Marketorium B2B marketing Aon Affinity managing director Lisa Henderson management CMO to CEO

Lisa Henderson: From CMO to CEO

What marketing leaders must do to take the top seat at the executive table.

Is it possible for marketers to be so good at marketing it limits their career opportunities? Absolutely, says former CMO turned Managing Director Lisa Henderson. She knows too many talented professionals who have cruelled themselves by becoming purely marketing specialists.

“A lot of marketers just stay in their laneway,” Henderson says. “The worst thing you can do is become an order-taker for the business. You need to show the business you’re a problem-solver or an opportunity-deliverer. You have to be on the front foot and say to them, ‘tell me the opportunity you see and my team and I will come back to you'.

“If you become an order-taker, you're nothing more than a specialist.”

Henderson, who held senior marketing roles at financial and health organisations over two decades, is Managing Director of Aon Affinity, which develops and administers customised insurance programs and specialty market solutions for not-for-profits and professional groups.

“When you go into a marketing role, you have to see how you can expand via extra projects or by saying up front, ‘my ambition is to be “marketing and ...”.' That might be ‘marketing and sales' or ‘marketing and product development' or ‘marketing and digital transformation' or ‘marketing and customer service and analytics'. CMOs are often fantastic specialists focused on company growth – and if you don't have a positive ROI, your tenure's not real long – but it’s about being more than a marketer while doing your current role.”

CMO to CEO: Leading with language

Henderson is well placed to help CMOs understand how they can leap into senior corporate leadership positions. She was CMO at Suncorp Group and Medibank and general manager of Product, Marketing & Online Banking at ANZ Business. She became Aon Affinity MD in January 2019.

“I think it's really important to have the aim of getting a seat at the senior leadership table,” she says. “In all of my roles from the age of 30, I've been a member of an executive leadership team. At ANZ, I was on the business banking and corporate and commercial leadership team. I was in senior leadership teams at Suncorp.

“When you do that, you begin to learn the language of a CEO. You’re hearing from the CFO, risk and compliance and the business units themselves, and they're all speaking in a very commercial language. This begins your journey to understand what it takes to move up to that next step.

“You have to expand your capacity as a person and a leader. You’re learning fast and are on the go all the time – asking questions, being curious.”

“I think it helps you understand how important it is to be accountable – for not just delivering marketing targets but being seen and able to speak to the growth contribution you're making to the business. Rather than talking as a marketer, you're talking as a business leader.”

Henderson says "creativity, energy, curiosity, enthusiasm and keen analytical ability are all key hallmarks of a good CMO" but aren't necessarily attributes for a commercially astute, strategic manager.

“The more connected you can be to acquisition and retention – particularly acquisition – and transparent in your reporting around your contribution to that growth, you're seen as a commercial leader, not just a CMO. But you have to be proactive about it. You can’t wait to be asked.”

Becoming a well-rounded CEO

Henderson says successful CEOs gain the trust and respect of their leadership team, the wider organisation and key stakeholders such as the chairman and board. To do this, they have to be clear on what they stand for, have a well-articulated plan and be able to communicate how they will lead the business to drive positive revenue growth. They also need to know how to get the most out of people.

“As CEO, you’re often leading through change and giving your team the confidence to adapt – being flexible, effective and acting at pace,” she says. “You’re also identifying, attracting and retaining talent, and that requires being the head of company culture.”

“CMOs should be ideally placed to put their strong communication skills to good use to capture the imagination and buy-in of stakeholders.”

“Lean into opportunities and things that may make you initially uncomfortable ... trust your skills and take the leap – that is where the stretch and opportunity is.”

Not that Henderson found the progression from CMO to CEO easy. When seeking more leadership opportunities, she realised she needed to attain greater financial proficiency. "You have to make the CEO and CFO your best friends," she says. "It goes back to learning the language they speak, and they talk about shareholder value. How does marketing fit into the contribution to that shareholder value?

“People need to have confidence you understand the key issues facing the company, not just marketing. You have to expand your capacity as a person and a leader. You’re learning fast and are on the go all the time; you need to be seen to reach out – asking questions, being curious.”

Henderson says she has always been naturally curious. She has also been driven to do the best she can in every role. “As I got into my thirties, I saw I might have the potential to do more than the CMO function,” she says. “You have to be at the right life stage because when you move up to this level, you’re living your job. You have to be available all the time and feel comfortable you have the capacity to do it. I got to a point where I thought, ‘can I do my best as CMO?’ I realised, no, I needed to be more.”

Henderson says her career progress has been self-driven, although she has relied on the guidance of a mentor since her early twenties. “She knows me very well,” she says of her mentor, a former CEO of an asset management organisation responsible for operations across Asia-Pacific. “She's been an inspiration for me as well. She’s a really outstanding woman who's now on many boards.”

CMO to CEO: Seven tips

Henderson offers seven things CMOs can do right now to prepare themselves for senior corporate leadership roles:

  • Always deliver in your current role but put up my hand for more responsibilities – extra projects, transformations or additional reports.
  • Continue to up-skill, both formally and informally. The business environment is changing rapidly and remaining on top of these changes helps make you relevant.
  • Prepare to move companies for the right opportunity.
  • Embrace technology and understand how to connect with the business to ensure this as seen as a company (not marketing) capability.
  • Always be authentic. People follow people who are human, open and reward and recognise their teams.
  • Lean into opportunities and things that may make you initially uncomfortable. For example, don’t wait to have experience in 100% of a job description. Trust your skills and take the leap – that is where the stretch and opportunity is.
  • Have a mentor who is honest enough to help you on your journey, as well as an advocate within the company you work for.

Lisa Henderson will appear on a CEO panel at the B2B Marketing Leaders Forum in Sydney in May, taking about how CMOs can gain a stronger voice at the leadership table. Click here for more information.

Further reading: How marketers can build influence and gain a stronger voice in the C-suite