How to Become a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO)


If you are passionate about the field of marketing and enjoy the role of a leader, you may find yourself asking, “How do I become a CMO?” From working with hundreds of CMOs, to being one, I’m uniquely qualified to share a perhaps surprising take on how to become a successful CMO. Read on to learn what the role entails and what it takes to be successful.

Table of Contents

  1. What Is A CMO?
    1. The Evolution of the CMO’s Path
    2. The Role
    3. The Responsibilities
    4. Typical Compensation of CMOs
    5. Environmental Considerations
  2. What Makes the Best CMOs Successful?
    1. Personality Traits
    2. Hard Skills
  3. How to Become a CMO Checklist
  4. Profiles of Successful CMOs

What Is A CMO?

First, it’s important to know what exactly the role is, and what it isn’t. The definition of a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) is an executive who oversees and guides the marketing activities within a company. Marketing is a diverse field in and of itself, but marketing teams must also be aligned with other teams within a company, such as sales, product, customer success, and more. The CMO’s job is to create a cohesive vision for all teams involved and guide them in order to achieve success for the company as a whole.

The Evolution of the CMO’s Path

How one becomes a CMO can depend on a number of factors. Some will rise through the ranks, starting from being in a direct marketing role. This would be classified as ascension. Someone on this path typically has at least 10 years of experience in marketing positions of increasing responsibility.

The other path a CMO can take is education. In this case, candidates can reach a CMO position potentially more quickly by enrolling in a specialized program, such as a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) with a specialization in marketing. Even on this route, it will be important to get hands-on marketing experience before leading the company’s strategy as a CMO.

Each of these paths has its pros and cons. Ascension provides the benefit of getting firsthand experience in the roles of the people you would be leading. You would better understand their needs and experiences. However, the education path could provide you with a faster path to reaching this position.

The Role

The day-to-day work of a CMO will vary based on the company’s structure, its size, its industry, and more. The role entails guiding the vision of an organization’s marketing strategy, which requires hands-on work with all relevant teams. This includes overall goal setting, team-specific goal setting, and performance reporting.

The CMO also works closely with other executives at the ‘c’ level. Commonly, this includes a Chief Executive Officer (CEO), a Chief Financial Officer (CFO), and a Chief Operations Officer (COO). No matter a company’s specific structure, it’s vital that the CMO works in alignment with the rest of the leadership to ensure alignment with company objectives. Building strong relationships cross-functionally won’t be something you’ll find on a job description, or expect your CEO to outline as a goal, but rest assured, the best CMOs know this activity alone can make or break the success of major initiatives.

One significant differentiator in a CMO’s specific role can be the company type. In a software as a service (SaaS) company, the goal may be product-market fit testing, analysis and customer acquisition strategy or even evangelizing a new technology category. Whereas, in a Fortune 500 company, the focus may be brand, market research, or expansion. In general, a startup environment will challenge a CMO to grow leads and visibility for a company, while an enterprise CMO has a focus on brand development and market expansion.

CMO Responsibilities

The responsibilities of a CMO are dependent on the company type and its competitive environment. However, these tasks will often either be related to creative work (i.e. overseeing the strategy for advertisements), data analysis (i.e. market research and reporting), or interpersonal relations (i.e. managing employees and inspiring teams). It is also the job of the CMO to lead marketing strategies that align with the vision of other important leaders and department within the company, such as the CEO. Consequently, this role will entail frequent communication with other stakeholders and related departments.

Typical Compensation of CMOs

The average salary of a CMO in the U.S. is $171,571, which doesn’t include additional compensation and incentives. Typically a person in this role will also receive a bonus of $36,130, commission of $22,002, and profit sharing of $15,063. In all, this average compensation package totals to $244,766. This is over five times higher than the median salary in the U.S., which is approximately $46,800.

Environmental Considerations

It’s important to understand how an environment will differ from company to company, and how this impacts the CMO role. In an early and scrappy organization, leaders typically have more freedom to enact changes and move quickly to achieve results. This type of environment is common at startups and even can be present at more established companies that choose a more relaxed leadership structure.

In a late and complex environment, the CMO should be prepared to go through set processes in order to accomplish initiatives. There may be a formal, multi-step review process that requires a set number of stakeholders to weigh in before a new strategy can installed. Someone in a CMO role should be aware of the differences in how companies operate to ensure they’d be successful in the role.

In addition to getting things done, take into account the environment you’re coming from. Are you accustomed to open, sometimes loud environments? If not, the common open floorplans of start-ups may not be for you. Are you used to having an assistant schedule meetings and work out the details for hosting customers? If yes, again, you may want to look at larger companies where this level of team structure is affordable. Amanda Wolff learned these lessons the hard way, check out her interview here.

What Makes the Best CMOs Successful?

Even the most driven and intelligent individual could end up being an ineffective CMO. It’s imperative for someone to understand what is expected in this role and the characteristics that make someone successful in it. It may be the case that another c-level position, such as CEO or COO, is a more appropriate fit. Continue reading to learn which traits and skills are necessary for a CMO to have.

Personality Traits

There are a number of “soft skills” that are important for someone in this role to have, or else they may be unhappy or unsuccessful. Below are the key personality traits of an effective CMO.

  • Interpersonal Skills

Being a leader requires you to have effective communication and interpersonal skills. A CMO not only leads a number of teams, but will also interact with other departments and leaders within an organization, not to mention a slew of vendors, customers and partners. Consequently, it’s imperative that this individual can communicate directly and clearly, and has an awareness of others’ needs and personalities. Never underestimate the value of empathy.

  • Public Speaking

A CMO will need to lead meetings and presentations regularly, so it’s necessary for someone in this role to be comfortable with public speaking. It could be for the purpose of announcing a new strategy or policy, giving a speech to inspire teams during a difficult, facilitating a meeting between departments that need to collaborate, or announcing results from a successful initiative. In all of these situations, a CMO must speak clearly and confidently.

  • Passion and Drive

You can’t fake that you care — your employees will see through it. A great CMO will be passionate about his or her team achieving the goals they’ve set out. This passion is contagious, and is especially important in highly competitive industries where employees risk becoming burnt out.

  • Accountability

Goals are necessary for a successful team but they lack value if they aren’t measured. A CMO must hold him- or herself accountable for the results of the organization by measuring performance metrics and providing the tools necessary to achieve the goals set forth. A leader in this role is not only held responsible by the CEO to accomplish company objectives, but is also accountable to his or her employees to be engaged in their work and present for when any problems arise.

  • Details and Big Picture Driven

Some roles require someone to think about detail while others are focused on the big picture — a CMO position requires both mindsets. As a leader, one will need to guide the vision of the entire marketing program. This necessitates a CMO to look at each team’s contributions and objective broadly, and align them into one cohesive strategy. At the same time, someone in this role must also understand the details well. Measurement and reporting is critical in the marketing field, so an understanding of how each piece of the puzzle comes together is crucial.

  • Excitement for Innovation

Marketing is ever-changing. A great CMO will not only have a good understanding of recent developments in the space, but will also look out for those that are upcoming. This person must be forward-looking and embrace the new challenges ahead. A bad CMO will avoid learning about new technologies or will try to pass off the responsibility entirely to someone else.

Hard Skills

There are also a number of hard skills required of a CMO. There may be some additional expertise required based on a company’s industry space or marketing mix, but the following competencies are necessary for any person in this role.

  • Management

Any seasoned leader knows that leadership is not the same as management. Management skills include planning, process-setting, organizational structure creation, and problem solving. Leadership can come from anywhere, whereas the role of management is to set expectations and accountability. An effective CMO must have these skills related to operations in order to lead a successful division.

  • Subject Matter Expertise

A CMO must understand the industry their business operates in and all of the marketing functions of its organization. Someone in this role should never assume it’s “someone else’s job” to understand the details. Although you may not be working on the ground on these marketing initiatives, you must have an understanding of the mechanics in order to serve your employees effectively.

  • Data Analysis

Reporting and measurement is imperative for an effective marketing division. You must understand how your teams are performing and be able to identify where any disconnects are happening — a thorough reporting process helps you do so. Consequently, a CMO must understand how detailed reports are put together, even if someone else on the team prepares them. A leader in this role should have the ability to jump into the details and create a custom report where necessary. Otherwise, you might not have a complete understanding of what the numbers are telling you.

  • Grasp of Financial Metrics

The CMO operates at a very high-level within a company and will work closely with the CEO to achieve revenue goals. This requires the CMO to have a strong grasp of financial concepts and the metrics used in business settings. Marketing will directly impact a company’s bottom line. You need to understand each metric that contributes to this overall number, such as conversions, revenue, and more. You don’t have the responsibilities of the CFO, but you should be able to understand the financial reports of a company.

How to Become a CMO Checklist

If you’ve determined that the chief marketing officer (CMO) position is right for you, you may now be wondering how to get there. Follow the four basic steps below to reach the role you want.

Achieve the required education background

This depends on the path you’ve chosen, whether ascension or education, but in nearly any case you will need a bachelor’s degree at minimum. Choose a program in a subject like business administration, marketing, communications, or economics. Better yet, you can double-major in two of these or choose a minor to supplement your studies.

You can increase your chances of landing a CMO role by earning a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) with a specialization in marketing. These programs give you advanced training that will be directly applicable to the role, and have the additional benefit of networking with other professionals in your field.

Build your work experience to prepare for the role

Regardless of your education path, a strong history of marketing experience is required for someone to reach a CMO position. You’ll want at least a decade of relevant experience if you don’t have an MBA. Seek out companies where you can take on leadership and practice the soft skills required for the CMO position. Look out for promotion opportunities that allow you to take on additional responsibility and give you insight into how other marketing functions work. A CMO will need to have a broad understanding of marketing beyond the specific one in which they started their career.

Also be aware of the type of company you would like to end up in. To be prepared for an early and scrappy company, such as a startup, you should seek out experience in similar companies that’ll prepare you to be a leader in one. Similarly, someone looking to work at a late and complex organization should build their career in companies that operate in such a way.

As you go, you should also augment your experience with additional certifications where appropriate. Seek out training programs that will teach you about new tools and prepare you for new roles, such as Google’s Academy Program. These are valuable because they increase your knowledge, but also are great additions to your resume.

Develop the necessary soft and hard skills

As outlined in the previous section, there are a number of skills required for a CMO to be successful. These won’t develop naturally — you need to actively work on them throughout your career.

For soft skills, you can seek out opportunities for mentorship from leaders in your organization, as well as look for chances to practice your own leadership skills on new projects. Ask for feedback wherever you can, since soft skills can be the toughest to measure and develop. You can also find public speaking opportunities, such as conferences, local industry groups, or company meetings.

Your hard skills will be developed from hands-on practice. Look for opportunities to shadow knowledgeable individuals in your organization, or find training resources where you can. Ask your management for opportunities to contribute to reporting processes in order to get a better understanding of how they are carried out.

Find your CMO role

With all of the required education and experience, it’s now time to find the role you want. There are a number of ways to go about this in order to increase your chances of landing a great position.

  • Create Your Brand

One way to increase your chances of finding a great CMO role — or having a company seek your out — is to create and develop your own brand. To do so, you should seek out opportunities to establish yourself as a leader in the marketing field. Create a blog, set up an active Twitter account, speak at conferences, or contribute articles to industry websites. If done well, each of these will position you as a leader that a company wants.

  • Networking

You’ll also want to be active in the marketing community. Participate in local networking events whenever you can so that you can get to know other professionals in your field. Industry-specific conferences are a great way to do so, and could lead you to your next great job. You should also seek out connections with headhunters and recruiters, either at one of these events or by seeking out relevant individuals in your industry or area.

And, don’t forget about virtual networking! Create your brand on LinkedIn and start connecting with people, especially current CMOs at organizations like you want to work at.

  • Job Search Tools

Finally, there’s the standard job search tools. It’s less likely you’ll find a CMO role using this strategy, but it doesn’t hurt to see what is posted. Look at sites like Indeed, Glassdoor, Google for Jobs, and LinkedIn for CMO positions that may be a fit for you. You can also search niche job sites if you’re looking for a role in a specific industry. Ideally you’ll already be connected with high-ranking individuals who can connect you with a CMO position when it becomes available, however, which underlines the importance of creating your brand and networking.

4. Profiles of Successful CMOs

It’s helpful to put all of this information into context by looking at the backgrounds of current CMOs. Below you’ll find three examples of successful CMOs who have shared their insights with our team.

Derek Slayton

  • Position: CMO of Terminus
  • Focus Area: Account Based Marketing (ABM)
  • Path to CMO: He built his experience in roles related to product and demand, as opposed to traditional marketing or brand roles, and his strong knowledge of these functions has helped him become effective in understanding their target customers.
  • Learn more by listening to his interview.

Joe Hyland

  • Position: CMO of ON24
  • Focus Area: People-to-People (P2P) Marketing
  • Path to CMO: He has spent his career in various marketing roles, which helps him effectively serve ON24’s target audience — his fellow B2B marketers.
  • Learn more by listening to his interview.

Amanda Wolff

  • Position: CMO of OneSpace
  • Focus Area: Account Based Marketing (ABM)
  • Path to CMO: She worked in a larger organization for 17 years before joining OneSpace, both of which focused on ABM but through different mindsets. Earlier in her career she gained marketing experience through the creative route: copywriting, direct mail, and more.
  • Learn more by listening to her interview.

Anthony Kennada

In Conclusion

The Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) position is an exciting position full of challenges and innovation. It’s a wonderful opportunity for individuals seeking a fast-paced job environment in a constantly changing field. As outlined in our guide, it certainly takes years of preparation — but it’s absolutely worth it if it’s the job for you.

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How to Become a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO)

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