How To Go From CMO To CEO In 6 (Not Entirely) Easy Steps

An exec from the U.K.’s Marketing Academy talks about why CMOs can be overlooked for CEO and what they can do to groom themselves for the top job.

How To Go From CMO To CEO In 6 (Not Entirely) Easy Steps
[Image: Flickr user Azlan DuPree]

The corner office, the private jet, the ability to intimidate senior suits…the package–it’s all waiting for you if you make it to CEO.*


If you’re a chief marketing officer, however, a seat at that table is often not often guaranteed. Despite having attributes that would enhance any board, namely an innate understanding of the customer, first-rate communication skills, and a fine balance between right- and left-brain thinking, top-level marketers tend to get overlooked at some companies.

Why? Because the creativity, energy and enthusiasm that makes good marketers great, can also make them seem not commercially astute or serious enough to help steer a company’s future. And there can be a perception that they’re not well-rounded enough, they they’re lacking across-the-board corporate knowledge. Sherilyn Shackell, the founder of the Marketing Academy in the U.K., believes that many CMOs are stymied when it comes to furthering their careers because they don’t appear to speak the same language as the board directors.

Image: Flickr user Hobvias Sudoneighm

“They’re perceived as not having a real handle on the numbers. It’s unusual for a marketer to have spent a lot of time in other functions and so they have a narrower view across the business,“ she says.

For this reason, the Marketing Academy has teamed up with the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company to develop The Fellowship Programme. The course, which launched in London this month, offers to equip marketers with the skills required to rise to board level and make the leap from CMO to CEO. We asked Shackell for some pointers.

Make a CEO your new best friend

How can marketers get the insight they need to function well on a board if they don’t already have a seat at the table? The answer is identify people in your network who have extensive experience of being on a board, such as a chief executive, chairman or non-executive director, and make them your mentor.

Shackell explains: “A small amount of time spent with people like that can give a huge amount of input into developing the language and understanding the key issues that are facing boards today.“

Image: Flickr user Chicago Geek

Make the CFO your other new best friend

The chief financial officer might not be the life and soul of the office party, but he or she can be a very valuable friend to have if you want to learn how to sway boardroom thinking. “Marketers need to understand the issues facing the finance function because normally there’s a gap there and, in most cases, a conflict,” Shackell says.

Know thyself

Shackell advises ambitious marketers to look very closely at their own personal development. “It’s really important you spend time understanding what your strengths are but also be very honest with yourself on your weaknesses in relation to becoming a CEO, “ she says. “Unless you really understand what the gaps are, you can’t bridge them.” She advises working with an executive coach to speed up this process.

Go The Extra Mile On Book Learning

Image: Flickr user Michael Davis-Burchat

Whilst elevating yourself as an individual is all very well, you won’t get far if you don’t know what you’re talking about. Marketers really need to bone up on areas that the board governs outside of the marketing function, such as corporate strategy, corporate finance, organizational development, operations, stakeholder management, decision-making and business law. A structured development program, as provided by business schools, MBA courses, and the Fellowship Programme will help. Shackell says: “Even if you got an MBA earlier in your career, those areas of knowledge are ones you need to brush up on.“

Look to the nonprofit sector for experience

Marketers should seek out board opportunities as a non-executive director or as a trustee. The easiest way to do this is with a charity or social enterprise in the nonprofit sector. Nonprofit organizations are much more keen to get marketers on their boards than corporates are, making this an achievable route for CMOs to gain practical board experience. “That experience will add huge value if you are endeavoring to become CEO,” says Shackell.

Bonus Tip: Join The Right Company–One That Places A Premium On Brand

Companies that recognize that a large part of their market capitalization is tied up in that critical, often intangible thing called a brand are companies where marketing gurus have a better chance at the top job. Companies that are more execution and operations-focused are those where marketers may not be perceived as having the right ethos or skill set to run the show.

*Some of these things may NOT be waiting for you as CEO.