24-Hour Customer: New Rules for Winning in a Time-Starved, Always-Connected Economy and CEO of Exponential Edge® Inc. consulting. Follow Adrian on Twitter: @ExponentialEdge.

About the author

Adrian Ott, award-winning author, speaker, and CEO of Exponential Edge Inc., was called “one of Silicon Valley’s most respected strategists” by Consulting Magazine. She helps relentless visionary executives to foresee disruptive opportunities and accelerate market leadership.