• Leadership

From Marketing Chief to CEO

ESADE professors offer 7 strategies for gaining promotion to the top job


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Seventy-three percent of CEOs believe that Chief Marketing Officers lack credibility in their organizations and over 53% of Fortune 1000 companies do not have a marketing executive on their board of directors. In this challenging scenario, how can marketing executives increase their credibility and get promoted to CEO?

ESADE Associate Professors Gerard Costa and Mar Vila reveal key strategies that can help Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) pave the way to becoming their company’s CEO. Their research in Harvard Deusto Business Review challenges the traditional view of senior management that CEOs with other backgrounds may be better suited to the task.

When the researchers asked CEOs about the reasons behind the lack of marketing executives in CEO positions, the answers were quite homogeneous.

“Business priorities are often linked to management areas associated with departments such as operations or finance,” says Costa. Most of the CEOs interviewed perceived the marketing department as a tactical unit focused on day-to-day promotions, advertisement campaigns, technical product presentations and the never-ending management of the company’s website.

The authors challenged this traditional view in their findings. “A company that lacks a marketing plan strongly connected to its core business strategy will be more vulnerable to competitors and less prepared to satisfy market needs,” says Vila.

7 key strategies to become CEO

Chief Marketing Officers aspiring to climb the corporate ladder may have better chances of success if they adopt these 7 key strategies.

1. What would the CEO do?: By asking yourself this question, you will familiarize yourself with the complexities of being a CEO. The answer will not always favour your department’s goals, but it will allow you to start reinforcing your viewpoint using vocabulary that is more comprehensible for the CEO. You will evolve from a marketing vocabulary – based on terms such as brand-building, demand creation and customer loyalty – to a language that mainly refers to return on investment.

2. Rethink your marketing: Your marketing strategy should evolve from what new products and services you can offer to what else you can do for your customers. This shift in perspective involves assigning a more strategic role to functions such as brand management, marketing channels and data collection. It will also allow you to rethink your department’s marketing structure and evolve from the role of product managers from the 1960s to customer managers.

3. Become a financial guardian: The CMO must adopt a clear position as guardian of financial resources and profitability, moving from managing cost centres to overseeing short- and long-term operating accounts. You need to defend yourprojects from a global perspective of ROI combined with the use of MROI (marketing return of investment).

4. Focus on sales: Sixty-three percent of CMOs agree that acquiring new customers is a top priority. As a CMO, you must align your strategy for new customers and products with the company’s overall growth goals. Introducing key performance indicators that link your marketing efforts to market demand and sales results will allow you to reinforce your strategic role within the company.

5. Change your vocabulary: As a marketing executive, you need to develop empathy skills for approaching the executive board, which is mostly composed of nonmarketing experts who lack your technical background. Avoid marketing jargon in your discussions and frequently mention metrics and indicators that are linked to sales.

6. Overcome stereotypes: Some head-hunters call marketing experts ‘dangerous resumes’ because of the high turnover in this type of position. This assumption may lead CEOs to believe that CMOs don’t want their results to be audited in the long run. One way for CMOs to overcome these stereotypes is by furthering their education in business and strategic management.

7. Promote joint projects: Taking on new joint projects with other departments such as sales, operations and IT is another strategic action that will allow you to increase your internal knowledge of the business. This will put you in a unique position, as your department will be the only one with a holistic vision of the customer experience.

ESADE Business School, since its inception in 1958, is one of the world's most prestigious business schools, and has become a frame of reference in the world of executive training.

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