From CMO to CEO, a growth focus

Here are some highlights from the 19th Annual CMO Summit townhouse session, where two leaders, Mary Dillon, executive chair and former CEO of Ulta Beauty and Michele Buck, President & CEO of The Hershey Company shared their experiences on the path from CMO to CEO…..

“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.”


The Power of Mentorship

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.

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.’”


The future of the CMO

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.

“If we had to choose one member of the C-Suite to step into the CEO role at the drop of a hat, take one guess who we’d choose. We’re not biased or anything—the CMO has a clear view across the org that no other function does, and the function itself is geared towards driving growth. Don’t just take our word for it though.”

Karen Starns of OJO Canada shares her journey from CMO to CEO,

a beacon of inspiration for B2B CMOs who aspire to the top leadership role.

For more on the Malaysian CMO Awards 2023, visit:

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The APPIES is an annual event that presents a rare opportunity for creative, media, digital and marketing agencies or brands to present their best campaigns to the industry.

This is the only event where Live Presentations meets Live Judging.

Similar to TED Talks, The APPIES is the chance for great presenters with outstanding work to show it off to some of the industry’s most important industry leaders.

This year’s winners will receive Gold, Silver or Bronze trophies for 21 categories, and 6 special Best of Best categories (red trophies) that require no submissions!

Campaign entries must have run between June 2023 to May 2024

Submissions Deadline
30th June 2024

APPIES Festival – Judging & Presentations
11th – 12th July 2024 (Malaysia)


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