Navigating The Twists And Turns Of The CMO Career Path
By now, you’ve probably heard the news: the role of the CMO is changing.
Gone are the Mad Men-style days when the CMO’s main job was to create flashy ad campaigns.
It now requires a range of skills, including:
- Strategic thinking
- Organizational alignment to deliver better customer experiences
- Data-driven decision-making
This shift has also changed the typical path to the C-suite.
Expertise in marketing is no longer the only way in—sales know-how and a customer-focused philosophy have landed many successful CMOs in their positions.
In fact, only 1 in 3 CMOs have reached the C-suite based on their marketing experience, according to this article by Adrian Ott (based on the book Getting to the Top: Strategies Around Career Success by career guru Kathryn Ullrich.)
Here are the CMO career paths of 3 leading professionals which have helped them progress to where they are in their careers today.
1. Customer-centric marketing expert
Unsurprisingly there’s no shortage of CMOs who have extensive marketing experience behind them. Getting to the Top states that 34% of all CMOs hail from a marketing background.
While his path may seem conventional, Bill set himself apart from his peers with his deep focus on customer obsession. His customer-centric focus and data-driven marketing strategy have helped him drive results at Zendesk, Salesforce, and Fox Interactive Media.
Bill believes “that the brand is the sum of every single customer interaction that they have with you.” A positive experience for your customers is what’s going to keep them coming back. And this isn’t just with your support team—it’s with all of your go-to-market teams.
That’s why, in his previous role as CMO of Slack (one of the fastest growing applications in history), he elevated the customer experience by putting all teams that interact with customers–sales, marketing and customer success–under one umbrella with shared metrics.
He explains that his role was “uniting all the customer-facing teams. Usually sales, marketing, and support are operating in complete silos and by having them under one banner we can think about things like ‘What do those interactions look like?’, ‘How do we make those hand-offs?’, and ‘How do we relentlessly eliminate those bad experiences and put in good experiences?’”
This, as Bill explained in his 2016 Advocamp talk, prevented them from making bad decisions that weren’t in their customer’s’ best interest.
What’s Bill’s advice for moving up the marketing ranks? In our “Ask Me Anything” webinar with him, he said “It doesn’t matter if you’re employed or not. It matters if you’re employable. Always be crafting your skill set. Always be learning.”
2. Domain Expert
According to Ullrich, the next largest group of CMOs are those who have a depth of experience in a specific area (25% to be exact). These domains of expertise can be in a specific industry (like financial services or healthcare) or a specific department (like customer success or product management).
Meagen Eisenberg, CMO of next-generation database provider MongoDB, has built her career in tech. Starting as a Product Marketing Manager at IBM, she then moved on to become Director of Worldwide Programs and Marketing Automation at ArcSign, and then Director of Global Demand and North American Field Marketing at HP Enterprise Security.
Before joining MongoDB, Meagen served as VP of Customer Acquisition & Marketing at DocuSign, where she oversaw their award-winning advocate marketing program.
Meagen talked more about her background in tech in an interview with Forbes. “Through a series of roles from Trigo/IBM continuing to Postini – I found myself in the role at TRIRIGA (eventually IBM) that focused on technology within marketing, and I found a niche in demand generation marketing,” she says. This helped her gain more experience in technology and marketing, allowing her to become an expert in the field.
Meagen suggested that, “If you want to deliver a modern customer experience, you need to understand a technology and then know how to deliver it.” Staying updated with technology will help you market to your customers more effectively and provide a more comfortable user experience.
3. Sales expert
Marketers who are serious about customer engagement recognize the importance of aligning their goals with their sales team. If sales reps don’t know how to leverage the customer relationships marketing has built to generate revenue (through referrals, upsells/cross-sells, renewals, etc.), their efforts will be wasted.
So it only makes sense that 13% of CMOs have made it to the top because of their customer-facing sales experience.
Tom Wentworth, former CMO at Acquia, and current CMO of RapidMiner, started out as a Sales Engineer for a brand storytelling studio called Narrative Communications. He quickly moved up the ranks to Senior Sales Engineer for Macromedia, and eventually to Director of Sales Engineering for Interwoven.
Tom uses his sales expertise to keep his team focused their efforts are contributing to the company’s bottom line. During his time at Acquia, he leveraged an advocacy program to collect customer insights and determine the value of the customer over the long-term. The program also helped determine whether or not customers were open to future sales or renewals—something marketing teams often overlook due to their focus on new logo acquisition.
“When it comes time for renewal, we see if the customer is an advocate and whether they’re active or not,” Tom explains in this case study about Acquia. “Customer advocacy is a data point that helps us predict if a customer will renew or not.”
Ultimately, Tom’s sales savvy and focus on customer insights gave him a holistic view of organizational goals that allowed him to succeed as a CMO and grow revenue.
Tips for aspiring CMOs
If you’re interested in becoming a CMO, here are some pearls of wisdom to guide you on your path.
- Get to know one industry really deeply. It’s all too easy to be a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. Ulrich recommends that to gain a deep and nuanced understanding of your customers, you should aim to get a ton of experience in one vertical instead of bouncing around several.
- Take on cross-departmental initiatives. Not only will this allow tackle large-scale projects involving multiple teams, taking on these projects will also help you round out your knowledge of your company beyond the walls of your department. Plus, it’ll allow you to gain visibility across your organization and gain supporters who can vouch for you when opportunities open. One common example of this is collaboration between marketing and CS to improve the customer experience.
- Develop your data analysis skills. “Marketing done well includes analytic measures of fairly subjective marketing activities,” says Adrian Ott, CEO of Exponential Edge Inc. This means finding ways to tie tangible metrics to your creative campaign efforts. One way to do this is to sharpen your data skills to pull meaningful insights out of analytics tools—this will help you stay competitive as a marketer.
- Spend some face time with your customers. “It’s usually the CMO’s job to have that customer conversation. We’ve really got to know who they are as people, because companies don’t buy things, people do,” says Seth Lieberman, CEO SnapApp. Finding opportunities to get to know your customers will pay dividends when it comes to improving your sales and marketing strategy—then, advancing your career.
- Round our your strengths by developing your weak spots. “Avoid the temptation to do stuff that’s comfortable,” says Influitive’s VP of Marketing Chris Newton. Instead, he encourages aspiring marketing leaders to “force yourself to grow into the role” by taking on new challenges in areas you’re weaker in. This will help you relate to the sub-teams you’ll manage.
Of course, there is no singular path to the C-suite. The commonality between most of these CMOs is cross-functional expertise gained from a variety of roles across organizations.
While this makes for an unpredictable journey to the top of the marketing food chain, it’s also one full of untapped opportunity for those who are willing to forge their own path—with the customer walking right beside them.