Looking For A Successor? Don’t Overlook Your CMO

Historically not considered a 'serious' job, marketing gained gravitas during the pandemic—and a foothold on the path to the corner office.

CMOs were long the punching bags of the C-Suite. Woody Allen once said, “Humorists always sit at the children’s table.” And for many years, it seemed that marketers were seated right there beside them.

Then came the pandemic. And suddenly, marketers were indispensable. They were the people providing insight to what consumers and employees were feeling and what they needed most. They were often the ones creating new services, developing SKUs, and deploying innovations that solved problems and dealt with the limitations of the day.

And they were the ones who didn’t just use the word “pivot”—they lived it. Along the way, every move, every change and every act needed to be communicated with clarity, empathy, credibility. When it absolutely mattered most, no one in the C-Suite knew better how to communicate, connect and persuade.

In an era where purpose and brand is everything, there’s an argument to be made that the skills of today’s CMO offer the best route to the CEO’s office. When it comes to succession planning, they have to be in the conversation.

The CEO of the future

The path to the corner office has long run through finance. That made sense when Milton Friedman’s shareholder value thesis was still the rage. For close to 50 years, the social responsibility of business was to increase profits. Then BlackRock chief Larry Fink issued his 2018 declaration: “Contribute to society or risk our support.”

The shift was officially cemented a year later, when the Business Roundtable redefined the corporation as not having one constituent — the shareholder — but five: community, customers, employees, suppliers and shareholders, too. When 181 CEOs representing nearly a third of the U.S. market cap speak, people listen.

If you think it’s just a passing fad, or that the backlash against “woke” corporations will reverse the tide, you’re not following the money. In 2018, investment in ESG funds stood at just $5 billion, according to McKinsey. Within three years it had ballooned to $70 billion. The reason: It simply makes business sense. Especially when one considers that true corporate purpose isn’t about causes or social issues, it’s simply — as Simon Sinek declared — why an organization is in business in the first place. It’s a higher order belief, but it’s connected to where an organization gets their revenue, not their press coverage.

Though Jack Welch’s “all-about-the-shareholders” ethic may have driven short-term profits, it also had a way of sacrificing customers and long-term value. Many of the very corporations who were focused on driving shareholder value didn’t. That’s not exactly a recipe for staying power in an increasingly volatile world.

But purpose-driven companies? There’s a growing body of research that says that purpose-driven companies are better at innovation, attracting talent and creating opportunities. Historically, they’re also more profitable, paying higher dividends with more stable earnings.

All of which makes CMOs uniquely suited to navigate this new frontier.

Don’t let bias blind you

The most powerful marketing is when every part of the organization — at every touch point — delivers on the company’s purpose. That creates a dotted line between marketing and HR, which should be communicating the purpose to internal audiences and recruiting, training and retaining people to live it.  Creating that total organizational buy-in and establishing the repeatable behaviors that define it is leadership at its best.

Marketers are owning e-commerce and driving innovation, with a hand in everything from how technology is deployed to customizing products for very specific communities with very specific needs. While a CFO may have a financial view of the entire organization, the CMO has the behavioral view of the organization—and the organization’s customers.

Certainly, institutional bias remains. Marketing was never considered a serious job. Worse, CMOs were given sweeping mandates with little control over metrics they were expected to achieve. They rarely had a real seat at the table—nor did they especially want one. From the marketing perspective, the CEO was often viewed as a political appointee, a buffer between board and company.

But a new economy requires new, more inventive leaders. The highly scripted CEO may be what boards have come to expect, but they’re not exactly suited for the brand-is-everything era. The job now means connecting with consumers and the public at large. Which means your CMO might just be your company’s greatest asset—and your ideal heir apparent.


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