The New Enterprise Customer Activation & Growth Leader

Leadership StrategiesCustomer Activation and GrowthGrowth and ScalingCustomer Activation and Growth
min Article
Norm Yustin
May 20, 2024
7 min
Leadership StrategiesCustomer Activation and GrowthGrowth and ScalingCustomer Activation and Growth
Executive Summary
A new generation Customer Activation & Growth leaders are focusing on enterprise growth via a consumer-centric, tech-enabled agenda.


As technology innovation and adoption continues to increase at unprecedented rates, companies are finally embracing the evolution of go-to-market leaders into customer activation and growth leaders—realizing they need to seamlessly bring marketing and technology closer together.

Customer Activation and Growth (CAG) leaders continue to lead all go-to-market initiatives across the enterprise, but now operate alongside, or in some cases integrated into, the technology function. CAG leaders can be called chief customer officers, commercial officers, digital officers, revenue officers, customer experience officers, sales officers, product officers, growth officers, and, yes, marketing officers—regardless of title, their main remit is to activate the customer and grow the business, and it’s usually done in close alignment with technology. And this wide-ranging role is gaining ground—in 2023, we tracked 17% more global CAG appointments than in 2022.

Traditionally seen as marketing leaders, brand creatives, or communication strategists, customer activation and growth leaders have evolved into vital drivers of monetization, innovation, customer experience, AI transformation, and data-driven decision-making. This stems from the rise of digital marketing, social media, and advanced analytics like AI and ML, which have fundamentally altered the way companies interact with customers.

Starting in 2020, Russell Reynolds Associates began tracking global customer activation and growth leader hires across all industries to provide a greater understanding of CAG leadership trends within the context of rapid digitalization, changing consumer behaviors, and heightened emphasis on data-driven strategies.

This report shares findings gleaned from the 13,000+ publicly disclosed CAG leadership appointments tracked during this timeframe. These learnings include:

  • The CMO role isn’t going away—it’s consciously uncoupling 
  • The gender parity chief marketing officers have achieved doesn’t represent all customer activation and growth leaders
  • Internal promotions are growing, but external hiring still dominates
  • Companies are favoring industry expertise over outside perspective


The CMO role isn’t going away—it’s consciously uncoupling

The chief marketing officer (CMO) role has evolved dramatically from focusing on brand stewardship to driving customer activation, innovation, and growth. This shift was propelled by the digital revolution, which demands a blend of technical savvy and creative insight to harness data, digital marketing, and AI for deeper customer engagement.

These shifts have been all over the (marketing) news; numerous headlines ask if the CMO role is disappearing. The answer? It’s complicated.

Year over year chief marketing officer appointments have remained steady since 2021, with a slight dip in 2023 (Figure 1).


Figure 1: YoY Customer activation and growth role appointments (2020-2023)

YoY Customer activation and growth role appointments (2020-2023)

Source: RRA proprietary "CAG Moves Analysis," 2020-2023, n=13,638


Rather than eliminating the CMO role, more companies are taking a “conscious uncoupling” approach. While there is still a need for traditional marketing leaders, organizations are increasingly emphasizing roles that are directly connected to revenue generation, product development, and commercial strategy, reflecting organizations’ evolving priorities. The slow in traditional CMO appointments signals a strategic pivot towards roles that encapsulate the modern demands of driving customer engagement and business growth in a digital age. Companies are increasingly appointing roles like chief commercial officer (who have experienced a 78% increase in hiring between 2020 and 2023), chief revenue officer (73%), and chief digital officer (73%), reflecting a broader growth mandate (Figure 2). These titles, while varying, underscore a unified objective: leveraging digital insights and customer-centric strategies to fuel business expansion.

The leaders who currently hold or once held CMO roles aren’t out of a job. They just might have a new job title in near future, that is, if they expand their toolkit beyond the traditional marketing skills.


Figure 2: Growth rate of top Customer activation & growth appointments (2020-2023)

Growth rate of top Customer activation & growth appointments (2020-2023)

Source: RRA proprietary "CAG Moves Analysis," 2020-2023, n=13,638


The unfortunate misconception around CAG leadership gender parity

Gender parity in the C-Suite continues to be a challenge across the globe. Within that context, CAG leaders face a unique layer. Similar to other C-suite roles, appointments for men CAG leaders far outpace total women appointments (Figure 3). Our data indicates a very gradual shift towards more gender-balanced leadership teams, with a slight increase in women appointments over the years, although the pace of change appears slow with a slight dip from 2022 (32%) to 2023 (31%). This aligns with current trends of women in leadership roles growing, albeit very slowly.


Figure 3: YoY men vs women CAG appointments (2020-2023)

YoY men vs women CAG appointments (2020-2023)

Source: RRA proprietary "CAG Moves Analysis," 2020-2023, n=13,638


Because the chief marketing officer role is closest to gender parity—with women holding 48% of CMO roles globally, and men holding 52%--and because the CMO role is typically representative of the broader CAG function, there is common misconception that CAG leaders are closer to overall gender parity than other C-suite roles (Figure 4). Unfortunately, this is not true.

Between 2020 and 2023, the only CAG role where women outnumbered men was the chief communications officer (comprised of 65% women vs. 35% men). Chief brand officers are equally balanced (49% women vs. 51% men); as well as aforementioned chief marketing officers.

However, men dominate chief revenue (89%), chief sales (88%), chief product (81%), chief commercial (79%) and chief digital (78%) officer roles.

Overall, there is still a large disparity between the genders in CAG leadership roles, with women being underrepresented, especially in revenue and sales-oriented positions. Yes, there have been steps in the right direction over recent years, but CAG leaders are far from parity.


Figure 4: CAG role appointments by gender (2020-2023)

CAG role appointments by gender (2020-2023)

Source: RRA proprietary "CAG Moves Analysis," 2020-2023, n=13,638


Internal promotions are growing, but external hires still dominate

Since 2020, there has been a 30% increase in the number of internal appointments for customer activation and growth leaders. This increase can most likely be attributed to the current economic environment, in which marketing budgets have been reduced and companies are looking to upskill their current teams. Don’t be fooled though—despite this increase, external appointments still far outweighed internal appointments (77% vs 33%) over the past four years. Put another way: if you’re second in line for the chief marketing officer position, you have a one in four chance of getting that role.

Unsurprisingly, chief customer officers are most often internally appointed, as these leaders need a deep knowledge of engaging and maintaining the company’s current consumer, along with acquiring new ones. Who better than someone who’s already embedded in the business, familiar with the customer and the strategic direction of the company? Conversely, we see 82% of chief revenue officers coming from outside the organization. This is because chief revenue officers are brought in to help companies achieve growth, market impact, efficiency and speed of execution; to achieve these new ways of thinking, organizations typically look externally (Figure 5).

Not far behind CROs were chief digital officers, with 79% externally appointed. Given the recent proliferation of generative AI and renewed focus on digital transformation, companies are looking for leaders with experience driving change and innovation to achieve their digital objectives.


Figure 5: External vs. internal CAG appointments (2020-2023)

Internal vs. external CAG appointments by role (2020-2023)

Source: RRA proprietary "CAG Moves Analysis," 2020-2023, n=13,638


While organizations tend to look within industry for their CAG leaders, some sectors are branching out

Over the past few years, most customer activation and growth appointments came from within their current industry (Figure 6). The logic is similar to hiring a customer officer from an internal pool of candidates; companies are most comfortable hiring a leader who already understands their latest business trends and current market challenges, yet can also bring a fresh perspective with a competitive advantage. This has been especially important, given the current economic and digital challenges companies are facing.


Figure 6: CAG appointments by industry, same vs. different (2020-2023)

CAG appointments by industry, same vs. different (2020-2023)

Source: RRA proprietary "CAG Moves Analysis," 2020-2023, n=13,638


Traditional sectors such as financial services, industrial, and healthcare are deeply rooted in industry expertise, which makes cross-pollination more difficult (Figure 7). For example, in the healthcare space, external hires from a different industry declined from 38% to 30%. Service firms also hired far less from another industry, decreasing from 54% of hires to just 12%. Financial services also hired far less from outside its sector, with external-to-financial services hires declining from 40% in 2022 to just 24% in 2023.

However, our data shows one historically traditional sector changing its external hiring approach: Industrial and Natural Resources. Since 2021, the industrial sector actually began seeking external expertise, increasing these hires from 29% to 37%.  This variation reflects the specific challenges and opportunities faced by each sector, including the pace of digital transformation and the need for innovative strategies to navigate post-pandemic market dynamics.


Figure 7: External CAG appointments from a different industry (2021-2023)

External CAG appointments from a different industry (2021-2023)

Source: RRA proprietary "CAG Moves Analysis," 2021-2023, n=12,296


What’s next for CAG leaders?

The evolving customer activation and growth leadership landscape underscores the need for roles that align with the current realities of digital transformation, consumer-centric strategies, and the importance of inclusivity. As these roles pivot to accommodate digital imperatives, CAG leaders are presented with opportunities to expand their influence, becoming strategic partners and thought leaders.

The future of customer activation and growth leadership is not in preserving titles. Rather, it hinges on embracing these broadened roles, enabling leaders to drive organizational impact through deepened customer-centric strategies and digital transformation efforts to achieve enterprise growth.




Norm Yustin leads the Russell Reynolds Associates' Customer Activation & Growth practice. He is based in Chicago.
Antoinetta Canada leads Russell Reynolds Associates’ Customer Activation & Growth Knowledge team. She is based in Chicago.