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Two Leaders Reflect on the Path from CMO to CEO

Highlights from Spencer Stuart's 19th Annual CMO Summit
September 2021

What does it take for a chief marketing officer to make the leap from the CMO ranks into the CEO role? And what career skills and experiences can prepare a CMO for the top job?

To answer those questions at the 2021 CMO Summit, Spencer Stuart invited two incredible leaders who successfully transitioned from a marketing path into the top corporate role: Michele Buck, board chair, president and CEO of The Hershey Company; and Mary Dillon, executive chair and former CEO of Ulta Beauty.

At our 19th summit, held as a town hall discussion and Q&A in front of a live, virtual audience, Spencer Stuart consultant Greg Welch, who leads the firm’s North American Marketing, Sales & Communications Practice, spoke with Buck and Dillon on the key elements of their paths to the CEO position, the value of mentorship in career development, and the skills of leading marketers today.

Looking back on her career, Buck pointed to several assignments that pushed her outside of her comfort zone and laid the foundation for her eventual ascension into the CEO role. She cited her first job as a general manager, when she oversaw plant operations despite no prior experience in manufacturing, and another when she was placed in charge of a major divestiture. Success, she said, was dependent on asking the right questions and surrounding herself with the right people.

“Being outside my comfort zone in different roles like that… help you to think differently, to be more resourceful, to allow you to play that CMO role in the broadest way possible to impact growth for the company,” Buck said. “A key piece of being successful as CMO is being able to get others to enact some of the platforms that you see. Having that experience is critical.”

Dillon said that ability to lead successfully in a new environment depends on developing your ability to know and manage what you don’t know. It becomes about asking the right questions, hiring the right teams, and learning on the go.

“The more senior you get, the more it becomes about your ability to lead, to attract great talent that maybe has some of that functional expertise that you don't have if you're not from the industry,” Dillon said. “I think it’s important to have strong values around how you lead, and confidence in the fact that you know how to drive growth and you have to be willing to try something…. It’s a bit of a learning curve, but I think it's absolutely doable for CMOs to do that. I think we've got some of the broadest skillsets of anyone out there.”


At the same time that the marketing background offers a unique skill set to the top position, there are certainly some hurdles a former CMO will need to get over to succeed as a CEO. One involves some of the more financial day-to-day activities, like earnings calls, investor relations and the like. “If you aspire to be CEO,” Dillon said, “sitting by the side of your CFO or your head of investor relations and learning about that is really helpful preparation.”

A second challenge is learning how to manage the board of directors; your success in many ways depends on a strong relationship with the board. “If you think about coming up in your career, you usually have one boss that you build a rapport with,” Buck said. “But the move to having 10 to 12 highly seasoned people with tremendously different backgrounds and figuring out how to bring them along the journey, how to listen to them, and how take the good of what they bring to you, but also how you stand up if you're in a different situation or have a different perspective, that honestly was my greatest learning curve when I became CEO.”

During the discussion, the attendees to the virtual event were invited to answer a polling question: “Does your current boss help guide your career path?” Perhaps surprisingly, only 36 percent of the participants answered yes. Buck and Dillon described themselves as “shocked” by the low number.

“I’d hope it's close to all, but I would say at least in my experience, there have been times that I've had bosses that truly had my back and there are times that I didn't,” Dillon said. “That’s reality, and it looks like it’s playing out [in the poll].”

Both Dillon and Buck pointed to people who advised them, guided them, and advocated for them as they embarked on their career journeys. These “sponsors,” as Buck described them, not only gave advice, but invested themselves in helping her reach her potential. Coming from humble roots, she said that they helped her map out a career path that matched the potential they saw in her.

“I was frankly a little surprised about what I had been able to accomplish,” Buck said. “One of the things I benefited from was the confidence my advocates instilled in me to … encourage me to take some of the roles that would be really important in rounding me out. I can look back at the person who gave me my first GM job and really told me, ‘You can do this.’”

Buck described the CMO as the “growth architect” of a company, and as a key person in determining how a company will grow in future years. Data analytics and insights are critical in everything the CMO does, in order to connect with the marketplace and the capabilities that exist out there. In particular, she said, the CMO has to be an innovator, and not just with product innovation.

“Innovation is so broad today,” Buck said. “For example, I'm looking for innovation in how we do pricing. How do we really turn some of the traditional growth levers on their heads a bit? How might digital transformation across every part of our business unlock commercial growth? It’s a holistic way to look at transforming to get growth.”

Dillon noted that the CMO of today has to meld the analytical with the tried-and-true qualitative skills that make marketers so unique. With data playing such a key role in marketing today, she said that she worries that marketers’ ability to be empathetic or to use their imagination to capture new growth opportunities can get lost in the mix

“It’s an art and a science, and don't forget the art part, too,” Dillon said.