5 Ex-Marketers Turned CEOs that Can Teach You Some Valuable Lessons

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

In the past, most CEOs had a background in finance — but the wheels are slowly turning in favor of marketers.

According to research done in mid-2016, 18% of FTSE 100 CEOs were former marketers.

Is this because good marketers are necessarily good CEOs? No.

But this does imply that marketers have some experience, skills, and knowledge that CEOs should have.

These need to be combined with other skills that marketers, unfortunately, probably haven’t cultivated during their careers.

Things like understanding your company’s supply chain, internal operations, and new market demands all come into play.

These are the things that you need to learn before assuming your role of a CEO and, possibly, before your company’s board even considers you for the position.

That’s why we’ll look at five marketers who went from CMO to CEO and try to figure out what skills they needed to succeed.

#1 Simon Carter: Understanding the technical side of the business is a must

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Simon Carter is the ex-CEO of a market research company ComRes.

He advises his fellow marketers to really get to know the technical side of the business before taking on the role of the CEO:

“You really do need to understand the basics of how a company operates, the role of members, customers and the supply chain, from the shareholder to the supplier and how that sticks together.”

According to Carter, marketers often aren’t involved in the board decisions within their companies, which could be a disadvantage in the long run.

This lack of experience on the board robs them of understanding the nitty-gritty, the company’s internal operations, and the technical side of business.

Why don’t more marketers have their seat at the board?

There are two main reasons.

1. Some companies simply don’t recognize the value that marketers bring to the table, so they don’t invite them to meetings.

2. Marketers don’t fight hard enough for their seat on the board.

If you’re considering becoming a CEO — or if that’s a role you could see yourself fulfilling in the future, you need to ensure you’re involved in making more technical decisions in your company.

Start your preparations early so that marketing isn’t the only strong point you’re known for when the CEO position opens.

#2 Michelle Gass: Exploit your in-depth understanding of customers

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Michelle Gass, the current CEO of Kohl’s, turned her years of face-to-face experience with customers to her advantage.

Gass has an impeccable understanding of her audience and a sharp instinct for what they want.

Kohl’s successful adaptation to the “new normal” demonstrates this perfectly.

Gass introduced novelties that better support the changes in Kohl’s customers’ lives during the pandemic:

  1. Gass met the increased demand for activewear and fitness gadgets by offering brands like Nike, Adidas, and Champion, as well as fitness trackers from Fitbit and Garmin.
  2. The she-EO improved Kohl’s rewards system, resulting in about 50% of all customers participating in Kohl’s loyalty program

Understanding your customers is, perhaps, the most valuable asset you have thanks to your marketing background.

Even if your title changes from CMO to CEO, you should never forget that serving your customers comes first.

Keep track of how your customers and their lifestyle are changing, and don’t hesitate to introduce novelties when necessary.

#3 Gavin Patterson: Strategy needs to be combined with execution

Most marketers have a rich experience in creating strategies.

According to Patterson, this experience is necessary for the role of a CEO where you’ll have to make choices, track your progress, and adapt your tactics accordingly.

Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

But most marketers have little or no experience in executing a strategy.

Strategy is vision; execution is taking steps that make that vision a reality.

If you’ve ever created, say, a content marketing strategy, you probably had a whole army of colleagues who executed it for you:

· copywriters

· graphic designers

· social media managers

· social media ad specialists

As a CEO, however, you can’t afford to rely on others to execute your strategy for you.

As Patterson says, you need to strike a balance between strategy and execution.

#4 Carolyn McCall: Meet new demands on the regular

Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions on Unsplash

One of the key lessons you learn as a marketer is that you must listen for new demands on the market, and adapt your strategy to satisfy those demands.

As a CEO of a company that wants to grow, you’ll have to do the same.

McCall did this three times — first, as the CEO of Guardian Media, then as the CEO of easyJet, and currently as the CEO of ITV:

At the Guardian it was about digital disruption and getting people to change the model which had existed for decades. At easyJet, it is about putting the customer at the centre of our thinking while ensuring we maintain our cost advantage.

This is where your experience as a marketer will prove to be an asset for your company.

The trick is to learn how to meet new demands in a way that goes beyond marketing and involves the more technical side of business.

It could be that you should introduce new services — like McCall did with Britbox, a subscription-based service that unites BBC and ITV — or retaining your low prices during times of global economic challenges.

#5 Dave Lewis: Listen to your customers but don’t forget your staff

Lewis on Leadership Symposium

When Dave Lewis was appointed the CEO of Tesco, the grocery giant was facing accounting scandals and huge, seemingly insurmountable debts.

But the wise ex-marketer managed to save the struggling company and get it back on the right track.

Deanna Oppenheimer, Tesco’s longest-serving non-executive director, attributes Lewis’ accomplishments to listening to his staff.

Lewis was well-aware that he doesn’t and couldn’t know the ins and outs of the business.

Instead of creating solutions to problems he didn’t fully understand, he let the employees tell him “what [he] needs to know”.

He’d ask his colleagues to describe the problems they think the company has and then came up with a plan that fixes those issues.

The takeaway?

Most marketers understand how crucial it is to listen to their customers. After all, this is what we’re doing throughout our careers.

What you may not understand is that your staff has equally important insights.

You can’t afford not to consider them when you step into the role of the CEO.




Founder and CEO of GR Consulting. Art addict, science preacher. My formula is no crisis — no progress. https://thegrc.co/

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Dr. Maria Stern

Dr. Maria Stern

Founder and CEO of GR Consulting. Art addict, science preacher. My formula is no crisis — no progress. https://thegrc.co/

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