This article was adapted from Jacob’s insightful interview on CMO Convo, CMO Alliance’s podcast exploring what it takes to be a great marketing leader.
In the corporate world, we're witnessing an intriguing trend where CEOs are increasingly emerging from marketing backgrounds. This shift disrupts the traditional norm where the CEO role has predominantly been filled by those with sales or finance experience.
It raises a pertinent question for marketers — how can you ascend to the CEO position, and what skills do you need to cultivate to thrive in the C-suite?
I’m Jacob Baadsgaard, CEO of Disruptive Advertising. Join me as I take you through my own journey from a marketer to a CEO, and offer my advice for what aspiring C-suite marketers should focus on to advance their careers.
My journey: The unplanned path to marketing and leadership
My path to becoming a marketing leader and CEO was not something I planned. Like many others, I had a particular vision for my professional trajectory. However, life often surprised and delighted me with turns that I hadn't anticipated.
Initially, my background was more inclined toward data. I earned a degree in Information Systems and worked as a web analytics implementation consultant. My primary role involved merging databases, creating dashboards, and aligning marketing data with customer and financial data. It was this data-driven perspective that introduced me to the world of marketing. I discovered that robust data could guide even non-creative marketers like me.
This expertise spurred me to venture into freelancing and eventually led to the founding of my agency, Disruptive. In just a decade, we've grown from a single-person team to an agency of 150, working with global clients to optimize data usage and execute effective marketing strategies.
Alongside the complex balance of technical skills and leadership, I've personally invested millions into marketing, offering me a unique vantage point in this field.
Essential skills and marketing experience for CEOs
There are certain essential skills that serve as the foundation for marketing leaders and future CEOs. Regardless of your natural abilities, without this baseline skill set, thriving in these roles can be challenging. One area where I've observed many marketers plateau early in their careers is their lack of understanding when it comes to data analysis. Now, I'm not suggesting that marketers need to become programmers. However, having a grasp of the basics of datasets and knowing how to connect and interpret them to tell a comprehensive story is crucial, especially given the complexities introduced by privacy laws and tracking issues.
The marketers who truly excel and progress to the next level are the ones who can effectively merge different datasets, crafting a compelling narrative that guides the company toward strategic investments. It goes beyond celebrating vanity metrics or cool and creative ideas that fail to translate into business success. To truly make an impact, marketers need to embrace the RevOps mindset, focusing on the data and its implications.
Another indispensable skill set that marketers often overlook is understanding the customer. It's not just about knowing their pain points, but also about crafting a brand story that turns customers into heroes in their own lives. By blending this customer-centric approach with our marketing strategies and leveraging data, we can develop compelling and impactful campaigns that drive business success.
These skills — data literacy and customer understanding — are essential for marketers. However, becoming a marketing leader involves more than just mastering these technical aspects. It's about who we are as marketers and how we respond to the stimuli life throws at us. In every moment of experience, there exists a fleeting opportunity to choose our response consciously, rather than allowing instinctive reactions to take over. Cultivating this emotional capacity is what propels marketers to unexpected heights and enables them to transform both themselves and the brands and businesses they believe in.
Hard skills matter, but they pale in comparison to the state of being we bring to our roles as marketers. Expanding our emotional capacity and learning to pause, reflect, and consciously choose our responses to various situations can make all the difference. This state of being allows marketers to reach the next level, becoming leaders who drive transformation and deliver remarkable results for the brands, businesses, and people they serve. That, my friends, is the sweet spot that propels marketers forward.
Navigating career paths as a marketing leader
When people ask me about their careers and how to reach their desired destinations, my answer may not always be what they want to hear. I've learned that when we become overly fixated on a specific outcome, we leave no room for pleasant surprises or the possibility of a better outcome than we could have imagined.
By forcing an outcome, we limit ourselves. Over time, I've realized that the more I resist and try to control a desired outcome, the more resistance I encounter along the way. This resistance pulls me out of a state of presence and into a state of overthinking, complicating matters, and often leading to outcomes that may not align with my preferences.
This resistance often arises from our tendency to resist our natural strengths and abilities. Each business has unique needs, which is why various roles have emerged in the marketing field. For instance, someone with expertise in revenue operations and data analysis may not be the best at storytelling or visualization.
Imagine a scenario where you become a marketing leader or CEO but spend most of your time on tasks that you dislike or struggle with. It would be a hellish experience. Instead, I believe it's essential to ask two questions: “Who am I?” and “What am I fantastic at?” By focusing on our strengths and entering our genius and flow zone, we create more value. And as we create more value, opportunities naturally unfold, regardless of what they may be.
In contrast, forcing our way into a role that doesn't align with our authentic selves often leads to a reactive state of being, constant struggle, and eventual burnout. Even if it seemed like what we wanted initially, the role becomes undesirable.
I can't predict exactly where you'll end up in your CMO career, but I can guide you to identify where you add the most value and shine. I encourage you to explore areas that excite you, go on adventures, and expand your skill set. I've witnessed countless individuals who were incredibly grateful for taking this approach.
On the other hand, I've seen many people experience regret after forcing themselves into roles that didn't feel authentic. It drained them and left them yearning for something more. There isn't a single path to becoming a marketing leader, whether in specialized roles or as a CEO. It depends on the individual's unique skill set and the specific needs of the business.
Some businesses require a visionary leader who surrounds themselves with complementary skills, while others benefit from an integrator and operator supported by a creative team. The possibilities are vast, and there are numerous ways to achieve success in the marketing field.
Fostering specialization and the power of saying no
I truly believe in the concept of allowing people to focus on what they excel at. When individuals are given the opportunity to leverage their strengths, they contribute immense value that is hard to replace. That's why I see a clear shift towards roles that allow individuals to specialize in their areas of expertise. By avoiding the tendency to force too many responsibilities into one role and maintaining realistic expectations, we can reduce churn and turnover within organizations.
As marketing leaders, it is crucial for us to acknowledge this trend and take ownership of creating an environment that supports specialization. This means surrounding ourselves with the right people, utilizing the right tools, and fostering an environment that encourages individuals to thrive in their respective areas of strength. However, maintaining this focus can be challenging. One of the biggest hurdles we face is learning to say no to distractions that divert our attention from our core strengths.
As marketers, we are often targeted by various marketing tactics ourselves, and it's easy to get sidetracked by the next shiny object or trendy strategy. But indulging in these distractions can disrupt our state of balance and hinder our ability to add value. That's why developing the skill to tactfully and politely decline opportunities or initiatives that pull us away from our areas of expertise is crucial. Saying no in such situations not only preserves our quality of life but also ensures that the value we bring remains uncompromised.
Ultimately, embracing specialization and knowing when to say no are vital skills for marketing leaders. By nurturing an environment that allows individuals to focus on their strengths and by actively avoiding distractions, we can elevate the quality of our work and the value we contribute. It's a conscious choice that not only benefits our own professional journey but also leads to a more fulfilling and impactful career.
The power of marketing your own strategies and priorities
Confidence is a crucial factor in marketing, and here's some good news: marketing itself holds the solution to building that confidence. It's ironic how often marketers struggle to market their own strategies and priorities. I've personally fallen into this trap numerous times. We invest so much effort in crafting compelling narratives for our prospective customers, but when it comes to internal communication, we often neglect the same level of clarity.
To truly excel as a marketer, we must learn to market our own strategies and priorities internally. It's essential to articulate our vision, explain why we prioritize certain initiatives, and address alternative options considered along the way. By effectively communicating our reasoning, we demonstrate that we have thoroughly evaluated various possibilities and aligned our decisions with the desired outcomes. It's crucial to remind stakeholders that we are working towards achieving the results they care about, and our role as marketers is to prioritize actions that will lead us there.
In essence, we need to "market the marketing." This skill differentiates a phenomenal marketer from a merely good one. By showcasing our ability to communicate and align our strategies with business objectives, we not only build confidence within ourselves but also establish trust and clarity among our colleagues and stakeholders. It's a powerful way to solidify our position as strategic drivers within the organization.
So, as marketers, let's not overlook the importance of marketing our own strategies and priorities. By doing so, we elevate our impact, strengthen our relationships, and ultimately enhance our professional success. It's a mindset shift that can propel us from being good marketers to becoming exceptional ones.
Elevating impact as a marketing leader
The importance of staying centered and aligned applies not only to our professional lives but also to our personal relationships. In my own experience, I've realized that having regular check-ins and open conversations with my partner is essential for maintaining a healthy and thriving relationship. We dedicate time each week to conduct a relationship review. However, these conversations can quickly go astray if we don't remain centered.
To ensure productive and harmonious discussions, we've established the practice of setting and agreeing upon an intention that we can always return to when we feel ourselves veering off track. This principle is equally applicable in marketing. As marketers, we often find ourselves easily distracted and lose sight of what truly matters. Progress can be hindered when we lack clarity and alignment.
Imagine a scenario where a marketer questions the priorities, saying, "I thought what mattered most was this. Are we all still in agreement?" By opening up this dialogue, we can recenter ourselves on our shared goals and reaffirm our commitment. It's crucial to regularly assess and prioritize based on what truly matters. When entering executive team meetings or marketing discussions, don't underestimate the power of stating intentions — not only for measurable outcomes but also for how we want to work together. Clarify the objective goals and the subjective nature of collaboration. Are we aiming to foster connection and alignment, or do we risk succumbing to frustration and blame?
As a marketer, embodying this approach and consistently realigning the team will elevate your impact. People will recognize you as the stabilizing force within the company, the one who keeps everyone focused on what truly matters. Your presence becomes invaluable because, without it, teams might find themselves chasing their own tails. Marketers, however, often struggle with this aspect on executive teams, easily getting caught up in various initiatives and losing sight of the collective intention.
By showing up as a marketing leader who emphasizes clarity, alignment, and continuous realignment, you'll shine brighter than ever before. Your colleagues will look to you as the rock — a guiding force that ensures everyone stays on track. Embracing this mindset and approach can open doors to greater responsibilities, including potential opportunities to step into a CEO role. Business leaders value individuals who possess the ability to keep the company centered on what truly matters.
Purpose-driven leadership: The future role of marketers as CEOs
For most businesses, I don't believe marketers should aspire to be the CEO. The primary objective for many companies is revenue growth and profitability, driven by shareholder expectations. As a marketer, you may not find your ideal fit in such a CEO role. Instead, I believe marketers should strive to become the CEO in businesses where purpose and impact are at the forefront.
At our agency, we adhere to a core value called the "win-win-win." This principle ensures that every action we take benefits the customer, the employee, and the company, in a sustainable way. When we focus on revenue growth and profitability, it's essential to ask why. If the answer revolves around making a positive impact on customers and creating a sustainable environment for employees, then being a CEO in that type of company becomes fulfilling and rewarding.
As marketers, we must have the courage to seek out businesses that align with our purpose and values. We can be transformational marketers who influence and help these companies return to their core reasons for existence. Many businesses, somewhere along the way, lost sight of their true purpose and became fixated on financial gains and growth. However, true satisfaction comes from feeling proud of the impact we have on customers and the positive effect on our employees' lives. Sustainability is also vital, ensuring the business's long-term success.
These purpose-driven businesses are where marketers will thrive as leaders of the future. By finding or starting brands with a strong sense of purpose, we can market them passionately and drive their growth. We become leaders who genuinely care about the impact on customers and employees, as well as the financial sustainability of the business. These companies, led by transformational marketers, will surpass organizations solely focused on meeting shareholder expectations and delivering returns.
Everyone’s on their own journey, and some may choose to align themselves with transactional businesses solely driven by financial growth. However, if you find yourself yearning for more alignment and purpose, it's likely because the "why" behind those businesses doesn't resonate with you at your core. Seek out companies where your values align, and opportunities to progress naturally arise.
In the next five to ten years, we can expect to see a shift in the C-suite and CEO roles, with more marketing-minded individuals assuming leadership positions. Purpose-driven marketers who can help companies rediscover their why or join organizations with a strong sense of purpose will lead the charge, driving significant growth and outpacing transactional and shareholder-driven companies. It's an exciting future where marketers can make a profound impact on both business success and societal value.
Embracing vulnerability in a leadership role
The transition from a first managerial position to becoming a CEO doesn't change all that much. In both cases, there's a tendency to want to prove that you have everything figured out and can solve all problems. However, I've come to realize that this approach can actually lead to underperformance within the team.
People don't want to work for someone who appears to have it all figured out. They seek an environment where they can contribute, grow, and shine. Stepping into a CEO role, I experienced imposter syndrome, and even now, it still creeps in on a regular basis. When I allow fear and scarcity to take over, I overcomplicate things and try to compensate by acting like I have all the answers. But the most meaningful and connecting moments I've experienced as a CEO have been when I've shown vulnerability.
Sharing my concerns, areas where I feel I'm falling short, or challenges the company is facing takes immense courage. However, every time I've opened up in this way, the response has been powerful. It applies not only in the workplace but also in personal relationships. By being vulnerable, it gives others permission to be vulnerable too. They realize that the areas where I struggle might be where they excel. It fosters a team effort to move forward, rather than relying solely on a CEO who tries to force everything to happen.
I continue to learn that vulnerability is a crucial aspect of personal and professional relationships, as well as leadership roles. It doesn't mean lacking confidence in our vision and direction, but rather acknowledging that we don't have all the answers. That's precisely why we have a team. Together, we can come up with great solutions where everyone's contributions matter. This approach creates an executive team that is ready and motivated to accomplish remarkable things.
It's worth noting that vulnerability is an ongoing process. Falling into the trap of thinking, "I've already been vulnerable, why do I need to be vulnerable again?" is a mistake I've made myself. But I've discovered that business growth tends to happen in cycles. We work through challenges, rally the team, experience growth, and then face similar limitations again. This process repeats, offering us opportunities to practice vulnerability and collaboration.
The broader business community is currently going through such stages. These times call for vulnerability and rallying together, especially when business isn't as easy as it used to be. As aspiring marketing leaders and future CEOs, this is an incredible opportunity to embrace vulnerability and seek collaboration.
It's not about having all the answers or claiming we don't need anyone's help. It's about recognizing the challenges we face, admitting that we don't have all the solutions, and rallying together to find them. These slower times, from an economic standpoint, can be the best times for learning and growth. They shape us, and through the challenges, we gain a deeper appreciation for the good times that follow.
In summary, the key to staying on a beautiful life adventure, whether in your career or personal relationships, is the practice of not reacting to every situation but pausing and consciously choosing how you respond. This principle applies to marketing leadership, CEO roles, and life in general.
Instead of solely focusing on the endless "doing," shift your attention to developing the skill of conscious choice and response. When you cultivate this inner knowing and engage in reflective decision-making, you'll be surprised and delighted by what life brings your way. Whether it's a great month or a challenging one, instead of immediately reacting, take a moment to reflect and intentionally choose your next steps. Trust that the next step will become clear in that moment, even if the path ahead isn't fully laid out.
By staying grounded in this practice, you can navigate your journey with confidence and maintain a sense of adventure. It's not about having all the answers or knowing the exact path ahead; it's about embracing the uncertainty, making conscious choices, and trusting that the next step will reveal itself as you move forward.
So, focus less on the constant "doing" and more on the power of conscious choice and response. Embrace the moments of reflection, and trust that by staying true to yourself and making intentional decisions, you'll continue on a remarkable and fulfilling life adventure.
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