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How To Successfully Transition From CMO To CEO


By Doug Bewsher, CEO of Leadspace

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The role of the CMO has transformed dramatically over the past few years. The scope of the CMO’s responsibilities has broadened, and their influence has increased significantly within their organization. The Internet has changed the way consumers and enterprises alike research and purchase buy products, and according to McKinsey & Company, this has led the CMO to serve as the “voice of the customer” for their company by helping to identify and meet the needs of a diverse and global customer base.

“These forces are making companies transform not just the marketing function but also everything from corporate affairs and product development to distribution and manufacturing models,” said the report’s author David Cross. “Because changing customer needs and behavior underlie many of these shifts, CMOs are a natural choice to spearhead the response.”

The bar for building a great product has never been higher. This means that understanding and connecting with the customer has become arguably the single-most powerful factor in creating value and determining a company’s success.

Thus it should come as no surprise that 53 percent of business executives say their current CMO could one day become CEO, according to a poll from Korn/Ferry. However, CMO and CEO are very different roles, and the transition is not always intuitive.

Today I am the CEO of Leadspace, but I started out my career in marketing. My first CMO role was at Mig33, a mobile social entertainment platform. I went on to become the CMO of Skype and then the CMO of Salesforce. Each of these roles represented a step up in scale. I went from having 5-6 people under me to 100 to 400. And the complexity scaled up as well, from a single product in one market to a single product in multiple markets to multiple products in multiple markets.

Each of these experiences helped shape my skillset and who I am as a leader. I believe my background as CMO ultimately prepared me to be a better, more effective CEO.

One of the biggest differences between CMO and CEO is the breadth of the role. CEOs deal with many different parts of an organization, from IT to finance to HR. In contrast, a CMO can’t be a jack-of-all-trades. Their expertise is the end-to-end customer experience. This focus on customer experience and satisfaction is a major asset in a CEO, because it provides an anchor as well as a “North Star” of sorts for guiding the company’s growth.

However, this alone is not enough. CEOs are also responsible for navigating the PNL side of the house, and dealing with bottom line, revenue, profitability, and costs. It is important for CMOs-turned-CEOs to understand the finer points of business and finance. For me, earning my MBA helped provide the expertise I needed.

The next step of the CMO-to-CEO transition is learning how to take knowledge of “the voice of the customer” and translate it throughout the organization. This means being able to effectively communicate with many different types of people and teams.

As CMO, you mostly interact with marketers, who tend to be creative, outgoing, idea-driven, and analytical. As CEO, you interact with people throughout the entire organization. Marketers, engineers, HR, sales, accounting — all these departments require different approaches to management. When I became CEO, I had to work hard on varying on the ways I engaged with people, and finding communication and management styles that worked best for each team.

Finally, the CMO-turned-CEO has to learn how to balance competing interests. CMOs are focused on driving a company’s growth. This is just one of the CEO’s concerns, albeit an important one. CEOs also have to cultivate company culture, build teams, and allocate capital. What the Ops team wants may not be the same thing that HR wants. Even sales and marketing can easily fall out of alignment.

CEOs have to weigh all these concerns and provide resources accordingly, while also ensuring the company stays on track. They have to take information from multiple sources and synthesize it to make smart decisions. This requires being open to listening and to learning. In addition, CEOs have to keep the long-term picture in view and be comfortable saying no. They sometimes have to make tough choice for the overall good, and this can require taking off the “CMO hat.”

While CMO-to-CEO is definitely a transition, the evolving role of the CMO is making it less and less of a jump. The CMO of today is increasingly required to have a broad set of disciplines and skills, and to work with various teams throughout the organization. This is excellent preparation to fill the role of CEO.

After serving as the CMO and Skype and Salesforce, I wanted a new challenge. After all my years in the marketing world, I sought the opportunity to help marketers in a broader role. I realized the best way to do this was to lead a company that builds products designed to help marketers. My marketing background and CMO experience couldn’t have prepared me better to now serve as CEO.


Doug Bewsher

Over his career, CEO of Leadspace Doug Bewsher has pioneered and built some of the world’s leading social, mobile and technology brands. Prior to Leadspace, he was CMO at Salesforce.com where he launched Salesforce Communities and Chatterbox and supported the incredible growth of the enterprise Cloud computing leader. Before Salesforce.com, he served as CMO at Skype, and co-led McKinsey’s North American CRM practice through the dot.com boom and bust.