From CMO to CEO: What it takes to make the leap

From CMO to CEO: What it takes to make the leap

It’s lonely at the top, yet many of us still aspire to get there.  

I often work with CMOs and business leaders whose ambition is to become a CEO.  It takes a certain character and mindset to move into the CEO position and it is the rare executive that can get there. If you are a CEO focused on succession planning, or an executive leader looking to move into the CEO position, considering the following qualities will help determine if you or your candidate is ready to ascend:

  • Bold and decisive:  Following a playbook can work well for conservative organizations but a playbook doesn’t work when consumer behaviors shift, technology rapidly advances, or an industry is being disrupted.  It takes a bold vision, with decisive behaviors, to leapfrog in business and it is an unusual executive that has the confidence and mindset to do so.  The decisions a CEO makes for an organization can create tremendous risk to the business but oftentimes, the reward comes in the form of substantial growth.  Deeply examining how an executive made decisive swings, while leading their functional division, will help determine how they will operate when they move into the CEO position
  • Time management:  Time management is not just about how the individual organizes their time and priorities, but it is how and where the company spends their time.  Great executive leaders know when to invest time into new initiatives or when to shut down underperforming divisions or experiments that consume company resources.  A track record showing operational expertise, with business planning and time management, can showcase how your executive will perform when they move to leading the organization.
  • Talent acquisition:  It is well known that the best executive leaders know how to hire so it is critical when recruiting for a CEO, or any leadership position, you examine their current executive team.  Look at the type of people they hire, how long the team stays with them if they have people following them to their next company, where they made hiring mistakes, and more. Hiring, managing, and retaining top talent is THE most important job of a CEO, and getting a clear understanding of what drives the candidate’s hiring decisions, and how past talent mistakes were made, will help you better understand how your candidate will perform as CEO.
  • Highly operational:  The best CEOs I know marry big vision with being highly operational. The executive leaders I see fail most are those who are visionary leaders who do not have the discipline to say “no” and who lack the financial rigor when operating.  Living in Silicon Valley I frequently meet founders who have lofty ideas about where their businesses can go but are challenged with the financial and operational responsibility needed for great execution.  A company doesn’t fail because of lack of vision.  It typically fails because of poor execution.
  • Grit:  The job of a CEO is brutally hard and loaded with pressure.  You have employees, customers, investors and board members all demanding performance and, at times, they can be at odds with each other.  Nobody knows this pressure better than the CMO who has spent a career servicing each of these areas.  The grit required to manage through the ups and downs of an economy, the changes in consumer behaviors, technological advancements, and staying ahead of the competition, all make the CMO a  prime candidate to elevate into the CEO position. My advice to CMOs, looking to move into the CEO role, and CEOs considering a CMO successor, is to deeply examine the time in job and the headwinds the company faced while your candidate was in the CMO role.  If your candidate stayed in the role throughout those headwinds, and navigated through critical turning points or pivots of the business, you likely have somebody that has the grit it takes to be a CEO.

Over the past ten years, the CMO position has become incredibly complex and data-driven. CMOs are now required to have many of the same skills CEOs do and the best CMOs have a mindset that enables them to carry a company and a division through all phases of growth and adversity. As hard as the CMO position has become in the past years, it is also one of the more interesting training grounds and pathways to becoming a CEO.