How to successfully hire marketers - and be hired - outside of category

We explore the dos and don'ts for hiring managers, CMOs and senior marketers when weighing up candidates for a job outside of category or sector expertise

Diversity of thought and experience are touted as increasingly important ways for organisations to get ahead, devise competitive advantage, build resilience and innovative thinking culturally, implement change and ultimately, drive growth.  

Yet as CMO discovered in our exploration of out-of-category hiring, many Australian organisations continue to exhibit detrimentally conservative behaviour when it comes to hiring marketers, particularly those from a different sector or category.  

There are plenty of reasons why it’s good practice to look outside the square when recruiting marketing leaders and into the marketing function itself. And as we experience a candidate’s market thanks to the great resignation, low unemployment rates, further digital acceleration and a dearth of mid to senior-level experience across Australia’s marketing fraternity, organisations are going to have to shake off those category confines and start thinking differently if they’re to build strong, resilient and innovative teams.  

But if you can’t rely on category experience as a determinant of whether a marketer is a good fit, what other attributes, traits, experiences and other elements can you look for instead? How can you weigh someone up if they’re not from the same category, background and experience as you?  

And if you’re a marketer who’s looking to shift, how do you best position yourself for success in another sector or industry?  

Here, the second in-depth report in our hiring for diversity series, we explore some of the dos and don’ts for hiring out-of-category marketing professionals from Australian leaders, managers and recruiters who’ve done just that.  

Know what capabilities you’re after – or pitching

Swinburne University of Technology deputy vice-chancellor, global and community engagement, Dr Andrew J Smith, knew out-of-category experience was likely to bear fruit when the opportunity to hire a new chief marketing officer came up. In his case, hiring for digital expertise and capability was a deciding factor for recruiting former financial services marketer, Carolyn Bendall, to the CMO post.

“I used an agency to assist with the recruitment process for our current CMO and there wasn’t a specific brief to hire from outside the higher education sector, but they did need to have leading edge digital experience as we were coming to the end of a significant project having implemented the Adobe Experience Cloud,” he explains. “This precluded many in the higher education sector as we were somewhat behind other sectors in this regard.”

What’s more, Dr Smith said the experience Bendall offered as a marketer as well as people leader came to the fore.

“In a sense, this may become self-determining in fields such as marketing. Ultimately, however, it is the person we hire, not their experience, so the personal attributes around caring for others, humility and trustworthiness are paramount in my opinion for appointing people into leadership positions,” he continues.

“The higher education sector is becoming less conservative in our hiring practices. A decade ago, it was rare for senior roles to be filled by people without higher education sector experience, and this is certainly no longer the case – the Vice Chancellor of University of Sydney is a case in point. This also reflects the evolution of universities in terms of our maturity with contemporary business practices.

“Simply put, diversity is better for business. Bringing in people with different backgrounds and different ways of thinking is essential in developing a high-performing workforce. I have no doubt that universities may be different to other sectors, but ultimately having an engaged and passionate workforce is what all good leaders should work towards.”

Demonstrate fresh but data-led thinking

For her part, the number one asset Bendall believes a CMO brings to their new category is fresh eyes. 

“Unencumbered by accepted norms and constraints around ‘how things are done around here’, you can question everything, probe deeply and challenge the conventions in your new category.  This is especially so in your first 90 days,” she says. “However, I’d advise any marketer to stay curious and remain a student of your new market for as long as you possibly can.”

That’s because switching categories brings different drivers - of brand choice, differences in market positioning and brand health, and different products and services themselves, Bendall says. It’s therefore important to be data-led and understand your new category, end-to-end. 

“For example, I switched from the banking and finance sector to the higher education sector.  Two very different categories, and yet the experience I brought to this new market has held me in good stead. I was able to apply fresh eyes and 12 months’ worth of insatiable curiosity to understand the market and its various segments, uncover the accepted conventions and, perhaps most importantly, articulate the key rational and emotional drivers of brand choice.

“Yet it was important to side-step any notion that I knew the key undergraduate segment deeply just because I had led a similar demographic segment of ‘young money’ in my previous category. Aside from the obvious differences in product propositions, the choice drivers and path to purchase were fundamentally different, as were key influencers. And of course, media consumption doesn’t stand still for a moment these days.”

Gauge on potential to perform

Six Degrees Executive manager of marketing and sales in Queensland, Fabian Paterson, explains candidates are usually assessed for key skills and their track record in achieving certain role requirements such as managing teams, activating projects, delivering results or implementing change.

“While experience can be a good indicator, hiring for the capability and potential to perform a role may offer a better future indicator of success,” he says. “With the current rate of change we are all experiencing, marketers who can quickly adapt and learn will be more likely to prosper.

“Assess evidence of a candidate’s track record in key aspects for the role, as well as their ability to adapt, change, learn and take on new information. Candidates who have successfully made a similar transition previously is a good indicator to look for. It’s also important to look at the alignment with organisational values and culture, and with the people they’ll work with to evaluate a candidate’s potential more holistically.”

Partner at 100 Percent Partners, Michele Phillips, advises hiring managers and marketers looking to bring fresh faces into their teams to consider what’s driving their hiring choices.

“Is it driven by minimising risk, and hiring someone with category knowledge, or on maximising return, by hiring for strategic skills, leadership skills, innovation and creativity?” she asks.

In Yvette Costi’s case, she’s built her career as a marketing leader by harnessing three native skills: Problem solving, direct communication and the ability to get people to trust her. These are universal skills that apply to any industry, category and company.

“I’ve used these three skills, coupled with a 22-year career, to become a ‘fixer’ CMO,” she says. “Driven, capable and intelligent people can figure out your buzzwords and jargon. Pay them for something more impressive than that.”   

Consider the appetite for change

When Jane Merrick thinks about the qualities that make a candidate the right fit, she also sees attitude, cultural and value alignment and potential as overcoming any industry or professional gaps. This is particularly critical when you’re coming in to be a change agent.

“I would ask myself if the person has these attributes and more importantly, do they want to be in the role and see the potential of the impact they can make,” the Intuit marketing leader says.

Former Mercer chief customer officer, Cambell Holt, has also sought appetite for taking on a fresh challenge when hiring marketers outside of category and sector into his own teams.

“If you are going to cross-category, you have to be up for the challenge culturally and in terms of ways of working. There is invariably going to be a strong learning curve. If you don’t have that intellectual curiosity and learning orientation you may not make it,” he says.  

“My advice to those looking to make sector shifts is to be able to position what you bring to that context in terms of skills and experience. There will absolutely be things they will bring, such as different perspective on culture, ways of working. It’s about lowering the risk profile for the hiring manager by highlighting the things you will bring to a role that are beneficial in a new sector.”

Follow a strategic role matrix

Intuit HR business partner for Australia, Nada Wassef, warns the hiring period can be problematic if you don’t implement a process of screening and don’t stick to the requirements of the role you are hiring for.

“If you compromise for the skillset required for the role, you jeopardise the quality of the candidate and this will almost always have a flow on impact to the team and wider business,” she advises. “By sticking to a plan that embodies value, skillset and craft alignment to the role and company, you are able to hire for culture and people fit and mitigate the risk of bringing in candidates that may have outdated views and ways of working and thinking.

“This is vital in tech organisations in particular where the environment is ever changing, and at a fast pace. You would be doing a major disservice to both the candidate and the organisation if you didn’t hire for this culture.” 

At Intuit, the guiding light is to look for candidates in-line with its corporate values. “Because we hire talent wherever they are in Australia, we actually have a larger pool of talent,” Wassef continues. “We look for people who are exceptional at their craft, have a hunger to learn a new category, as well as sharing their thinking and ideas. 

“Some questions that come to mind when we are thinking about this is: Do they have a hunger to learn a new category? Do they have a hunger for delivering the best possible customer experience and are passionate about impacting customer’s lives, regardless of the function? These are non-negotiables when we look to when hiring outside of technology. 

“We know innately that diversity of thought and experience drives creativity and fresh ideas. Leaders can recognise the impact it has on driving change and problem solving, and should be proactively seeking out diverse opinions, not just when hiring but by being vigilant in getting input from team members from all backgrounds and levels in the day-to-day.” 

Use the interview process wisely

Former Carnival Cruise Line marketing director and experience marketing professional, Jayne Andrews, advises hiring managers of all shapes and sizes to use the interview process to drill down on key skills required across marketing. Like Costi, her top attributes are problem solving, critical thinking and creativity. 

“Also, it is important to make sure if they haven't worked in a category, they have enough interest to deep dive into the category quickly and learn the basics. That’s not necessarily the marketing, but just how the industry works,” she says. “Have they taken the time before the interview to pick up on the general category news and industry trends already? Ask questions on how they'll get up to speed. What will they do in their first few weeks to fill any knowledge gaps? 

“Also ask questions around their current category experience and how they think they can apply those lessons in their new role.” 

Michael Page Australia director, Laura Holden, always tells marketers wanting to change category or industry to go above and beyond on immersing themselves in the new space to get the job.

“Do the research, become a consumer if you can of the business, review socials, review campaigns, look at what worked versus what you would have done differently,” she says. “Many organisations want someone who will share their passions.”

More obvious questions pertaining to marketing hires could then be around practical and functional skills required for the role regardless of category, such as experience working with agencies, examples of how a marketer measures success of a campaign and project management examples, Andrews says. 

In a similar vein, Westpac head of marketing strategy and campaigns for business lending, Melanie Portelli, sees attitude as worth its weight in gold.

“I believe you can really pick this up in how a CV is written and how the discussion unfolds in an interview. It does take a bit of gut instinct and I appreciate people can present an alternative version of themselves in an interview, but if you ask the right pointy questions, you can unpack a lot in an hour,” she says. “Simply asking them what skills or experience they have which they believe would benefit the team is an obvious place to start. From what I’ve observed, the most progressive and diverse companies are moving away from skills-based hiring to outcomes-based hiring, such as what results you have delivered.

“Skills are transferable, the ability to deliver is often not.”

Skill up in tech and digital

With demand for technology and digital skills continuing to rise, Phillips advises all marketers to work on increasing their use of both. These skills will not only help them in their current role but provide key skills for making the transition to a new category or sector.

Another piece of advice from Phillips for marketers looking shift into a new category is to think about the macro growth opportunities for the sector they’re looking at joining.

“Some industries are sunset industries, where we will see greater redundancies and teams contracting, and some industries are sunrise industries, where they plan to hire exponentially in the future,” she explains.

“Look to growth industries, like fintech, ecommerce or software-as-a-service, which may need to hire from outside their industry because their demand for talent is so high. If you are between jobs, there may be merit in taking an interim role in a sunrise industry, even if it is a slightly lower remuneration, so you can get different skills and experiences on your CV.”

Read more:
What is it going to take to hire marketers outside category?

 3 CMOs on how to successfully switch categories

Hire an outsider – it’s the best risk you’ll ever take

How brand leaders are building diversity and inclusion into team approach

How a policy of diversity and inclusion helps improve CX

Don’t miss out on the wealth of insight and content provided by CMO A/NZ and sign up to our weekly CMO Digest newsletters and information services here.  

You can also follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, follow our regular updates via CMO Australia's Linkedin company page               



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