Marketing Officers

Inside the Mind of the Chief Marketing Officer

Strong personalities take on the growth challenge

Inside the Mind of the CMO: Change agents at a crossroads


The Russell Reynolds Associates database—unique in that it contains more than 5,000 data points from the top ranks of corporations worldwide—allows us to make statistically driven observations about the characteristics possessed by leaders in a particular field.

Our methodology was straightforward: We compared 36 CMOs from companies totaling more than $1.5 trillion in market capitalization with our broader database of executives (as well as with chief executive officers (CEO) and other C-suite figures) on 60 psychometric scales from well-validated leadership assessments to understand on which scales the CMOs showed statistical differences from the other populations.

CMO overview: An extreme profile in thinking and action

Compared with other C-suite figures, CMOs have a markedly extreme leadership and behavioral profile. They differ from the overall executive population across a large number of attributes and to a significant degree on several of those attributes.

The first set of attributes centers on CMOs’ innovative, pioneering spirit—they act unconventionally, test limits and are not beholden to structures. These traits conform well to a conventional mental picture of a CMO.

The second set of attributes provides a welcome explanation as to how these innovators are successful in action—they use their strong social orientation and persuasive tactics to operate in a remarkably active and productive fashion.

As their role grows and changes, CMOs increasingly look to the CEO role—with mixed results

CMOs aspiring to the CEO role can bring a uniquely innovative sensibility to that role. We found that chief marketing officers differ significantly from chief executive officers on nine psychometric attributes. CMOs hoping to become a CEO will find these traits may potentially help or hinder their forward career path.


  • Be in the right place. Faster-moving or more transformational industries, in particular, are better suited to the CMO leadership style, as are companies in the midst of change or innovation programs. CMOs may struggle as a CEO in more heavily regulated industries.

  • CMOs need to moderate how they display some of their more extreme attributes. CMOs test limits, are bold and are upfront in their influencing style. CEOs seek to understand different perspectives and involve others in decisions but do not overanalyze. They achieve success through others yet remain tough minded.

  • Make sure others are on board. The CMO leadership style can be unconventional, colorful and flashy. CEOs exhibit measured emotion. CEOs excel at calculated—not careless—risk taking. They display intensity but maintain control.

CMOs contrast strongly with CIOs/CTOs on certain core traits…and even more dramatically with CFOs

CMOs and chief information officers/chief technology officers (CIO/CTO) are increasingly being challenged to work closely together, and this partnership can be fruitful but rocky. One possible driver of this effect is the extreme personality of CMOs across four core traits. Compared with CIOs/CTOs, CMOs are far more unconventional, innovative, imaginative and willing to test limits.

Additionally, when we compare CMOs with chief financial officers (CFO), we see even greater gaps across these attributes. This reflects both the extreme personality of the CMO and the strong contrast we generally observe between CFOs and their other C-suite peers, reflecting the role CFOs play in managing risk by counterbalancing their colleagues’ more boundary-pushing traits.


  • Embrace stylistic differentiation within the C-suite. As the notion of “diversity of mindset” becomes an ever more desirable element of company culture, organizations should view a non-uniform C-suite as an asset, not a liability. By fending off groupthink, the sharp personality differences between CMOs and CIOs/CTOs or CFOs in fact drive creativity and enhance risk management.

  • Let CMOs be innovation engines on a scale broader than traditional Marketing’s turf. Because CMOs’ “imagination DNA” is so much stronger than other C-suite members’, CMOs can be usefully deployed to help solve problems innovatively across any number of areas—not just the typical Marketing remit.

CMOs and chief digital officers: Birds of a feather?

CMOs and chief digital officers are extreme personality types with a good deal of “leadership DNA” in common. Both groups show innovative thinking, intellectual openness and the ability to adapt their message across audiences.

However, while CDOs focus on disruption—leveraging their contemplative nature to engineer new ways to push the envelope—CMOs, true to their functional role, are far more focused on straightforward selling. They are change agents up to a point but then prioritize persuasion, whereas CDOs would choose to break down barriers.



  • Communicate and influence the board and CEO to help drive the company’s digital understanding and engagement.

  • Ensure that digital efforts are highly contextualized to overall company strategy.


  • Concretely drive digital transformation efforts.

  • Serve as organizational provocateur on digital topics—continually open up new areas of inquiry.

As the CMO role splinters, different psychological attributes may come to the fore

Perhaps even more fascinating than the psychological picture of CMOs today is the potential schism within the role going forward. On one hand, companies seeking greater disruption than what today’s CMOs can provide are appointing a chief digital officer or chief innovation officer. On the other hand, companies seeking to harness the CMO role to more growth-oriented business goals are creating a chief customer/experience officer or chief growth officer position.

What’s next for CMOs?

As the CMO role continues to morph, companies will benefit from understanding the following dynamics:


RICHARD SANDERSON leads many of the firm’s chief marketing officer, communications, digital and e-commerce search assignments in all industries. He has recruited chief marketing officers for financial services, healthcare, retail, and consumer products and services clients across the country. He is based in Chicago.

NORM YUSTIN advises clients in our Consumer Sector with functional expertise in retail organizations and marketing officers. Before joining Russell Reynolds Associates, he was a two-time chief marketing officer and has recruited marketing executives throughout his career. He has worked and lived in five countries across three continents and is now based in Chicago.

MALLORY SAMSON is the firm’s Global Knowledge Leader for the Consumer Sector, inclusive of chief marketing officers. She is based in Chicago.

MELISSA SWIFT is the firm’s Global Knowledge Leader for Leadership & Succession. She is based in New York.

Analysis was conducted by ERIN MARIE CONKLIN.

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Inside the Mind of the Chief Marketing Officer