When Marketers Step into the C-Suite
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Leadership Marketing Careers Sep 2, 2014

When Marketers Step into the C-Suite

Four top executives on building credibility with company leadership


Homi B. Patel

Rick Lenny

Matthew Paull

Mary Dillon

A marketing manager with an eye on the C-Suite might wonder how best to manage the transition and be effective with boards of directors.

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Through the Kellogg School’s CMO Program, top executives Homi B. Patel, Rick Lenny, Matthew Paull, and Mary Dillon offer marketing leaders advice on what they can do to foster effective team and board interactions.

Homi B. Patel: Provide the big-picture view

Homi B. Patel is retired Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and Director of Hartmarx Corporation.

Let’s face it: as a chief marketing officer, you don’t get a lot of face time with boards, but when you do, you want to be effective. How you utilize that face time is as critical for board members as it is for you. When you get face time as a CMO, you may naturally approach that interaction from the position that you have, while the board is evaluating you from the position you could have, because the most important job of a board is succession planning at the top levels of the business.

If you aspire beyond the CMO position, what the board wants to hear is that you have a holistic picture, that you have the ability to break down silos, and that you can make marketing ubiquitous throughout the company—which means cross-functional in many ways.

When presenting to the board of directors, don’t try to cover everything. If you try to cover everything, you risk losing board members’ interest because you can go way into the weeds. Board members are not interested in the weeds because they have acquired the ability to deal with ambiguity. They meet, they go away, and three months later they come back and they capture the current picture. So it’s critical to avoid burrowing too deep into the particulars of a single topic or trying to cover everything under the sun.

Rick Lenny: Focus on the perspective of your board of directors

Rick Lenny served as CEO and Chairman of The Hershey Company. He serves on the boards of several major corporations, including McDonald’s.

When building board presentations, the biggest challenge for a CMO is to make sure to keep the board’s perspective in mind. When listening to a CMO’s presentation, I ask myself: “Does this CMO understand what drives superior marketplace and financial performance?”

“The CMO is the best person to take the insights from a clinical standpoint and relate them to winning in the marketplace from market-share-growth and financial standpoints.” — Rick Lenny

In my role as a board member, what I expect from CMOs is that they frame their presentations in terms of understanding the value drivers across the business. Think about it this way: the CMO is the best person to take the insights from a clinical standpoint and relate them to winning in the marketplace from market-share-growth and financial standpoints.

CMOs like to play offense—it’s what they do to build brands into the marketplace. But board members have a healthy level of skepticism about things that work versus things that don’t work. They’re thinking about the risks. They may approach the CMO with questions about competitive situations and competitive response as a way to understand the risks associated with the business. This is a great opportunity for a CMO to foster a deeper understanding of the company’s marketing concept.

Matthew Paull: Know your CFO

Matthew Paull served as Executive Vice President and CFO of McDonald’s before retiring. He has served on corporate boards including Best Buy and KapStone Paper and Packaging.

In some companies, tension might arise over how the CMO is perceived in the C-Suite, especially in the CFO’s office. That may be due to a lack of understanding by members of the C-Suite about what the CMO does or a perception that it’s very hard to measure what the CMO does. Whether this is fair or unfair, the CFO’s view may be that the CMO has the sexy job while they get the grunt work.

Since the CFO in most organizations is the person who puts the metrics in place and makes sure that compensation is tied to achieving those metrics, my advice for CMOs to reduce some of that friction is first to find a metric that can be measured and then to make themselves accountable for that metric.

When preparing board presentations, there’s a decent chance that the CFO and the general counsel will sit in on the entire board meeting except the executive session. They understand the personalities, they know what makes presentations work, and they know the mood of the room before the CMO steps in there. If the CMO has a good relationship with the CFO or general counsel, the latter can offer feedback in advance of the CMO’s presentation and communicate what’s happening in the room.

Mary Dillon: Lead through cross-functional collaboration

Mary Dillon is currently CEO of Ulta Beauty.

I believe new CMOs should consistently apply a cross-functional, collaborative lens to their focus and priorities. My career began in consumer packaged goods—at Quaker and Pepsico—where I learned and began to deeply value that the best business solutions are derived from two points of view: the consumer and a cross-functional representation of the organization.

CMOs should lead the way in asking the business two questions: “Whom are we trying to serve and how can we do that better than anyone else?” and “How do we need to line up to deliver that across everything we do?” This will be appreciated by the CEO and will demonstrate a CMO’s leadership to the rest of the C-Suite and the board of directors.

It’s also crucial for new CMOs to make sure their expectations for their team are understood. First and foremost, you want people with functional expertise: people who can wear an enterprise hat, and people who can discuss and build upon each other’s ideas.


About Kellogg’s CMO Program: The Kellogg School’s Chief Marketing Officer Program, led by professors Gregory Carpenter and Eric Leininger, is designed to train newly appointed CMOs or people who are preparing to assume CMO or equivalent positions. The program’s content is wide-ranging, but one particularly unique element of that content is direct, unfiltered advice from current and former C-Suite executives.

Artwork by Yevgenia Nayberg

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