Three CMOs on What It Takes to Ascend to the C-Suite

Posted on by Kaylee Hultgren

Chief Marketer’s monthly Marketers and Brands on Fire series—now in its fourth year—spotlights the strategic thinking behind some of the industry’s most successful, innovative and game-changing marketing campaigns. In addition to delving into program ideation, creation and execution, these conversations frequently shed light on the evolving CMO role itself, and the qualities and attributes required to land that coveted role. Three CMOs we’ve connected with recently, hailing from Walgreens, Nutrabolt and Shipt, offer advice on ascending to the C-suite in today’s ultra-competitive marketplace.

Robert Zajac, CMO at Nutrabolt:

It comes down to balance and perspective. Easier to say, harder to do. Balance, because modern CMOs need to do so many things. They need to be energy givers. Strategic advisors. They need to be the voice of the consumer. They need to be creative engines for the company. On the other hand, they also need to be able to measure, analyze, react, respond.

They need to be able to read the P&Ls. They need to be able to understand running a digital business, a DTC business, an Amazon business. And a lot of times those things can come in conflict. But if you balance them, they feed off of each other. And then how are you going to invest appropriately, measure the return appropriately, adjust if it’s not working, or double down if it is working? Regardless of the company you work for, regardless of the size of your team, business, portfolio, finding that appropriate balance is the first big piece.

And then you have to have a perspective on operations, on sales, on finance, on product. You have to be able to form an enterprise perspective that’s then translated to the teams, which is the other hard part. You want to hire people who are the most creative, dynamic, interesting, connected. But you also then need to translate an enterprise perspective down to them, and say, “here are the things that actually matter to the broader enterprise for our collective success.”

And lastly, we still have to be good coaches. We have to be good thought partners. We have to be good navigators for our teams. A lot of people get into marketing because it’s fun, and because you get to do great things and create things. So it’s finding the balance and the perspective, but then also enabling and coaching your team.

Alia Kemet, CMO at Shipt:

For me, it’s a thought leadership job. At this point, people know that you can do the technical work. You have to be able to bring your actual thought leadership. What do you believe needs to happen to create big impact in the company, so that we can have growth and transformational change? That is the job. And I think you have to demonstrate your ability to do that before you’re necessarily put in that top role.

And then a good amount of courage comes along with it. Because we use data, we use insights, we use culture, we use teams. But at the end of the day, winning ideas—in this landscape—are the courageous ideas. It’s having the courage to lean into ideas that everybody might not be ready to go along with, but you’ve got the data, the insights, all those things that you’ve put together. And so now you say, “We’re going to jump. We’re going to do this. Everybody come along.” And when they come, that’s how you create meaningful, big change.

Linh Peters, CMO at Walgreens:

One of the things I always tell people is that as I built my career I focused less on titles. Sometimes when people focus on titles, you either narrow your opportunities, or you’re focused on the wrong thing. For me personally, it’s the roles themselves and what they entail. Am I gaining new skills? Am I gaining new experiences? How will this role provide a stepping stone to the next one to two roles that I might have in my career?

The other thing is, as a diverse woman I have built both an internal and external network of advocates and sponsors. It’s incredibly important to have that. But now as I’ve gotten higher up in my career, I am playing that role for other people and taking a more meaningful investment in people.

I always tell people you should take on the assignment or the challenge or the project that nobody else wants to do. Because there’s a lot of opportunity in doing the hard stuff, and that will generally bode well for you in terms of the experience that you get, but also you’re helping to solve a problem or an issue for the organization.

The final thing is that your personal brand and reputation really matters. What you do now and how you show up will continue to follow you throughout your career. A lot of the opportunities that I’ve had in my career were born out of roles or experiences or connections that I made from many years ago. It’s not just about how you show up currently. All of that stays with you and people will remember that many years after you left a company or left a job.


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