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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Marketing owning customer experience

The road to CEO isn’t just a given, however. For Foote, one issue is marketers get too focused on communications and campaigns, digital leads or PR and remained siloed from the rest of the business.

“They don’t pull back often enough and think about the customer and what the customer values. And how to differentiate to better align to customer needs,” he says. “Of course those questions need to be thought about and answered, but if you’re not thinking about these bigger questions, you won’t advance, and be someone thinking at the top and with senior team about what the business is all about.”  

Yet even those marketers in silos are still in an “amazing position” to think about those key pieces of customer experience excellence, from how the business engages them, to how the business can improve products and services and services customers, Foote says.

“My brutal view is marketers spending money on campaign-based activations, when the business is not extremely clear that the products and services it offers is exceptional in terms of how it answers customer needs, is responsible,” he continues.  

“Business should be more product and services-led around customer needs. Then, once the organisation has developed something it believes and through research and asking customers looks to be of real value and will resonate with the target audience, there should a business case to show the need to go to market in different mediums with very measurable outcomes.

“That’s where there’s friction between the CMO and CFO/CEO – not being transparent enough on ROI across lots of marketing dollars being spent. It’s a very important piece to show before getting the keys to senior leadership.”

With so many channels to communicate through today and tools to automate effort, it’s easier than ever to engage customers in a more granular fashion, Foote agrees. “But it starts with understanding the customer and designing products or services that makes them realise the company really understands them and it’s fantastic,” he stresses.  

That where more robust data to articulate your business cases becomes an imperative, Foote says.

“Even in difficult situations, people have challenges and want to grow revenue, to experience less churn, and they want more effective marketing spend. The marketer’s job in many cases is to ensure the business case and data they’re presenting is very solid,” he says.  


Throughout his career, keeping a tight relationship between marketing and sales has been a vital for Foote, who says sales are often at the coal face with the customer. What’s changed is sales as an approach has gone from highly linear engagement, where people managed up and down, to a very complex environment where people manage across and every which way.

“Marketing plays a key role there,” he says. In addition, to be highly effective, today’s marketers need to understand technology, finance and operations so they can communicate effectively across the business and make sure the brand vision is being brought to life.

“Businesses succeed or otherwise by their closeness to the customer,” Foote adds.

Of course, it’s not just marketers who need to keep up their knowledge around customers. Foote is also clear on the need for more CEOs and boards to get up to scratch too. To help, AIM launched a course last year, entitled ‘digital marketing for non-marketers’, to encourage more leaders to build an understanding of programmatic media, Google, social, how targeting works across these platforms, and gathering data from these platforms.

“Traditionally these have been marketing tools but across the business you need to have more understanding,” he says. “The good news is there’s a realisation there needs to be that understanding and contributing to decision in these areas to be highly effective in business.”

Foote hopes the trend he’s starting to see of people from product and marketing backgrounds being placed in CEO is just the first wave in a new form of company leadership.

“I look forward to a second wave as boards realise their importance, and they’re replacing the CFOs,” he concludes. “At the moment, it feels like CFOs and business owners/entrepreneurs have ended up running businesses and now dominate boards across Australia. The latter are important, but it’s much more an admin rather than leadership function. We need to see more product and marketing than number guys as chiefs.”

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