CMO to CEO: How can marketers make the leap to the top job?

Alex Sword


The Financial Services Forum

Can a CMO make it all the way to the top? While there are examples of senior marketers who have gone on to become CEO (the current First Direct chief exec, for instance), it is far from the most common route to the top.

A recent report found that the most common background for an internally appointed CEO is a division CEO or leader (18%), followed by the chief operations officer (15%).

But Anne Murphy, managing partner and Head of the Financial Services Practice at recruiter Odgers Berndtson, explains that marketers have a lot to offer in the top role if they can demonstrate some key competencies and experiences.

Odgers Berndtson has an assessment methodology called LeaderFit, built from interviews with 70 leaders of multinationals, which measures CEO candidates across metrics such as personality data and behavioural patterns to create an overall picture of their potential.

The watchword underpinning what the firm looks for is, unsurprisingly, leadership, “in terms of people and business,” says Anne.

“It’s someone who’s able to essentially be a general manager, have oversight and responsibility for all the parts of the business and understand in enough detail what they can all contribute.”

She adds that they must “be able to set a vision people can get behind and communicate it very well and therefore be able to inspire people to follow them and understand their own roles in the achievement of that vision.”

Anne says CEOs often also need to be “the ultimate salesperson of the company”, encompassing positioning the company in relation to customers, analysts and investors.

The succession path varies widely according to the type of financial services business. Odgers Berndtson works with a range of sizes of business, from small VC-backed start-ups to large-scale financial services businesses, as well as across multiple sectors within financial services.

“The area where we would most commonly see the CEO coming from marketing is not surprisingly when the business is marketing or brand-led, mainly in the B2C retail parts of the industry such as in retail banking and personal lines insurance .”

In more institutionally focused sectors, many CEOs come from roles in financial management.

“It’s obviously a very significant part of running a business, so regardless of background that’s an important skillset the CEO needs to have.”

The risk function is also growing in importance, with more CEOs being appointed through that route. Anne adds that there are also “a lot of general managers – people who have run significant business units who have run a profit and loss in a first line business head role.”

Variety of experience is also important.

“More and more, the higher performing CEOs have done quite a mix of things and have a lot of breadth in their background.”

So what do CMOs have to offer as aspiring CEOs – and where do they fall short?

“Lots of CMOs tend to have a very good concept of customer and brand. They often have a strong digital skillset and a good understanding of data and analytics.

“We’ve seen an increased importance placed on some of these elements across financial services. Someone who understands all those pieces brings a lot to the role.”

Weaker points, she says, can include direct experience in the commercial and financial side of the business. She says that while there is a lot of focus on revenue and customer acquisition in marketing, potential CEOs need to be able to talk about efficiencies and the bottom line.

There can also be a step change required in terms of the scale of leadership. People coming up through a function such as marketing may have run a relatively small team especially when compared to the business as a whole.

When weighed against CFO applicants for a role, the CMO is likely to have an advantage when the business is particularly brand-focused.

However, the CFO tends to have the advantage of more previous access to the board.

“They have lots of exposure to the Board through the audit committee. They will definitely be on the executive committee and possibly on the board themselves.”


Building a CEO CV

Anne emphasises the importance of a CMO building experience working at the strategic level of a business. One way is to gain experience on an executive committee, “where they have a breadth of issues to deal with and contribute to and are forced to put themselves in slightly different shoes.”

It is about having a sense of “what is the strategy, what is the organisation trying to achieve overall, and how can they do that in an efficient a way as possible?”

She highlights how some retail financial services companies develop working groups around customer life events.

“They purposefully put together skillsets to think about, for example, a bereavement,” she explains. “If a customer has a bereavement what is the start to finish process we should go through to help a person through a very difficult time and enable them to keep the house, let’s say they have a mortgage product with the organisation.

“those types of cross company projects where you’re working with multi-disciplinary groups of people it can be really beneficial in getting exposure – you don’t know what you don’t know.”

As well as making moves within a role there is also an opportunity to be strategic when moving between roles.

“[It is worth] thinking about lateral moves rather than linear ones – some of the best CEOs are people who have spent time in different parts of the business. So it can be recognising that it’s easier sometimes to make a cross-functional move in your own company because you’re a known entity and you obviously have a good network.”

She says these different opportunities could take you in a different direction and “make you more marketable because of the breadth of experience”.

Other pieces of advice she has are more general. Anne emphasises the “importance of sponsors: having senior people in the organisation who rate you and are willing to promote you to their peers and colleagues and people they report to as well.”

Image: PeopleImages

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