How to become a CEO

Written by: Steve Hemsley
Published on: 29 Jan 2016

How to become a CEO article

Santander’s CMO Keith Moor was 19 when he wrote on a piece of paper that he wanted to be marketing director of a “Footsie 100” company by the time he was 35.

He believes that writing down his career dream at that age kept him focused. He became the bank’s first UK CMO in 2013.

He is now 46 and his single-mindedness has meant not only remaining in the financial services sector but within the same organisation. Moor joined Santander’s predecessor Abbey National in 1995 and by 2008 was working across Abbey, Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley until they were all rebranded under the Spanish parent bank’s name.

But knowing whether to specialise to such a degree or move between industries and brands is a dilemma many marketers will wrestle with as they climb the career ladder, especially those who have ambitions to make it to board level.

“The role of the marketer in financial services has changed a lot,” says Moor. “Marketing can influence consumers, the business and bank strategy a lot more now than when I started.”

He adds that when Santander took over Abbey, it created two separate businesses and cultures and consequently many people left.

“Those of us who remained and knew the company became quite valuable. I was conscious of this and saw the potential career opportunity from staying and showing the new bosses what I could do. Also, the Santander culture fitted my own values more closely. It was a plain-speaking bank.”

Sector specialists

Of course, Moor questions whether he has missed out by not testing his marketing skills in other sectors.

He says: “Everyone thinks about what it might be like somewhere else. I would have liked to have tried an agency role or worked in the retail or utility sector but you have to have a real reason to move around because the grass is not always greener.”

Moor has not ruled out a CEO position in the future, but this is unlikely to be at a bank. “You need specific skills to be CEO of a bank so it would likely be in a smaller organisation, but that is some way off yet.”

Many marketers have also had successful careers by staying in one sector while others have zig-zagged upwards by moving between categories.

Nigel Holland, regional president EMEA at Tata Global Beverages, has 26 years of FMCG experience working for food, drink and healthcare brands at companies such as The Tetley Group, Boots and Kraft Jacobs Suchard.

Like Moor, Holland says marketers ideally need a professional goal before deciding whether they should specialise or have a broader-based career.

“As a young person, I wanted to become a general manager, not a CMO, so marketing was more of a means to an end for me,” he says. “If you want to be a general manager and a leader of a business, you need an understanding and experience of different functions.”

He says marketers can make it to board level but they need credibility. “For me, the elements of credibility are being familiar with what you are talking about, paying attention to detail and being authentic and courageous. You can gain experience and knowledge but certain elements are personal traits that will determine how senior you can become.”

Gaining a broad perspective

So what about the senior marketers who have enjoyed a more varied career in different sectors?

Direct Line Group marketing director Mark Evans was brand director of Mars Petcare Europe, CEO at 118118 and head of customer management for retail banking and wealth management at HSBC UK before joining his current employer as director of brand portfolio and partnerships in March 2012.

“Marketers can become CEOs but it is all about context. When, where and why do you want to become a CEO? If you love marketing, you have to be prepared to give something up as you climb the career ladder and get a broader perspective on the business,” he says.

Evans spent 10 years at Mars where he says he received a classic marketing schooling, working with respected brands and agencies. He also gained international experience, which he feels every marketer should have if they want to land a senior role.

“If you get broad experience, you can go anywhere. I have experience of different business models, from manufacturing to financial services,” he explains. “Planning your career is still a dark art, especially if you are not clear about what your next job should be. Just keep expanding your skills and experience and remain open-minded. Confidence and self-authority come with experience and help you achieve career success.”

Marketing is an intriguing industry because it is full of people who have followed very different career paths.

Transport for London’s (TfL) marketing director Chris Macleod has had three careers. He began in academia before rising to management roles at leading advertising agencies and then moving into marketing.

He is on The Marketing Society board and is an advisory board member of King’s College London and Westminster University Business School as well as at The Design Council.

“People talk about getting a broad experience then play it safe themselves by hiring marketers who are specialists,” he says. “The result is people tend to move within a specific industry, such as retail, automotive or professional services or become an FMCG or B2B marketer. If you look at many of the top CEOs, they have built their careers in one business or industry that they know inside out, but to never experience the outside can be dangerous.”

Although Macleod has been at TfL since 2007, he does not consider himself a transport person but more a customer insight expert who could work for any brand. “I have stayed at TfL so long because I have not been fired yet – and it is a fascinating organisation,” he jokes.

He has set his sights on becoming a CEO one day and has taken part in the Marketing Academy’s ‘Enabling marketing leaders of today to become the CEOs of tomorrow’ programme. He is confident he has the necessary skills, which include an ability to influence and engage as well as take risks and spot business opportunities.

After all, he has run advertising agencies in the past. He was managing partner at McCann Erickson and CEO of Collett Dickenson Pearce.

“If business is all about customers and marketing is about customers, then a CMO should make an ideal CEO,” he says. “The problem is marketers can be seen as too focused on the fluffy creative side and not accountable. Any marketer needs a breadth of knowledge of the rest of the business and to really ‘get’ the business.”

Long-term career planning

Macleod is a supporter of marketers who make sideways moves during their career. He experienced this when he moved from advertising into marketing.

“This can be an emotive topic because some people will worry they are not progressing, but often you have to go sideways to go forwards. It all depends on what you are trying to achieve over the longer term.”

Many senior marketers could leave their jobs and, rather than climb to the top of the corporate ladder, take the consultancy route. They would spend their remaining working years advising a range of clients or securing often lucrative interim CMO roles.

Such a career move does not suit everyone but it does appeal to Louise Fowler, who has finished a stint as interim CMO at insurer First Direct and returned to her management consultancy business Davenport Strategy.

She moved into financial services 13 years ago after leaving her former role as general manager of global marketing at British Airways. She has held senior marketing roles at Barclays, Britannia Building Society and The Co-operative and is an experienced board member providing UK businesses with strategy advice.

“As a consultant, I sit in many meetings where I am not only talking about marketing, so you need to have other experience to contribute,” she says. Fowler accepts that marketing as a specialism can suffer from poor credibility in the boardroom, which is why, she says, marketers must show they have managed risk and people and had profit and loss responsibilities in one or more sectors.

“You need to be a specialist in something but a generalist too if you want to reach a senior level,” she says. “I am a specialist in service sector marketing and, with broad and international experience, can stretch in different ways.”

Fowler also recommends that marketers do not dismiss the potential benefits of a sideways move during their career.

“Marketing is a broad function so try out different disciplines, move companies or industries or switch roles within an organisation. It is naïve to think your journey from the bottom to the top will be in a straight line. Sometimes a sideways move can improve your leadership skills for later on,” she advises.

It takes a lot of factors for a marketer to make it to the top of any organisation including luck, talent and ambition. The route to the boardroom can be full of twists and turns, and can involve the occasional sideways or backwards step to reach an ultimate goal.

The benefits of being a non-exec

For Guardian News and Media’s director of consumer revenues Julia Porter, adding the chairmanship of the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) in 2011 was the perfect move to help her future career.

She led the relaunch of the DMA Code in 2014, which was praised by the Ministry of Justice and the Information Commissioner’s Office, and last May she helped to complete the DMA’s merger with the Institute of Digital and Direct Marketing. She is also a board director for the Online Dating Association (ODA).

Porter has spent her career in the media sector, having previously worked for ITV, Getty Images and IPC Magazines before joining The Guardian in 2012. Her one-day-a-week role at the DMA and her position at the ODA are part of a longer-term career plan to take on different non-executive roles. She has already been a non-executive director of Freeview and Thinkbox.

“I am committed to the direct marketing industry and I wanted to get experience of sitting on boards,” she says. “It is different being on a board as a non-exec. You have to be curious and act as a critical friend. You are there to provide advice and guidance and it’s different from having your own P&L responsibilities.”

Porter never expected to spend her marketing career in media but she believes this is a sector requiring specific skills. “You must build a relationship with the editorial team, which also feels it is the owner of the brand,” she says. “As a marketer, you must understand that and align the commercial side of the business with the editorial.

“For us, the challenge is to make money while retaining editorial integrity. Overcoming tests like this will make a marketer a valued member of any board.”

If Porter was beginning her marketing career today, she would experience different sectors. “It is easy to get pigeonholed as you go along and staying in one sector can make it harder to convince employers that you have transferable skills. My skills are around data, CRM and using marketing technology to boost our brand’s relationship with customers.”

She adds: “To make it to the board you need to be left- and right-brained as a marketer. Be creative and understand the influence of data. New marketers cannot ignore the fact that data dominates marketing today so they must embrace that.”