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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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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