Point Your Career in the Right Direction
Seven ways to move forward on the path from being a marketing executive to become the chief marketer.
Before joining marketing intelligence company InsideView in January 2015, CMO Tracy Eiler spent months reviewing specifications for dozens of marketing executive openings in and around Silicon Valley. Having notched two decades of marketing experience in cloud-based companies and traditional enterprise technology organizations, Eiler could afford to be patient in finding the right job fit.
The job descriptions she pored over contained a staggering assortment of must-haves: classic brand communications expertise, an engineering background, product experience, financial and analytical acumen, creative brilliance, and much more.
“Every single set of job specs described a unicorn,” says Eiler, who responded the same way to each description: “Are you kidding me? This thing doesn't exist in nature!”
Rising marketing professionals with their sights set on SVP and C-level roles ought to start earning their unicorn credentials right away. Current marketing leaders, executive recruiters, and marketing analysts agree that future marketing executives will need to possess a broad, deep, and nearly mythical set of competencies.
Charting a marketing career road map that leads to the -senior- most leadership positions may be daunting, but it's also straight-forward. Rising marketing talent should chart a career progression that includes experience with most, if not all, elements of marketing strategy and technology.
“There is an obvious evolution occurring right now where -direct marketers need to become technology savvy,” says Leslie Cocco Alore, head of global marketing operations and automation for storage and information management company Iron Mountain. “In addition to understanding all the elements of direct marketing — such as understanding personas and targeting the right audience with the right messages — you also have to be highly attuned to the technology that enables you to get your message to those people.” Throw in enough sales, finance, human resources, and leadership expertise and you're ready to start the long drive to the C-suite.
Exactly how to gain such experience while addressing a lengthy list of daily responsibilities is where the difficulty arises, especially within organizations that may be too budget, time, or leadership challenged to invest in formal professional development programs.
The mileposts on the marketing-career road map are easily identifiable. Getting to them can be tough going.
The rise of marketing automation, digital channels, and digital transformation in general has expanded the routes available to -rising marketing professionals.
“We've seen more candidates who are coming to direct marketing from strategic consulting backgrounds, not just moving up the ranks of brand marketing,” notes Dave Lucey, VP of talent acquisition for marketing agency Epsilon. “You could start a career in brand marketing, then move into consulting before shifting back to a more traditional path. This is fueled by the intersection of direct marketing and digital.”
Marketing career paths should include experience with technology, sales, finance and accounting (profit-and-loss responsibility, for instance), and team building. But technology expertise currently receives the most attention, for good reason.
When Meagen Eisenberg joined MongoDB in March 2015 as its CMO, the database company had four pieces of marketing technology in place. Within 10 months it was using eight.
“Your command of data is your competitive advantage,” Eisenberg says. “When you're talking with the press and analysts, they want to see what you've learned from the intelligence you've captured. That's a lot more interesting than your product brief. Technology teams within marketing organizations are only going to grow.”
Lucey agrees. Given the dramatic shift toward digital channels in recent years, he says that “future CMOs will need to have a breadth of digital platform knowledge. That, along with a strong depth in traditional direct marketing channels, will position leaders for the key decision-making roles of the future.”
The ability to collaborate with sales marks another must-have stop on the career road map. Eiler established partnerships with sales in each company she worked for and credits them with “significantly advancing” her career. A healthy understanding of how the sales function works and what individual salespeople need, she explains, “helps you become a more credible marketer.”
A fundamental understanding of finance and accounting also builds marketing credibility. As a University of Michigan undergraduate, Eiler was interested in what motivated people to take action. Since Michigan didn't offer a bachelor's degree in marketing, she opted for sociology, but wishes she “had studied more math, economics, and finance as an undergraduate.”
Eiler is hardly alone. “I feel like I need a finance minor to be able to do my job,” Iron Mountain's Alore says. “When it comes to budgets, you need to know what's going on and how to measure it.”
While future marketing executives will need a broad set of leadership competencies, current marketing leaders make a point of -emphasizing the value of one skill in particular: team building.
“If you want to be a future marketing leader, you should recognize that CMOs are extremely dependent on the team that works for them,” Eisenberg says. “All my success has been built on my team being able to perform.”
Seven steps up for rising marketers
The most straightforward approach to charting marketing -career path starts with genetics and progresses to gap management.
Most marketing professionals possess what Eiler describes as “anchor DNA” — their underlying skills and experience — which tends to -favor either the creative and brand sides of the modern marketer profile or the profile's analytical and technological sides.
Once marketers decode their anchor DNA, they should fill in the gaps by seeking out information and training, network connections, assignments and projects, and job roles that round out their skill set. Not only can it take marketers years to accomplish this, but they're also sure to face numerous obstacles as they work to gain the experience and skills they need. As some current CMOs privately acknowledge, different executive teams have differing views about the value of investing in formal professional development programs. And, although stretch assignments sound great in theory, some can prove daunting — even counterproductive — in practice.
“You hear a lot these days about stretch goals,” Alore says. “It's one thing to cross-train people, stretch their experience, and expose them to new things. But you can also ask too much of them.”
To avoid pushing her team to the breaking point, Alore works to learn about new approaches, technologies, and processes before she asks members of her team to take on stretch assignments designed to expand their skill sets. By gaining an awareness of the scope of the challenge involved in learning a new technology or approach, Alore is likelier to ensure that developmental assignments bend, rather than break, her team members.
Strengthening your career prospects
Stretch assignments are just one of many ways that rising marketing professionals can strengthen their career prospects. They include:
Stretch: Eiler encourages the “super-creative” members of her team to master budgeting and financial metrics. Recently she assigned her highly analytical marketing operations manager to join a cross-functional team staging a customer roadshow. At first he was reluctant, questioning whether he could contribute to the conversation. Eiler emphasized that InsideView's customers and prospects also tend to be highly analytical. That perspective helped the manager reach the empowering realization that he could contribute.
Pilot programs are another way to stretch the perspective and skills of marketing teams, Alore asserts. She says the key to leveraging pilot programs as a developmental tool is to treat the program as a real-world initiative, rigorously planning and executing it and then measuring its results.
Be curious and read ahead: In conversation, chief marketers routinely use the word “voracious” to describe their content diets. They consume blogs, webinars, articles, white papers, and videos to sniff out — and then share — relevant information that might help their teams. For instance, Nutrisystem CMO Keira Krausz rifles through social media looking for posts from customers from whom she and her team might learn before she even gets out of bed in the morning. John Wiley & Sons CMO Clay Stobaugh is a frequent attendee at conferences staged by marketing-technology vendors, including those he uses to plumb current industry knowledge.
“I read everything,” Eiler says, ticking off the major newspapers, business reviews, industry publications, and blogs that comprise her daily information diet. “I read poetry. I track politics. I watch movies that portray politics. I'm curious and that makes me a much better marketer.” Those “stretch” topics help flex Eiler's relational creativity muscles, which she in turn applies to content marketing and other right-brain activities.
Know your numbers: Developing finance expertise means more than managing a budget.
“It's about being able to connect your budget all the way through to revenue and making the case for everything you're doing,” Alore asserts. Lead generation, demand generation, and other direct marketing activities typically have a relatively clear connection to revenue. Although it's more difficult to connect other marketing operations (think of activities designed to drive awareness) to the top line, the impact of those activities still needs to be measured.
Have a lot of lunches: At least once a quarter InsideView marketers find someone in another company, take him or her to lunch, and bill it to Eiler. They also share with the rest of the team what they learn during those mid-day conversations.
The activity, she says, “pushes people outside their comfort zone and lets them pick the brain of another marketing professional. When you're in your 20s and you hear the word ‘networking,' you tend to think, ‘Oh, God, what do I have to do? I'm going to go to this marketing event to shake a bunch of hands and I'm not going to know anyone.'”
Lunch is less intimidating, and these intimate, yet informal, info-sharing sessions can give marketers access to fresh ideas and talented individuals, which can in turn help their team-building efforts later. Lucey says that the ability to identify, hire, and develop marketing professionals will be even more crucial in the coming decade as competition for this talent pool intensifies.
Talk to sales reps: Productive marketing and sales alignment re-mains a surprisingly persistent challenge that future marketing leaders will need to address. The marketing organization's value centers on its knowledge of customers, and sales can help to deepen that knowledge. Earlier in her career Eisenberg made a point of carving out time from her daily grind to ask sales representatives questions about customers, their own processes, and how they developed their own skills.
“Talk to your sales team,” Eisenberg advises, “because they speak with customers and prospects all the time. Find out what questions [customers and prospects] are asking, and then answer those questions in the content you're developing.”
Attend conferences, carefully: Alore says that industry conferences are extremely valuable, but she emphasizes that “marketers should avoid the temptation to attend the same conference every year. Instead, get different perspectives.” She also points out that smaller regional conferences can often offer as much value as the largest shows.
This year Alore decided to take her team to Digital Summit Atlanta because it offers the greatest topic diversity and relevancy to her function.
Solve (business) problems: Eiler credits the rising generation of marketing leaders with having many valuable ideas.
The trick, she adds, is to concentrate their ideation squarely on relevant business problems. When asked by younger marketing professionals how she reached the C-suite, Eiler explains that one of her early career strategies was to solve problems.
“I would look across the department or even the organization and ask, ‘Where are the problems?'” she recalls. “And then I would make suggestions about addressing those issues. That turned out to be a great career strategy.”
Brainstorming can prove worthwhile, but relevant business problem solving is better. That type of intentionality should define the career mapping that future marketing leaders conduct today. Many in the current generation of rising marketing professionals possess plenty of intentionality.
“The generation of marketers that is coming out of school now or that has up to five years under their belts are more deliberate than I ever was,” Eiler notes. “I worked hard, but I wasn't as deliberate about it.”
She recently had lunch with someone she mentors, a college senior who had completed a social media-related internship with Eiler in the past. The student has also completed internships focused on -marketing analytics and marketing investments.
“She had deliberately planned her internships in different dimensions of marketing to expose herself to a broad range of marketing disciplines,” Eiler adds.
Find her, have lunch with her, and then submit your bill to Eiler. It might just pay off.