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

New path to the top 

The rise of performance-based marketing, James believes, has made marketing managers more commercial. Not only that, the marketing role is becoming increasingly relevant to businesses as the customer experience and CMO’s influence on digital journeys and products, all become stronger business drivers. James feels executive pathways, especially in financial institutions, have changed. 

“Now I feel like there’s a real changing of the guard,” she says. “The ultimate product is money so you feel felt like you need money and finance people leading the organisation. But more and more, winning is about creating that really strong customer experience. There’s a shift occurring because CX is the brand and force of the business.

“I do believe financial services businesses are tremendous opportunities for a CMO to embark on a CEO career because - with most businesses but especially in financial services - it’s increasingly about the customer and designing an incredibly strong customer experience. In financial services, all product delivery, all the vehicles these days and even a home loan all starts with a mobile phone and an app download. That's the product that’s being developed now."

James has observed the way the CMO role has stretched beyond marketing to develop customer insights, customer experiences and often product development. This broader remit has made the CMO more influential across an organisation. 

 “CMOS are incredibly influential. They’re the champion for the customer, they understand the customer relationship and its success drivers,” she continues. “That’s all becoming more central to more businesses and particularly with financial services businesses. Businesses are changing because of the digital world.  Commercial success is no longer about eking out every basis-point benefit of a product. It’s about a winning customer experience.” 

James sees her marketing and communications skills as an asset in her role at Humm and for all leaders. It helps communicate from the big picture and vision for the business down to the detailed steps to delivery or when simply encouraging an everyday flow of feedback – whether that’s from customers or the team. 

“I like to think I provide vision and the encouragement that brings out the best in people and makes them think of the opportunity [in the workplace] as bigger than way they might have ordinarily viewed it,” she says. 

James knows she sets high standards but has seen the benefits. “When people feel they’ve stretched themselves beyond their comfort zone and delivered – that's a fantastic feeling.” 

As important as communicating the big-picture vision is pragmatism about its execution. CEOs today, James says, need to balance sky-to-ground thinking with the nitty-gritty of capabilities. James believes she has an equal focus on strategy and execution and that it’s an important balance for a leader to maintain. 

“It’s important to set clear direction for the business but also to know that success is 95 per cent about the organisation’s ability to deliver against that,” she says. James adds she gained that from her role at CX Lavender, where digital experience was delivered to a vision – on time and on budget.

Otherwise, James says, inspiration can feel a "bit motherhood and hollow" if there’s if there’s a gap between the vision and an organisation’s ability to meet it.

“You’ve got to be really real about what it takes to deliver on that.”

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