Turning Down a CMO Seat: How to Know When the Best Career Move is to Say “No”

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Saying “no” to a tremendous career opportunity is one of the hardest things anyone can do. In the short term, it often means declining a better salary, greater prestige, more authority, and postponing the job of your dreams.

Yet sometimes it’s the absolute best thing you can do for yourself and your career.

Are you emotionally aware enough to know when you are being offered a job either you are not ready for or an opportunity where you are set up to fail?

All top marketers want to become CMO, but not all have committed an appropriate amount of time to developing their strategic marketing, leadership and change management skills to set themselves up for success. Being able to get the job and being able to do the job actually are two very different things. So when you have an offer for a CMO job or other senior marketing position in front of you, how do you know if you’re ready to take it on? The answer to that question could make or break your career as a marketer.

A Real-Life Example

Here’s a perfect example of this problem in action. We recently were recruiting an extremely talented marketer for a role that reported to the CMO, at a large technology company. He is a really talented marketer who has been successful with both marketing communications and product management roles and was a great fit to take on the challenge we placed before him. Overall, an excellent candidate for the role.

As the marketing executive search process went on, he eventually withdrew his interest in consideration for the role. He had been very professional throughout the process and made us aware he was considering two opportunities, ours and a CMO role with a smaller technology company. In the end he chose to go for the big chair.

There’s no shame in admitting that you have more to learn

We always want our candidates to take the job they believe is the best next step for their career, even if it is not the one we are working on. But at the end of the day, taking the role as CMO will likely prove to be a mistake.

As someone who regularly recruits and hires CMOs for businesses of all kinds, there are certain things you must have accomplished to have proven you are ready to take the next step. It is a big step when you report to a non-marketing person for the first time. You no longer have a mentor or sounding board who gets marketing. Consider:

  1. Have you set overarching global marketing strategy for a company or at least participated in the process with the CMO?
  2. Have you had to sell you marketing program, budget and promised ROI to a board?

Don’t get me wrong; by all accounts he was on the fast track to the C-Suite. But he was lacking a few essential years leading a marketing operation from a strategic standpoint rather than an execution one. Without that essential perspective and developed skillset, he’s simply not ready to take on the most important responsibilities and challenges of the Chief Marketer seat. That’s not only jeopardizing his ability to be successful in this job, but putting the rest of his career in danger.

How to Avoid the Same Fate

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I wish the previously mentioned candidate all the best, but fully expect him to struggle to find success in that position. The best thing he could have done for himself and his career, in my opinion, would be to graciously decline the offer and seek out another role reporting to a seasoned CMO who could mentor him.

The truth is; whether it’s a CMO spot or a mid-level management position, it’s easy for an ambitious marketer to be tempted by what they perceive to be a great career move. Being offered a promotion internally or from the Chief Marketing Officer executive search of another organization can be quite flattering, and the best marketers tend to be extremely confident in their ability to take on anything.

So when you’re offered the king’s crown of marketing, how can you be sure you’re ready to accept it?

There are two ways you should judge how well suited you are for a Chief Marketer job (or any other marketing job, really).

Evaluating a Role’s Fit For You

The first, and easiest, factors to judge have to do with how well your personality and career ambitions align with the company and where the job will take you.

No matter how qualified you are for a position, you’re setting yourself up for failure or long-term dissatisfaction if you don’t fit in with the company’s way of doing business and workplace atmosphere. Consider what environments you’ve had the most success with in the past–what about them engaged you and made you look forward to going to work every day?

Similarly, consider what the job offers in terms of personal and career growth. Will it really challenge you to develop and learn? Will it help you acquire new skills and earn valuable experience that you will bring you closer to your ultimate career goal? If not, then it may be prudent to hold out for another opportunity that’s better aligned with your long-term career path.

Evaluating Yourself

Thoroughly and honestly evaluating your own qualification for a role is considerably more difficult. It’s hard to admit to yourself that you might not be ready for new responsibilities yet–especially when they come with better pay, a fancy new title and that prime parking spot right next to the office.

Top marketers by nature must be very confident; they’re used to diving into a daunting task headfirst and coming out on the other side successfully. But it’s one thing to take on a new challenge that will push you far outside of your comfort zone, and quite another to take on something that you’re simply not prepared for.

There’s no shame in admitting that you have more to learn, but you must be able to take a step back and critically evaluate yourself. Stepping into a leadership role you’re not equipped to handle can be detrimental to your career–not to mention disastrous for the company hiring you.

In the case of a CMO role or comparable position, there are a few key tells that we’ve seen as a Chief Marketing Officer executive search firm that indicate a lack professional readiness for a job as head of marketing.

  • You’re still more of a doer than a leader. You spend a large portion of your days (more than 20%) completing executionary work rather than developing strategy and managing a team.
  • Your experience creating big-picture strategy is limited to one or two marketing disciplines.
  • Your resume is full of lines lead with words like “managed” or “oversaw.”

If you fall into these categories, odds are you still have some experience to gain before you’re ready to take a seat at the top of marketing. Consider a few more years in a new senior executive position developing your strategic capacity and mindset before turning your eyes back to a CMO job.

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