Journey from CMO to CEO

For a CMO whose long-term goal is to become a CEO, the journey is not always an obvious one. The internal culture of some organizations doesn’t make the path between both roles clear, and professional recruiting firms tend to only seek CEO candidates who spent years in sales, not marketing.

At the 2021 CMO Club Innovation and Inspiration Summit, three CEOs who successfully made the transition — Michael Lacorazza, CEO of Frontpoint, Alonda Williams, President and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound, and Steven Wolfe Pereira, CEO and co-founder of Encantos — shared how they leveraged their marketing backgrounds to position themselves for their current CEO roles, and what marketing professionals should know if they are interested in making the leap.

For Alonda, CMOs represent ideal candidates for the CEO role not just because they understand the dynamics of revenue — much like candidates from the sales end of the organization — but also because they understand the customer. That combination gives them a 360-degree insight into the business that many CEOs may not possess. Having P&L responsibilities was key for Alonda’s preparedness to make the transition to CEO.

Steven acknowledged that recruiting firms “aren’t going to think out of the box,” which means CMOs need to hustle more to make it clear why they deserve a bigger seat at the table. It starts by recognizing the power of the CMO role. “You understand the customer, you have the data, you have the whole toolbox,” he said. “We have the chops. And the wind is against our back because we have the knowledge.”

Marketing is the best training ground to becoming a CEO.

– Steven Wolfe Pereira

Expanding your network – this was key for Michael. He first realized he needed to aggressively network after executive recruiters told him he wasn’t qualified for the roles he was interested in. “I had to forge my own networking path. I knew I could do this, so I had to explain the value I could bring to any organization,” he said. These roles won’t naturally come to you. Like Alonda, taking on P&L responsibilities during his role as a CMO allowed him to demonstrate his preparedness to run a business.

But what do you do once you get the job? CEOs need to prove to the organizations they made the right choice. Alonda, Michael, and Steven share what they’ve learned from their own roles as CEOs.

Engender trust with your board. 

“You have to treat managing the board as part of your job,” said Alonda. That means meeting each board member individually within your first three months and then continue to meet with them as you settle in. Understand what each member wants to get from their board experience and keep that in mind.

Think of the board as an extension of your team.

They can give you the resources you need to succeed, serve as a sounding board, and more. Don’t treat them as an afterthought. Look at your calendar and make sure you are blocking time dedicated to the board each week. At the same time, there is a delicate balance to employing the board members’ input and guidance, not making them operational.

Leverage your communication skills.

A key power of CMOs is understanding how to communicate with different stakeholders, from investors to the board to other members of the C-suite. Make sure there are no surprises – understand the power of communications when you are dealing with so many stakeholders. 

Set realistic expectations.

Go on a listening tour during your first 90 days. Don’t make big changes until you understand the business. Be completely candid with the board involving all the problems you believe need sorting out with the organization. Develop a plan to get there, but don’t overpromise. “If you come back and under deliver, all of the sudden you’re a non-performing CEO,” said Michael.