An Unexpected Journey to CMO

I did not expect to end up as a marketer, much less a CMO. But looking back at my career path, the steps I took actually make a lot of sense and each role contributed some unique aspect of career growth and learning—even if I couldn’t tell exactly where I was headed along the way. The unexpected route I took to marketing leadership reveals plenty of insights and lessons that can be applied to both professional and personal growth.

First things first, here’s a quick snapshot of my career path.

  • My undergraduate degree is in anthropology. This led to a serious consideration of continuing onto grad school and becoming a Visual Anthropologist.
  • However, my family’s background in auto racing led to an opportunity to manage a Toyota Atlantic race team, so I jumped at that chance instead of applying to grad school.
  • After one year, I decided to get back to my anthropological roots and entered a new career in the museum sector. I was first tasked with writing and producing live programming, which grew into responsibility over all digital efforts.
  • After eight years in the museum/nonprofit world, I was recruited to join the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (home of the Indy 500) and IndyCar Series to head up their digital marketing.
  • Following two very fast years (see what I did there?) with IMS, I joined ExactTarget to lead their digital marketing team, which evolved into oversight of both brand and digital.
  • Three years ago, following ExactTarget’s acquisition by Salesforce, I joined Return Path to oversee their brand and digital efforts. A quick eight months later, I was promoted to run all of global marketing.

Still with me?

When I reflect on the twists and turns of the past 18 years, here are some lessons and learnings that stand out to me.

Be open to change. In fact, seek change. Switching industries or verticals is easier said than done but it’s well worth the hard work, networking, selling, and hustling. All that effort results in incredible benefits, like tremendous growth opportunities, unique business challenges, different cultures, and new expectations. Switching fields exposed me to different people, ideas, and opportunities that I could have never have imagined. Being receptive to change—big change—pushed me to become a better professional, leader, and colleague.

If you didn’t know by now, digital is everything. My early experience in digital was a very good apprenticeship for eventually becoming head of marketing. Your experience with a brand is overwhelmingly digital, and the bulk of any marketing team’s performance will come from digital channels: website, marketing automation, advertising, social media, and so on. I had a bit of luck on my side as my career transpired, but the fact is my early experience in digital made all the difference. For those of you at an earlier stage in your profession, I have one simple message: embrace digital. In fact, if you’re not working with digital in some capacity at the moment, make the change.

The world is a lot smaller than you think. There are a few very basic ideas in business that often get overlooked. Don’t ever burn bridges. You never know who your future boss will be. And you will meet colleagues/friends during your career who you may work with multiple times, or recruit to come join you . Be smart, be responsible, and when you see great talent, do everything you can to work with them. And finally, your personal brand stays with you forever—so treat people well.

As a leader, your team is everything. We want to work for people that inspire us, trust us, empower us, and teach us. Over my career, I’ve mostly had great leaders or bosses, and they did these things. As you grow your career, manage more people, and eventually settle into a leadership role, remember what your team needs from you. Be the type of leader you always wanted to work for and build the team you’ve always wanted.

There is no room for ego in leadership. We all have egos, some level of self-importance. At times, ego can provide an added confidence boost. Other times, it is the source of friction, conflict, and unnecessary drama. Overall, my beef with the ego is that it’s in direct conflict with many things I value. It can prevent you from conducting yourself with humility, act as a barrier to self-reflection and self-improvement, and much more.

Be direct. Managing people is hard. Conflict is hard. Being direct with others is hard. But it’s the best approach. As difficult as it can be, focus on keeping your communication direct and honest. Your team will appreciate your authenticity, you will make meetings more productive, and ultimately, you will help make the company’s initiatives better. Do we really have time not to be honest with one another?

Turns out, communication and presentation skills are everything. We take for granted that external marketing is polished, with great messaging, beautiful design, and data driving the decisions. But before the launch or campaign sees the light of day, there are countless internal rounds, revisions, meetings, and pitches. In the same way, your own professional communications require an incredible amount of work behind the scenes. The way you communicate and present to your colleagues, your boss, and the executive team is incredibly important. I cannot state this more emphatically. Developing and refining your own style of presenting and communicating is an important indicator of how successful your projects will be. Spend time on this, gather feedback, and go for it.

Mentorship is key. I would not have made it this far in my career without the support of others. Over the past 18 years (and even today), I have had a number of brilliant, supportive, caring mentors that have helped me, pushed me, and allowed me to realize my potential. I am forever grateful to them. Which is why now, as an older professional, I am mentoring up and coming professionals. Everyone should have a mentor. And when you get to the point of feeling like you can help others, you should become a mentor. It’s a life-changing experience. There is nothing more rewarding in business than helping a friend or colleague grow professionally.

These are a few of the lessons I have learned, and consistent themes I have encountered. One last observation. The more I learn, the more I realize how much more learning I have to do. Which is quite similar to an Albert Einstein quote: The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know. I am definitely no Einstein, but I encourage everyone to be mindful of learning opportunities, projects that will challenge you, and the fact that being uncomfortable is often the best way to grow.

This post originally appeared on MarTech Advisor.

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