CMO to CEO: Why it's a great time for marketers to lead business

Australian Institute of Management chief and former marketer, Ben Foote, details what it took to climb to the top job, and why he thinks there's never been a better time for marketers to lead companies

Ben Foote
Ben Foote

Being a great CEO means constantly working on your own leadership skills, as well as having a clear-eyed view on the customer, the Australian Institute of Management’s chief, Ben Foote, believes.

“Leadership is a lifelong learning – you make mistakes all the time, so you have to be self-aware about getting better at leadership,” he tells CMO. “That not only affects your direct teams; leadership is a decision you make yourself. People think it’s just a direct relationship between a leader and people reporting to them, but you need to constantly work at being a leader across the business.”

With that comes the need for excellent communication skills and creating great relationships in different parts of the business, something Foote agrees requires a lot of work.

“But in that sense, you gain the trust and respect for people to be able to support you as you move into more senior positions,” he says.  

The other vital pillar of successful leadership is being customer-led, something that’s more important than ever given how fast everything is moving.

“If you’re not continually innovating and getting closer and closer to your customers, someone else is going to and your organisation will struggle to keep up,” Foote warns. “You see that time and time again with businesses losing contact with their customers, and going from hero to zero in a short amount of time. The trend now is to have leaders who are very close to the customer.”

The good news for CMOs is it’s this combination of leadership, commitment to learning and customer focus Foote believes make marketers the ideal candidate for the next generation of organisational leadership.

He cites a rising trend of Australian recruiters looking to fill CEO positions with individuals that boast strong marketing backgrounds. This lies in direct contrast to the historic preference for finance or operational leaders for the top job.

“There are a lot of good leadership traits you could throw over most marketers. They have a lot of the soft skills necessary to lead teams and large teams with different sorts of functions,” Foote says. “A lot are good communicators, as it’s a key part of the role.

“The old trend was the CFO was next in line and could run a business through the P&L. But I think that will become a very rare state moving forward.

“Marketers are in fortunate position that their job is to understand the customer or potential customer extremely well. There’s nothing more important in business than understanding the customer so the organisation can acquire new ones by ensuring products and services add huge amounts of value to the customer and company. And for customers they already have, there’s no better person to be defining how the business interacts with those customers across their journey.”

In this vein, Foote says one of his idols in business is Walt Disney. “He had a simple principle: Exceed customer expectations at every point. If you do that, you’re a long way along the journey to being successful,” he says.

“Marketers are luckily the people who make that happen. They’re in a great position to lead the business, not just a function.”

Moving from CMO to CEO

Foote knows first-hand what it takes to move up the ranks from marketing executive to leader, then group strategist, divisional leader and now CEO. He started his career at small New Zealand ISP, iHug, moving on to marketing executive then head of a 12-strong team. From there, he put his hand up to help set up the new Australian division and within 12 months was second-in-command of a 150-person business unit.

After selling iHug to iiNet in 2004, Foote went overseas, undertook an MBA, then came back to Australia into a product marketing role across Optus’ new pre-paid offering. It’s there he says he truly learnt the marketing trade and specifically, how to harness data to drive competitive edge.

“We had so much data on the customer, which I felt not many people in marketing teams were taking enough of a look at and making decisions based on. But I thought data made the job so straightforward,” he recalls. “That data told me what customer value drivers were when they chose which business to go with, where their perceptions in the market fell, plus who was leading in different areas of value.

“My strategy was to choose a couple of key value drivers then differentiate significantly on those against our competitors. It’s common sense if it’s an important value driver and you add more value than your competitors, you will gain market share. And we did, going from number three to number one in pre-paid in 12 months.”

From there, Foote shifted to head of strategy, followed by managing director for large SingTel Optus subsidiary, PPS.

“I understood the customer well, then put my hand up for opportunities that I was rewarded with,” he says. “A principle throughout my career has always been to firstly work hard and do as good a job as I could. Secondly, it’s to put my hand up for any opportunity to take on more. Now I lead a lot of people, I have realised very few people put their hands up to do more work, or look for new opportunities.

“But what I’ve also found is people who put their hands up when new opportunities come up are then the first to be selected for roles.”  

Wanting to gain more digital experience, Foote joined CareerOne as director of marketing, rising up to COO then CEO. Again, by taking a very customer-centric view on the job seeker, CareerOne showed strong growth during that time, he says. His next and current role is with AIM, which he joined nearly just over a year ago.

“With the world moving so quickly, people need to be able to upskill to ensure change for them is positive, not negative,” he says. “AIM is the largest short course provider in Australia, running programs up to MBA level. We can positively impact people and by learning new skills, can rapidly change the workplace.”

Up next: Marketing better owning CX, plus the top relationships that marketers need to foster

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