The three tips to help innovative CMOs make the case to be CEO

Psychometric scales show that marketers make good CEOs but there are some pitfalls they need to beware, says Jo Renea, executive director at executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates.

With a fifth (21 per cent) of all FTSE 100 heads coming from a marketing or sales background, there’s definitely potential for CMOs aspiring to land the top job. And there’s good news: our recent comparison of CMOs to other C-suite executives on 60 psychometric scales revealed that marketing executives tend to possess a number of personality traits that make them suitable candidates for the CEO role.

CMOs are 49 per cent more imaginative than other executives

The research revealed CMOs have an innovative, pioneering spirit – they act unconventionally, test limits and are not beholden to structures – and use their strong social orientation and persuasive tactics to operate in an active and productive fashion.

CMOs aiming for the top role should harness these traits. For instance, CMOs are 49 per cent more imaginative than other executives, and should use this to infuse creativity into all aspects of a business.

A people person

The fact that CMOs are also 22 per cent more likely than other executives to adapt to different audiences means they are better equipped to promote the importance of the customer experience. Consumers now demand targeted messages, delivered across multiple platforms, at a time and place of their choosing, which is certainly something that CMOs are well placed to provide. CMOs are also adept at building relationships with employees at all levels in organisations, partly as a result of being 30 per cent more outgoing than other executives.

However, CMOs are 34 per cent more likely to test limits than other executives. Those aiming for the top role should be conscious of the fact that trying to introduce more imaginative and innovative ways of working could upset peers who are more risk averse (particularly CFOs) and so need to present robust business cases for change.

In a similar vein, CMOs are 34 per cent less likely than other executives to adhere to structures and guidelines. This could be a barrier for CMOs aiming for the top job in heavily regulated industries. CMOs are more likely to become frustrated as their efforts to constantly innovate are stifled by ever-changing rules and regulations.

Looking at our findings, CMOs should take note of three pieces of advice to grow into the top role:  

  • Be in the right place – The average CMO’s leadership style is better suited to faster-moving or more transformational industries. But as all industries place increasing importance on digital transformation and customer experience, it’s a matter of time before slower moving sectors also look to their CMO for a more creative form of leadership.

  • Moderate display of extreme attributes – CMOs test limits, are bold and are upfront in their influencing style. CEOs seek to understand different perspectives and involve others in decisions but do not over-analyse. They achieve success through others but remain tough.

  • Get others on board – Lack of process, measurable KPIs and cultural differences can lead to a lack of alignment between CMOs and CFOs. To get CFOs on their side, marketing professionals need to communicate with their financial counterparts regularly. This can involve using data to measure ROI on marketing activities and committing to a common long-term vision of success. CMOs should look to adopt a leadership that emulates that of a CEO namely measured emotion, calculated risk taking and display intensity whilst maintaining control.

The future looks bright for ambitious CMOs who are looking hopefully at the top job, and by placing more emphasis on the commercial value of their creativity and ideas they are placed better than ever before to demonstrate why they deserve to be there.


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