CMO to CEO: How Humm Group's Rebecca James designed her path to the top

This former marketing chief and now CEO believes the financial services sector is full of promise for CMOs setting their sights on a CEO role

Humm Group CEO, Rebecca James
Humm Group CEO, Rebecca James

Growing up in an entrepreneurial family where both parents ran their own businesses, Rebecca James was always aware of the basics of business and running your own show. 

“My dad would be counting his day’s takings at the dining table and I was learning what profit and loss were,” James tells CMO. “Being able to design your own pathway is something I’ve had ingrained into me.” 

Later, she carved the arc of her career quite deliberately. James gained experience in marketing communications and customer experience consulting when CX was taking off, working with some of Australia’s leading CEOs who inspired her towards the top job. Then she chose a bank CMO role to deepen her financial experience and enable her to set her sights on a CEO role. 

Now the CEO of Humm Group, a diversified financial services group, James firmly believes the financial services sector holds opportunities for CMOs interested in the CEO position.  

James says her first marketing role at American Express was a fantastic foundation. Yet after about five years there, she “got the bug” about working for a communications agency. This led to working with startup, CX Lavender, a marketing communications and customer experience agency.

When she joined, she was only the firm’s second or third hire. Yet the move took her on a steep trajectory and was a hugely influential experience.  

Inspirational leaders 

As client services director at CX Lavender, James was dealing with blue-chip clients such as American Express, Westpac St George, Telstra and BT financial group.  

“I was such a sponge in that period, not only absorbing everything about the CX work we were developing and championing but also the exposure to clients’ leaders and executives," James says. "I saw how they led their teams, the way they thought about strategy and the cultures they created in each of their businesses. It was such a privilege to be in that position, especially as I was so young at the time.”  

The company grew rapidly and James grew with it. She became managing director and third partner in CX Lavender at 27, alongside the chief technical officer and a founding partner who moved to strategy as James moved into the MD role. At that time, CX Lavender had about 180 staff and offices in Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland and Wellington, and her management experience broadened.  

“It was a lot of fun and I learned a tremendous amount because the role of agencies and consultancies was undergoing massive change and our focus was on CX, and so many projects became digital projects, development of which required a blending of creative and technical minds.” 

Read more: Why it's a great time for CMOs to lead businesses

James is sure she made a lot of mistakes in the process but has always been open to feedback and criticism, which she says is “truly a gift”. She was inspired by the calibre of leaders of clients and her aspirations lifted higher. 

“Because of our blue-chip roster, I had this wonderful opportunity dealing with corporates just as CX was becoming the heart of business strategies,” she says.  

Having driven the business for 15 years, James started to wonder, “is this ‘it’ for me or do I want to be one of those executives in a bigger, more corporate organisation?”. 

“I wondered if I was to have one of these roles in one of these types of businesses that I consulted to, what would I do differently? I decided to put my money where my mouth is,” James says. 

Commercial credibility 

To become CEO of a bigger business, James knew she would have to demonstrate that she could do more than customer experience and more than communications. She needed to demonstrate she was also incredibly commercial. 

“When you’re coming at a CEO role from a marketing background, one of the misconceptions is that marketers are not as commercial as other line managers that are sitting around the executive table. You need to demonstrate that’s not the case and that you are commercially minded,” she advises. 

Part of James’ reason for taking CMO role at ME Bank was that the position had responsibility for product profit and loss as well as communications, CX and digitising the organisation. 

“The role and the organisation were big enough and small enough for me: The bank was small enough so that all those things were in one role; I had end-to end accountability for a business; the organisation was big enough to have the backing to fuel its growth ambition which was high,” she explains. 

ME Bank gave James confidence and from that vantage point, she could see the benefit for a CEO in having her marketing communications and CX experience. 

Up next: The marketing trends helping CMOs appeal as CEOs, but how to take that next step

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