How do you become a CMO? This is how I did it.

Meeting young professionals to provide mentoring support is one of my favorite things to do. One of their most common questions for me (if they have a proclivity toward marketing) is, “how did you become a CMO?”

I usually start my story by saying that in my case, it was an accident. My dad and my two older brothers are PhD scientists (my dad has a PhD in meteorology from MIT, my oldest brother has a PhD in pharmacology from Johns Hopkins, and the brother just older than me has a PhD in organic chemistry from University of Colorado at Boulder.) In other words, science was the family business. (I should note that my older sister did not go the science route, but she did definitely inherit the geek gene.)

I started my college career at Boston College pursuing a bachelor’s degree in physics. I had no idea what I was going to do with it, but I just assumed that I would continue on to pursue my PhD when the time came. By sophomore year, it was pretty clear that I was not going to make physics my lifelong passion. I had always been interested in computers, so I decided to pick up a second major in computer science sometime during my sophomore year.

As I approached graduation, people would often ask me, “what are you gonna do for a job with degrees in physics and computer science?” My standard retort was, “I have no idea, all I know is that I’m not going to take a job in sales…” (This is the foreshadowing part of this post.)

I had a great advisor from the computer science department who helped me look at the options for employment post graduation. We narrowed it down to a couple of different options, including a role as a systems engineer for IBM. As I went through the interview process with IBM, they told me that “they thought I’d be good in marketing.”

I thought that sounded pretty cool, so I accepted their offer and within a couple of weeks I was settled in at my desk ready to start my training. A couple weeks and, as I was reading through the stack of white binders that they handed to me on my first day, I realized that when they said “marketing rep” they actually meant “sales rep.” It was like I was living in a nightmare. What was I going to tell my geeky, science oriented family? Should I quit?

I made it through my crisis and decided to stay on at IBM for about five years – and I found a nice little niche for myself. I worked with young software companies in Cambridge, Massachusetts that were just starting out as IBM partners.

Next, I took a role in “business development” at a company called PictureTel – an early leader in videoconferencing systems. This time, I went in with my eyes wide open. I realized that “business development” was yet another euphemism for “sales”, but this time I wasn’t surprised by it.

I stayed with the company for almost 8 years – and that’s when I had my first opportunity to take a role in marketing. After doing a brief stint as a sales manager, I took on an opportunity to run marketing, as the new director of marketing for small upstart business unit inside the company. I realize it is pretty unusual to “run marketing” as your first job in marketing – but that kind of thing happens when you have the opportunity to build a strong reputation inside a company – people give you chances.

Over the next 15 years, I took on a series of marketing roles with increasing responsibility at a few different tech companies. My first “top marketing executive” role was at a small software company where I was the VP of marketing, presiding over a gigantic organization of one person.

After selling the company in 2004, I joined Nuance as the VP of marketing for one of their divisions. Just like my time at PictureTel, I found that if you stuck with the company long enough, and didn’t completely screw up, they might give you a chance to do something else. Nuance gave me the opportunity to take my first general management role in 2008 (running the Dragon software business) – which ultimately led to my appointment as the chief marketing officer for the company in 2011.

Like most chief marketing officer jobs, my role was not a permanent appointment. I stayed in the role for about four years until we reorganized the company and distributed more the marketing responsibility back into the product divisions.

I’m sure every journey is different, but I learned a few things on my rambling, circuitous path to a CMO job:

  1. Be patient, it can take a while. Lots of people make it to a role of that level faster than I did, but more than two decades (in my case, 24 years) is not that unusual to reach that level at a multibillion-dollar public company.
  2. You don’t have to be a career marketer to be a CMO. In fact, I think it gives you a better perspective if you have a more diverse understanding of the various functions inside the company. I learned a great deal from my sales background as well as my general management background.
  3. A technical background doesn’t hurt. These days, the marketing function is becoming more and more technical and analytical. This is especially the case in technology companies. With that in mind, my education definitely came in handy.
  4. You have to stick with a company before they give you a chance. Most of the opportunities I had to try something new came at a point when I had already developed a level of credibility inside the company where I was working. In most cases, the company won’t take a chance on a new person in a brand-new job. One of the benefits of staying with a company longer is the opportunity for mobility that you get within the company.
  5. There is no single roadmap. There is no single formula that every person follows. Sorry, but there is no guaranteed path to the role.

If I was starting out in my career today, I would take the same general approach, but I would also make sure I did a few things:

  1. Focus on digital. If you aren’t deep in digital, you are nothing.
  2. Do time creating content. You need to be a strategic thinker and a strong “seller of ideas” to be a CMO. The best way to hone that craft is to write stuff and develop positioning.
  3. Get technical. You should have a deep technical understanding of marketing systems, data, IT and a basic knowledge of programming is not a bad thing.
  4. Understand the business. My best experience came from the time I spent as a general manager – it gave me a much better understanding of the business in general and made me think from a much broader perspective.

Let me know what you think!