What Makes a CMO? The Most Common Skills Among Today’s Chief Marketers


What is the recipe for a modern Chief Marketing Officer? What skills does it take to reach the C-suite as a marketer?

These are some of the questions Robert Steers, Head of Digital and CRM at Step Change, set out to answer during his recent paternity leave.

Steers examined the LinkedIn profiles of hundreds of Chief Marketing Officers, recording the skills listed in their profiles. His report was fascinating and can serve as an excellent roadmap for ambitious marketing professionals who are plotting their own career course to senior leadership seats.

There’s more than one road to a CMO position. And for any given Chief Marketing Officer recruitment, there will be a unique set of ideal skills and experience depending on the company, industry, which way the business is trending, and a laundry list of other factors. A “perfect universal formula” simply doesn’t exist.

However, by looking at CMOs in large numbers it’s possible to detect meaningful trends you can use to inform your own decisions when adding new skills to your marketing stack or furthering your education.

There were a few things that stood out in the research to me that were worth a second look.

The Most Common Skill Trend on How To Become A Chief Marketing Officer

Unsurprisingly, “Marketing” was the single most listed skill among Chief Marketing Officers–it was named in about 65% of profiles.

Top Skills of CMOs

Unfortunately, that’s neither interesting nor useful for aspiring CMOs. If anything, the meaningful takeaway here is that about 35% of CMOs consider it so obvious they don’t even bother listing it. In fact, the majority of their most frequently listed skills were generic and ambiguous.

Sorry, there’s no single “secret” skill you can use to punch your C-suite ticket.

Steers, with a little creativity, was able to group the listed skills into similar buckets to provide some more interesting insights (I recommend reading his post to learn more about his methodology).

Represented skills of CMOs on Linkedln

When reorganized like this, we find something more interesting–the skills related to expertise in a particular industry actually take up the largest portion of the total skills listed. Think categories like “Auto Manufacturing,” “Banking,” “Hospitality,” or “CPG.”

That indicates that more CMOs value their understanding of an industry than anything else. Truly knowing a marketplace, the customers, its major players, the products, the supply chain, etc. seems to be extremely common among top marketers.

The takeaway? If you have your sights set on an eventual CMO business card, consider choosing a general industry and keep your career path more or less focused in that area. Copious amounts of experience and success-focused in one area seem to pay off for senior marketers.

The Growing Value of Digital Skills

The growing value of digital skills

In the categorized list above, Digital Marketing comes in second, even above “General Marketing.” This is a recent trend; if you had looked at a similar list 5 years ago their places would probably be swapped. But it’s clear that digital marketing skills are becoming more and more prevalent among Chief Marketers.

To round out this category Steers included mentions of specific digital marketing capabilities, like SEO, web development, social media or eCommerce.

You would rarely expect a head of marketing to be performing the day-to-day execution of such tactics. However, it’s increasingly important for CMOs to understand how these emerging digital channels and tools work and how they fit together as part of a broader digital strategy.

Practical understanding of digital marketing tactics seems to be translating to more and more CMO positions, so don’t be afraid to get specialized and really become a master of one or more of them.

Are Sales Skills Valued too Highly?

The third-largest category of skills among CMOs seem to be related to Sales and Business Development. This might make sense at a glance; however, I was a little surprised to see them here.

Many businesses leaders and professionals who don’t have a lot of experience with Marketing and Sales as distinct disciplines often conflate the two. Superficially it might seem like there is a lot of overlap between Sales and Marketing. After all, they both share the same end goal: to generate revenue.

But the way they contribute to the conversion process and the expertise and methods they employ are completely different. Big-picture marketing functions on a strategic level, forecasting far into the future and orchestrating long term campaigns and brand vision. Most sales planning and execution has to be tactical, focused on short term conversion and resource distribution.

Their long-term objectives and day-to-day work are incredibly different. While the two can (and should) complement and support each other, it’s essential to have a distinct division.

As CMO recruiters, we generally find that good salespeople make poor marketers–and vice versa. While it’s important for a CMO to understand the sales funnel and be able to coordinate with the Head of Sales, they typically don’t need a lot of practical sales skills to be effective.

My advice is not to heavily prioritize adding sales experience and skills to your resume if you want to be a CMO. It probably won’t do anything to better equip you for a marketing leadership role. Ultimately, I suspect most CMOs who listed “Sales” or a similar skill in their LinkedIn profiles did so because the social network recommended it or they were endorsed by someone else.

Instead, focus on skills that enhance your ability to demonstrate revenue growth and ROI. Attributing your impact on sales through marketing, rather than sales experience itself, will get you much farther professionally.

The Impact Of An Executive Presence

Many marketers have pondered which soft skills separate an average marketer from a chief marketing officer. A great place to start preparing yourself for a CMO position is building your executive presence. Executive presence is the ability to inspire confidence in others. Marketers want to know that their leader has a vision and knows how to best execute it. The humility and confidence you display should motivate your team and your executive peers, convince them that you have solutions to achieve great results short-term and long-term. At the senior level, you will not be able to impact change without executive presence.

Here are the key components to developing your executive presence:

  • Ability to show empathy
  • Always dress for success
  • Be aware of your body language
  • Communicate effectively

What’s Missing?


Steers mentions a few conspicuous absences in his research: skills related to Analytics, Data, Finance, and Accounting. Given how much lip service is paid to making “data-driven decisions” and meticulously tracking budgets, this is somewhat surprising.

That’s not to say that all of the CMOs researched lack these skills entirely. However, it indicates that they possess said skills in lower numbers than you might expect, or don’t consider them important enough to list in their profile.

Either way, it indicates a big opportunity for CMO hopefuls. If you’re able to add skills such as these to your toolkit–and prove it–you have a great way to differentiate yourself and stand out from other candidates when the time comes to compete in a CMO executive search.

Considerations in the Research

Steers approached this topic in a recent scientific manner and noted some limitations in the data.

The information was gathered from publicly accessible LinkedIn profiles that have little in the way of accuracy enforcement. Anyone can claim any skill at any time or call themselves a Chief Marketing Officer even if they’re not, so this research relies on the general honesty of the profiles that were evaluated.

Overall, this is a great starting point to get an understanding of CMO trends and is in line with what we observe on a daily basis as Chief Marketing Officer recruitment firm. However, it probably shouldn’t be applied to more statistically rigorous exercises.

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