In our dynamic world, the significance of diversity in leadership cannot be overstated. Diverse leadership offers varied perspectives, fostering innovation and driving growth. It challenges conventions, breaks barriers, and ensures every voice is heard, laying the foundation for a richer, more inclusive future.

In CMO Convo’s 100th episode, I sat down with two exceptional women from the marketing world - Mai Fenton and Virginie Faucon - to delve into the topic of diversity and leadership.

Mai Fenton’s the CMO at Superscript and her journey is deeply rooted in marketing, and has seen her transition from consumer goods to retail, e-commerce, and digital platforms. Apart from her role at Superscript, her dedication to giving back shines through her positions on various boards, notably the Hanson International Income Trust PLC and the laudable charity, the Dallaglio RugbyWorks.

Virginie Faucon, the former CMO of BBC Maestro, recently wrapped up her tenure. Virginie's impressive two-decade-long marketing career spans prominent companies like Sky and O2, as well as dynamic roles within EdTech and FinTech startups. Besides her professional accolades, Virginie takes pride in her role as a school governor, a testament to her commitment to community engagement and development.

As for me, my journey with The Alliance has been incredibly transformative. Over the past four years, I've transitioned from copywriting roles to managing diverse teams. Now, as the CMO of The Alliance, I oversee 15 community brands, each with their unique niche.

Together, our combined experiences form a mosaic of marketing knowledge, innovation, and leadership. In this article, I’ll be delving deep into the nuances of diversity and leadership in the contemporary marketing world.

This is based on the discussions we had in CMO Convo's 100th episode. If you want to check out the original podcast, check out the video below, or listen on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts.

The challenges and potential for women in power

In the world of leadership, particularly in marketing, diversity remains at the forefront of essential discussions. As a keen observer and participant in this field, I've often contemplated the specific challenges and barriers women face.

When I spoke to, Virginie she highlighted the historical context that shapes our present reality. "Statistics show a disappointingly low percentage of women in leadership roles and corporate boards. In such a male-dominated environment, women often grapple with finding their space and asserting their voice."

Yet, it's not solely about external barriers. Virginie emphasized the internal struggles women face. Often, we place limiting beliefs on ourselves, feeding into a prevalent imposter syndrome, which can impede our growth and confidence. Virginie believes it's paramount for women to not only break external glass ceilings but to shatter their internal ones.

Battling unconscious biases and the power of self-promotion

Mai brought up two distinctive challenges. The first is societal and largely out of our immediate control. "There exists unconscious biases where men are often perceived as having a greater potential to perform than women. Despite progress, this bias remains a significant challenge women have to navigate."

Yet, Mai sees an opportunity in the second challenge, one that’s squarely in the hands of women. "We often hesitate to self-promote. Celebrating our successes and making them known is not something all of us are comfortable with. However, without this visibility, it's challenging to climb the corporate ladder," she argued. For Mai, self-promotion is more than just a skill; it's a necessity for career advancement.

The influence of experience on leadership styles

Through the course of our careers, our experiences shape us, mold our approaches, and etch valuable lessons into our leadership styles. For Mai and Virginie, the impact of these experiences was palpably evident.

Clarity, collaboration, and compassion

Reflecting on her early career, Mai reminisced, "The most influential leaders were those clear on their goals and expected results." It’s not only about setting clear objectives but also ensuring the team knows how to achieve them. But clarity isn't the only hallmark of her leadership style. Mai has taken note of directive and autocratic approaches in the past and chose a different path.

She identifies as a servant leader, aiming for inclusivity and fostering collaboration because creating a safe space for teams to voice their opinions encourages innovation and better decision-making. Her style encompasses openness, empathy, and compassion, attributes she values as a result of her experiences.

Vulnerability as strength

Virginie believes in the power of vulnerability in leadership. "Especially as a young woman in the industry, suppressing vulnerability is common," she stated. It's an effort to combat the imposter syndrome many women feel and to avoid being perceived as weak.

But Virginie believes that vulnerability isn’t about weakness; it's about transparency and connection - because being open about challenges fosters a sense of camaraderie. The leaders she most respected were those who were vulnerable and candid about their struggles, be it in balancing personal lives or navigating career challenges.

However, the opposite - a closed, purely businesslike demeanor - didn't resonate well with her. Such leaders lacked a personal rapport that she found essential to meaningful connections.

And that’s a stance I sentiment I certainly feel myself, and is why I go out of my way to let my team and peers see the real (and occasionally silly!) me.

The essence of authenticity

There was a central theme throughout our chat: authenticity. "It’s paramount for me to be genuine in my leadership role. If you're not authentic, you can't establish trust. Without trust, how can you inspire others to follow you?” Mai questioned.

Authenticity + vulnerability = the foundation for trust.

And when hiring, Mai mentioned she prioritizes authenticity, valuing candidates who embrace their strengths and weaknesses over those who put on a facade.

The vulnerabilities of leadership

I found myself wholeheartedly agreeing with Mai’s sentiments on the vulnerability of leadership. There's an expectation when you ascend the ranks of leadership that you should know everything.

And that just isn’t possible.

When I first stepped into my CMO role, I felt this overwhelming responsibility to have all the answers. This presumption couldn’t be farther from the truth. You can’t know everything, and it’s a sign of strength to foster a team where each individual might know answers even before you do.

From my experiences, I’ve concluded that some of the most crucial lessons in leadership come from understanding what you don’t want to become. I once worked in a company with a toxic culture where the senior leadership, dominated by men, wielded their authority through intimidation and shouting.

Observing the CEO, whose management style involved publicly berating department heads, reinforced to me that leadership isn’t about instilling fear. Such behaviors only demotivate teams, erode loyalty, and diminish your character.

The CMOs I deeply respect strike a harmonious balance between vision and participation. For instance, I once watched a former CMO, despite his senior role, pitch in on a tedious data cleansing project. It might seem insignificant, but seeing a leader roll up their sleeves can profoundly impact a team’s morale. It shows you don’t think you’re above them - and you’re not, you’re only as good as your team and it’s really important to remember that.

The impact of mentorship

Mentorship significantly influenced Virginie’s career trajectory. Throughout her career, she had the privilege of being guided by several mentors, some through organized company programs and others she sought out personally. The advice and insights she received from them proved invaluable, with one mentor even steering her towards a pivotal promotion.

In her quest to give back, Virginie has recently joined mentorship networks like Bloom UK. Her approach is unique: she mentors people from varied backgrounds and professions, offering guidance without imposing her views. Yet, even as she mentors others, she believes in the continuous benefit of having a mentor.

Virginie revealed that her journey with mentorship began long before she stepped into senior roles. She became acquainted with mentorship during her early years in leadership development programs, which later fueled her pursuit for more guidance.

Mai’s journey with mentorship differed. She lamented that despite working for big corporations, she never had a mentor. The lack of a structured program to facilitate mentorship was evident in her experiences. However, she firmly believes in the power of mentorship. Even without formal affiliations, Mai often engages in mentoring discussions and supports students in various capacities.

I resonate with Mai's perspective, having never had a mentor myself. Rapid career advancements sometimes leave little room for seeking guidance. However, I recognize the invaluable insights that can be derived from interactions with fellow CMOs. These conversations are easy to sideline in a bustling schedule, but they might have the most profound impacts.

Virginie’s words struck a chord with me. As leaders, we have the capacity to influence organizational structures. Maybe it's time businesses, especially those in positions of influence like ours, consider establishing mentorship programs. Such initiatives offer junior team members the reassurance and formal structure to reach out, seek guidance, and grow.

Current status of women in leadership

Despite the progress made over the years, the issue of gender disparity in leadership roles remains pressing. Reflecting on the current state of women in leadership, statistics paint a stark picture: only about 20% of leadership positions in publicly traded companies are occupied by women. How does this landscape shape the experiences and feelings of female leaders?

While Mai personally doesn't feel added pressure being a female leader, she acknowledges the industry-wide need for improvement. Breaking down the numbers further, Mai pointed out that broader executive teams, including those a tier below the board, exhibit slightly better representation, with about 33% of roles held by women. This isn’t far off from the 40% target set for 2025.

She praised the progress at board levels, with some, like her own, even surpassing targets. However, there's a significant disparity in the startup tech ecosystem. Mai raised concerns about the low percentage of female tech founders who secure VC funding. This suggests that while publicly traded companies are inching closer to gender equity goals, driven in part by target-driven scrutiny, privately-held companies lag behind.

Mai highlighted the role unconscious biases play in this discrepancy, with tendencies to bring on successors who mirror current leaders. Such biases, deeply rooted in corporate histories, need to be actively challenged to usher in change. What if Venture Capitalists started demanding gender equity in leadership teams as a precondition for investment?

Virginie echoed Mai's sentiments, emphasizing the shifting landscape she's observed over her two-decade-long career. She doesn't see the disparity as a source of pressure but as a reminder of the existing imbalance.

In her journey across several companies, Virginie has often found herself as the sole female presence in board meetings or leadership circles. Such instances, she mentioned, made her feel like a minority, an alien in settings where gender representation should reflect broader societal demographics. This occasional isolation breeds a unique pressure, a weight of representing an entire gender.

However, Virginie believes that the real pressure women face is the daunting choice between career aspirations and family life. While some companies have embraced flexibility, allowing women to thrive both professionally and personally, others remain trapped in outdated mindsets. Virginie highlighted the pressing need for companies to evolve, ensuring that women don't feel compelled to make a binary choice between career and family.

From personal anecdotes shared by friends, I've observed the apprehension surrounding maternity leave. These women, in pivotal roles, find themselves in a conundrum - progressing their careers or taking substantial time off to embark on the journey of motherhood. My personal journey has been a tad different, blessed with a 50-50 gender representation on our senior leadership team at The Alliance.

While the numbers may be slowly shifting towards a more balanced gender representation in leadership, there's a deeper cultural evolution that businesses need to undergo. It's not just about meeting targets; it's about redefining corporate norms and values to genuinely embrace gender equity at every level.

The 'benefits' of being a female leader: A rethink

Virginie initiated a profound reflection on the way we've been conditioned to think about the 'advantages' women bring to the table. The question is poignant – why should a woman have to state the unique benefits she offers just because of her gender?

Virginie's perspective resonated: “Why should my gender or any facet of my diversity be an added benefit? Shouldn't my proficiency in my job be the primary consideration?" Yet, she conceded, women often bring distinctive qualities like empathy and balance which can significantly influence and enrich the company culture.

Mai pointed out that the essence of diversity is the amalgamation of multiple perspectives – be it gender, culture, nationality, or orientation. Such a blend not only fosters innovation but also refines decision-making. Mai referenced a McKinsey study, underscoring the direct relationship between workforce diversity and profitability.

An interesting byproduct of this wave of diversity is its impact on recruitment. More and more, I'm noticing potential recruits putting companies under the microscope, keen to understand their stance on diversity. Virginie echoed this sentiment, highlighting that diverse representation is no longer a luxury but a must-have for many job seekers.

It’s evident that embracing diversity isn't merely about ticking a box. It's about acknowledging all the perspectives and experiences that shape our world. The future of marketing, and indeed business, lies in diverse leadership. It's time we recognize and harness its true potential.

Decoding the CMO: Challenges, perceptions, and the future

In our evolving corporate discourse, it's impossible to ignore the unique challenges and perceptions associated with the CMO role. Its high-pressure nature, combined with its tenure, draws attention and, sometimes, misconceptions.

Challenging the short tenure

Virginie acknowledges the short tenure that CMOs are often associated with. This shared experience is a point of connection among many CMOs, and her analysis revealed a two-fold challenge:

The cost center perception

Often, marketing and the CMO role are perceived as cost centers, leading them to be the first on the chopping block during budget cuts. This is despite the fact that modern CMOs play pivotal roles in revenue generation, with many acting as growth directors. The challenge, as Virginie sees it, is to re-educate and shed light on the growth-driven nature of the CMO's position.

"Everyone can do marketing" syndrome

Virginie also touched upon a widespread belief that marketing is a simple task that anyone can undertake. This perception undervalues the intricacies and expertise that the CMO role demands. Virginie is passionate about rectifying this misconception, asserting that while everyone might have an opinion on marketing, not everyone possesses the proficiency to execute it strategically.

Echoing Virginie’s sentiments, Mai offered a deeper dive into the evolution of marketing. From its roots in branding and advertising to the current digital age, marketing has drastically transformed. It's no longer just about brand image but also about revenue generation, accountability, and ROI. As Mai rightly pointed out, a CMO must align with the company's core metrics and communicate their strategies effectively in the boardroom to be taken seriously.

Mai also highlighted a rather alarming statistic - the average tenure of a Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer stands at a mere 2.7 years. This, she believes, reflects broader challenges and misconceptions that persist within the corporate structure.

While current numbers, especially from the Fortune 500, might seem daunting, both Virginie and Mai remain optimistic about the future. Their shared belief is that with education, advocacy, and a better understanding of the transformative role that marketing plays, the CMO’s position will gain the respect and longevity it truly deserves.

Marketing and the journey to the C-suite

When I started in the marketing industry, many looked at marketing as just sending emails and creating captivating designs. But as I dived deeper, I found it to be much more strategic, intricately linked to revenue generation, and requiring a deep understanding to truly appreciate its complexities.

Virginie painted a vivid picture of the evolution of the CMO's role. No longer is it just about branding and advertising; with the digital revolution, marketing has transformed into a science, with a significant emphasis on data analytics. Aspiring CMOs, she advised, should embrace numbers and commercial understanding, keeping a finger on the pulse of financials and ROI.

She also shed light on the non-linear path many take to become CMOs. Being open-minded and willing to embrace opportunities, even if they seem risky, can accelerate one's journey to the top. Virginie herself took a non-linear route, emphasizing the value of taking calculated risks. But it's not just about taking risks, she stressed the importance of seeking mentorship and internal sponsors to guide your career.

Mai's perspective aligned with Virginie's, but she added another critical component - self-promotion. "Be proud of your achievements," she stated emphatically. By making your achievements visible, you open doors to opportunities that can lead to career advancement.

A particularly concerning stat shared by Mai was that none of the FTSE 100 CEOs come from a CMO background. This, she believes, is largely because marketers haven't adequately articulated their role in terms of profitable growth.

Virginie emphasized that the future of marketing is tech-centric. As AI and other technologies dominate the marketing landscape, it's essential for professionals to understand these tools. It's about broadening out, and marketers need to not only focus on traditional marketing functions but also embrace the latest technologies.

For anyone aspiring to reach the C-suite in marketing, it's clear that the journey is multifaceted. You must be data-driven, willing to take risks, embrace mentorship, and be adept at self-promotion. And, perhaps most importantly, stay abreast of the rapidly evolving tech landscape.

Seizing opportunities and championing diversity in leadership

As I reflect on my journey in the realm of marketing, I'm often reminded of the power of embracing the unknown. When asked about the best piece of advice I could offer to those joining The Alliance, my mind went straight to one mantra: "Don't stay in your lane." If you stumble upon opportunities, even those not delineated in your job description or entirely outside your current scope of work, seize them. These chances can be stepping stones, allowing you to evolve and diversify your skills.

While I started as a copywriter, my willingness to venture beyond my defined role paved my path upwards. I saw a need and filled it, be it building customer success units or introducing new products. Had I rigidly stuck to my initial role, my journey might have been drastically different. I'm not insinuating that a linear path is unfavorable. But for those yearning to expedite their climb up the ladder, diversification is vital.

As my conversation with Mai and Virginie neared its conclusion, I wanted to delve into the future of diversity in leadership roles, specifically within marketing.

Mai stressed that the inclusion responsibility doesn't solely rest on women leaders. Every leader within an organization should celebrate the kaleidoscope of differences that individuals bring. She shared glimpses of the commendable approach at Superscript, where they not only recognize but also celebrate various communities.

Whether it's the LGBTQ+ community, or catering to different religious practices, companies ought to create environments that go beyond mere acknowledgment. As leaders, it's vital to foster an atmosphere where diverse backgrounds not only co-exist but thrive and are celebrated.

However, the foundation of these initiatives should always be authenticity. A sentiment echoed by both Mai and Virginie. Virginie fervently articulated the pitfalls of inauthentic diversity drives. It's evident when businesses are merely ticking off boxes or superficially recruiting to appease a trend. This is often transparent to discerning eyes and can be more damaging than helpful.

Authenticity in championing diversity stems from genuine intent and a deep-seated belief in its value. Businesses that weave diversity into their DNA, not because it's the "in-thing," but because they genuinely comprehend its merits, invariably stand out. Virginie's words serve as a crucial reminder: in the pursuit of diversity, intent is paramount, and authenticity is the key.

Concluding insights: Empowering women in marketing

Mai really believes in the significance of self-promotion. Women, especially, must embrace this facet, coupled with the importance of networking. Mai reminded us that leaders, particularly women, need to be conscious of the unconscious biases present and work towards eliminating them.

Citing a statistic from the World Economic Forum, she underscored the disparity between the unpaid work done by men and women, suggesting a need for a rebalancing act. It's not just about creating workplaces that recognize this imbalance; it's also about our personal lives. Partners can be allies, sharing responsibilities, and allowing women to thrive both professionally and personally.

Virginie spotlighted authenticity's pivotal role. Leadership must be characterized by both vulnerability and authenticity, creating an environment where individuals can bring their complete selves to work. She touched upon the dual responsibility leaders in marketing have: mentoring others and seeking mentorship themselves. This guidance can come from both male and female figures. And then there's the educational aspect: continually informing other business units about the invaluable contributions of marketing and the significant advantages of a diverse workforce.

Mai further added a noteworthy perspective: the courage to embrace the unknown. Both of us, at various stages in our careers, have shifted between sectors or taken on roles without complete knowledge about them. This audacity to learn on the go and not wait to have a complete skill set before diving into a new challenge is invaluable.

Echoing these insights, my primary takeaways revolved around the pillars of self-promotion, the strategic importance of marketing, authenticity, and vulnerability. We, as marketers, are not just about emails; we're pivotal strategists influencing revenue streams and shaping business trajectories.

Want to discuss anything from our conversation? The CMO Alliance Community is the perfect place to connect with myself and other marketing leaders or feel free to reach out via LinkedIn.

At CMO Alliance, we're working on a new multimedia project: "Women In Leadership: Elevating Diverse Voices in Marketing". It's still early days, but if you're interested in hearing more when it's ready, please provide your details for the dedicated mailing list that we're putting together.