Do I Want to Be a CMO?

Candid conversations about the messy middle

You’re 18 and graduating from high school. Your family, friends, teachers ask the age-old question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Fast forward: You’re 22, just landed your first, real “adult” job, and it’s in some marketing-adjacent field. Suddenly, you’re 30 and have crushed it at said job and now have three direct reports. You blink, and you’re 38(-ish) not exactly where you thought you’d be and have found yourself asking the same question from 20 years ago, “What do I want to be when I grow up?”  

Call it what you will—a quarter-life crisis or loss of purpose or losing your way altogether—this is an uncomfortable realization for many and something that’s often not discussed out loud. We’re expected to clearly understand what we are working towards and stick firmly to that path. But that path, as we know, is rarely a straight line and the hurdles we face as we traverse it are the types of things you don’t learn how to deal with until they’re smack in front of you. Navigating your career can involve re-calculating, and it’s easier to find your way when you have tools supporting your journey. We had the opportunity to listen in on a conversation with Soyoung Kang, CMO at eos and Adweek executive mentees Catherine Chao and Yukela Williams. In it, they tackle the provocative elephant-in-the-room question every marketer asks themself at some point…do I want to be a CMO?

The following highlights what we learned and thoughtful considerations that may make you see this topic through a new lens or provide actionable advice that allows you to push through the gray. 

CMO = chief many-things officer 

What we already know: The job definition is constantly evolving, and the position is a revolving door, with Spencer Stuart reporting only a 40-month average tenure

Hot take: The role is as unique as casting a leading actor: when it works, it’s magic. But, it takes work.

Take it from someone who’s been there:

  • As much as any one of us wants to meticulously plot out and know, ‘I’m gonna do this in order to get here, to get to here’; the reality is, very few careers look like that. And it’s never been more evident to me that the whole playbook is being rewritten. Case in point: the last couple of years in the pandemic have taught me that you can curate an eclectic set of professional experiences. You might not find everything you want in one day job, but it’s easier than ever to curate various opportunities and figure out how you’re gonna fill in the edges. —Soyoung
  • Calibrating to market means articulating your story in a way that your skillset is valued,  but be mindful of how you’re also calibrating to the team. Every team member has a unique skill set – if you can contribute to create the right balance and have fun—that is winning! —Catherine
  • The saying, “The art and science of marketing” applies here. We often find ourselves having to educate our peers on a leadership level about the scope of marketing and how best to work with us. But it’s important to do so, because over time, it carves out a solid position for marketing, one as a respected business partner and beyond any potential limiting assumptions. This creates an opportunity to customize the CMO position to what the organization needs–and requires you (CMO) to sell into your team–your brand–how you would approach it. —Yukela
  • There are two things that a lot of people talk about when exploring new roles: learning and leading. I think there are three: learning, leading, and educating. Some roles require educating internal stakeholders on the value of marketing a lot more than others, so it’s important to assess that based on aspects such as the business model, industry,  maturity, and size of the company. —Catherine

Embrace that you’ll always be a noob

What we already know: Being an expert at and having relevant experience in everything is impossible, which can be scary. 

Hot take: You can’t be entirely fearless … but you could fear less. 

Take it from someone who’s been there:

  • I think it’s impossible to be the expert at everything; since innovation is core to being a CMO, there will always be things that I don’t know. The worst thing that a leader can do is close off any room for innovation, by being very specific and overly prescriptive. And then when people start to tailor the work to do what they think you expect, it’s basically this downward spiral of mediocrity and sameness over time. You never break out of that because everybody’s just doing what they think you want. —Soyoung 
  • The word ‘fearless’ is used a lot in our industry, and while it can bring inspiration to some, I’ve always found it impractical for myself. I don’t think I’ll ever be fearless, but in 2018, I resolved to simply fear less, and it has turned into an atomic habit and unlocked how I navigate life and enjoy the process. —Catherine

Career pathing is a game of date/marry/kill

What we already know: External barriers (resources, team members, etc.) aside, your success and fulfillment in your job (career) is what you make it.

Hot take: Marry the career, date the job, kill the role.

Take it from someone who’s been there:

  • The reality is there’s no such thing as the “right” role. It’s the old adage about Mr. Right vs. Mr. Right now. Find the job that’s right for right now. And who knows, it could be your forever role. Or it could be a really, really great learning opportunity that happens to be a more transitional role. Either way, I recommend finding the things that are right for you now, and then as long as the role continues to be right for you…stay. Once it’s not right for you anymore, then you start to explore other options. It’s the organization’s job and leadership’s job to continue to make it right for you, to keep you, and give you a reason to stay. But organizations, cultures shift over time, the roles shift over time, the needs of the business and the brand shift over time. And sometimes you’re just not the right person for that role anymore. And that’s OK too. For me, it’s all a matchmaking game that continuously evolves. —Soyoung 
  • There’s always an aspiration of what a role could be, but it’s important to be realistic about what the role is today. I find that org readiness and leadership are the two factors that often inform how enjoyable my day-to-day job will be and whether the aspiration will become a reality. —Catherine

We’re playing pickleball, not golf 

What we already know: Your career isn’t a straight line, and every journey looks different. 

Hot take: Arriving at the C-suite isn’t a final destination. Instead, it’s a passport to move laterally/backward/forward to re-ground in your leadership style and what impact you want to have on the work and society at large.

Take it from someone who’s been there:

  • It’s important to make sure you’re not solely pursuing that golden title as a zero-sum game. Going after the right role, the right time, the right brand, somewhere you can see yourself adding value and being supported to thrive can be more important than begrudgingly taking an opportunity because you feel like you ‘should’ take it. However, there are points when you take calculated chances to grow, but you should be clear about what you’re optimizing for. —Yukela 
  • I really believe that career journeys are a series of calibrations instead of a straight line. Every time I take on a role, I learn something new and I calibrate to the next move. The collective set of experiences that I’m creating as a professional, along with my additional side hustles, which have also been a part of my journey. And I really consider that part of my holistic career journey as opposed to my job as a CMO being my career. —Soyoung 

So, do you want to be CMO? 

There’s no right or wrong answer, and the gray in between is where introspection, learning and discovery all take place. How each of us defines success may look different, and the path to our next destination should be as unique as each of us. 

We hope these insights, perspectives and different ways of thinking about a topic we’ve all tried to untangle bring a sense of clarity and curiosity as you consider your own career path and journey. 

This article is a part of The Gray Area, a new series that embraces the discomfort of this career moment through candid conversation in our community contributed by Adweek executive mentee alumni Jen Kling and Lucy Glaser. Are you squarely in the gray area? Join the party and share your experience with us. It may inspire a future topic and bring about even more shared experiences and camaraderie.