CMO to CEO: What iSelect's chief did to get to the top job
- 09 September, 2021 19:19
Having the respect of the CFO and an ability to speak to both cause and effect is one of the vital skills CMOs need to earn their place at the executive leadership table today. And it’s also instrumental to making the leap up to CEO, iSelect CEO, Warren Hebard, says.
The former marketer took the top job at the ASX-listed comparisons marketplace last October, two-and-a-half years after joining iSelect as CMO. During this time, Hebard worked closely with the executive team, interim CEO and company chairman on a significant business turnaround plan including reversing inefficiencies in marketing performance and go-to-market activities.
Becoming a CEO is perhaps unsurprising for this self-confessed business and leadership professional. Having completed a marketing degree, Hebard started his professional life in ad land as an account executive. It’s this early mix of business category and professional exposure he believes set him up well.
“I think advertising is a great jumping off point for careers and your experience long term. It gives you so much broad exposure to different industries and many clients and experiences, as well as all levels of an organisation,” he tells CMO. “Within my first few weeks, I was sitting in meetings with a CFO and CEO of a mid-sized organisation pitching on a brand campaign. Meeting those stakeholders and understanding how a business operates outside of your own is an amazing thing to have early in your career.
“I have seen other industries where you’re on the bottom floor for a long time, not exposed to different ideas and thinking and importantly, different people at different levels of an organisation as quickly.”
Having gained wide industry scope, Hebard switched client-side and took a role with the Tom Waterhouse wagering business. He compares the experience of working for the fast-growing startup, which rose to be taken over and consumed into UK-listed entity, William Hill, to “doing an MBA”.
“We went from hardcore startup, experiencing extreme growth and all those benefits, to a transaction period, then an earn out and eventual takeover and entering the corporate environment,” he says. “It was a real eye opener in terms of what it takes to be involved at a senior level in an international, large and listed business.”
And it’s this wider business experience that ultimately excited him most about joining iSelect.
“My role has evolved and stretched from running the wealth division at one stage to marketing and commercial officer. In essence, I have been working closely with iSelect’s chairman, who came on as interim CEO. He gave me and the broader executive team the ability to run the business with him,” Hebard says.
“A lot of the time I was working to run the business in its entirety as opposed to just thinking about marketing. These are the type of milestones in my career that have been important to leading into a CEO position.”
Finding your CEO feet
There wasn’t a specific moment in Hebard’s career when he knew he could be a CEO. What has always been clear is his interest and willingness to not only lead but also embrace the language of the wider business.
“I have liked leading and enjoyed a broader context around business in its totality, rather than just the subject matter of marketing alone,” he says. “I love marketing and there are so many great things about being a marketer. But having a broader mindset is important if you want to lead.
“It’s a combination of wanting to learn, then having the right acumen around P&L and financial management – that’s really important. If you don’t gravitate towards that, it doesn’t excite you and you’re not numerate, you probably won’t cut the mustard.
“For example, you need an interest in learning how product or technology teams function, how you manage P&L on a day-to-day basis as well as long term and strategically. As a CEO, you need to be engaged at all levels of the organisation even before you’re on that path.
“If you’re not naturally gravitating towards the subject matter across a business outside your lane, waiting for an opportunity to jump up rather than banging down the doors, then it’s going to be a slower process. It’s a combination of opportunities organically occurring, as well as an interest in leading.”
The good news is Hebard sees many of the parts of the marketer’s make-up being transferrable to broader business leadership. The stakeholder management piece is a big one.
“The disciplines of people management and leading teams are important, but the significance of stakeholder management when you step into the CEO role is huge,” Hebard says. “I anticipated it, but I was still surprised by the amount of focus required, skill and execution of that piece. It’s one of the most important aspects I was aware of, and I put a lot of time and effort into that. I’m lucky to have served with great operators who I’ve worked closely with over the journey, including our chairman.”
Hebard stresses stakeholder management is about delivering outcomes and doing it in an efficient and collaborative manner that brings internal and external investors along the journey with you.
“Through marketing, you have to have that given the nature of how many touchpoints marketing has across the organisation. But it becomes so much broader when you’re in the CEO role,” he says.
People leadership is quite different too as a CEO. “What leads a lot of people to lead is ultimately the performance and outcomes deliverables that help progress your career. You can’t do that or have that approach when managing people at a CEO level,” Hebard argues.
“Having the right touch, interpersonal skills, the ability to take a step back when things are not going so well, or are going well, to identify the right approach in a given situation is really important. It’s just the nature of how the organisation perceives you when you are in that role.”
For Hebard, perceptions of him as an individual also changed as he moved to the CEO post. He put this down to the broader impact a CEO can have through their actions, and the way they interact at a group as well as individual level.
“You have to be very mindful of that. It’s quite different when you’re a level or two below, when you’re really judged predominantly on the outcomes you’re delivering,” he says. “As a CEO, if you don’t just have alignment through all levels of the organisation, you won’t get there. You have to be very cognisant of the manner with which you lead people.”
In other words, it’s about being self-aware as a CEO. “Making sure your emotional intelligence and self-awareness are at a heightened level for a range of circumstances is so important,” Hebard adds.
“As you move up in an organisation, you need to continually develop and be thinking about this. If you’re not aware of how your actions and behaviours affect others and have an accurate view of it, you can quickly go down the wrong path. I’m constantly thinking about making sure when I attempt to communicate is landing. And if not, why not. Because perceptions can become a reality whether you like it or not.”
iSelect and the 5-year vision
As CEO of iSelect, Hebard has been heavily focused on overall goals of the organisation. He notes the heavy lifting that’s been done in recent years to continue the growth trajectory over the next five years.
“That has been a huge focus of mine, working closely with board and senior management of articulating vision of the business short and long term,” Hebard says.
As part of its full-year financial reporting, iSelect detailed its i26 strategy, or five-year plan for growth. Central to this is the Consumer Data Right (CDR) legislation passed as Australian legislation in 2019. The CDR is now being rolled out to the banking sector under the Open Banking initiative. This is due to be followed by the Open Energy initiative, scheduled to commence with major retailers in October 2022 and the rest of the energy retail market a year later. Telecommunications and insurance are then expected to follow.
The CDR is designed to empower consumers to compare and switch products and service providers, growing the switcher market in totality. It opens opportunity for iSelect to deliver new, simplified and seamless journeys, build ongoing relationship with customers by providing continuous comparisons and one central location to manage their needs, the company has stated.
Alongside Hebard’s big picture view is managing day-to-day performance of the iSelect business, which is first and foremost about financial performance.
“We are publicly listed, so we have all the scrutiny that comes with that, which is both a privilege and challenge,” Hebard comments. “There is so much to learn from a listed business and so many benefits as a leader you get out of this environment.
“This is an organisation that had gone through a lot of change. What’s positive about that is it’s very adaptable. Ultimately as a CEO, it’s about trying to find great people to work with me on that. It sounds cliché, but once you find the right people with clear alignment, things come a lot easier on the journey.”
As to expectations of his own marketing chief, Paul Coco, Hebard says he’s pleased to have someone in the role who has come through the business with strong data and commercial skills.
“I don’t envy him with a CEO who is a CMO. But I like to provide a lot of autonomy with senior levels of the business,” Hebard says.
“My expectations of my CMO haven’t broadly changed. It’s about driving P&L and having high accountability for delivering the outcomes required, both with strategic thinking for the long-term around the brand as well as how we drive the P&L forward. I’m a data-driven operator and that DNA still sits in that team, which is great. Paul has that mindset too. So we work well together.”
It’s financial literacy and a data-driven approach Hebard highlights as paramount to overcoming current challenges around CMOs holding a seat at the executive table.
“I have always had great working relationships with the CFOs I worked with. When you are data-driven, you are working hand in glove about cause and effect and have the right checks, balances and governance around why and where you are investing,” he says.
“Not everything will work, so also having a mentality of failing fast and learning quickly is key. If you set up an environment to allow that to happen, you can create amazing working relationships between CFOs and CMOs. If you don’t have that, you will struggle.
“If marketing becomes the profit adjustment budget, and there isn’t a tight line of sight on cause and effect, you are going to be in a really challenging position. Thankfully, it’s not a position I’ve been in over my career.”
What’s stopping the CMO getting to CEO
When it comes to getting more CMOs into CEO positions, Hebard sees one of the wider challenges being the way marketers are pigeon-holed into tight marketing and communication swim lanes.
“You see some CMO roles that are very specific to the core skills of the marketing arm and limited in scope, especially given how centralised some of these functions are now in an organisation,” he comments. “In some organisations, we have seen customer experience split between products and tech for delivery, and you don’t have a CMO having that voice at an executive level or table. In these instances, you can get pigeon-holed into advertising and lose the ability to drive the P&L.”
Of course, sometimes promotion of a CMO to CEO is better suited to some organisations than others depending on life stage and category, Hebard says. On the plus side, the skillsets marketers have now versus 20 years ago are more closely aligned to transitioning to a CEO role. The fluidity of the CMO position is also both a plus and a minus.
“From how marketers are positioned in the business world, there is still a pretty big PR job to do,” he admits.
Hebard’s advice for marketers looking to keep rising up the ladder is to put yourself in an environment where you’re not only gaining a solid understanding of how a P&L works, but also have responsibility for driving it.
“All aspects of broader strategy and contribution into areas and strategy that goes beyond marketing function is very important,” Hebard says. “Without broader exposure and being part of that, it’s a big challenge to step up to CEO.
“The market want to see that as well, gain that understanding that a CMO’s skills are transferrable and can adapt to situations and different methods of working.”