An early-career marketer eager to collect insights on content strategy and storytelling, I attended the 2016 MarketingProfs B2B Marketing Forum. I enjoyed multiple sessions on various topics, from artificial intelligence to customer experience, SEO strategy, and more.

But perhaps most inspiring was a panel of senior leaders gathered to discuss the twists and turns their careers had taken and offer advice on the path from modern marketer to CMO or CEO.

The panel consisted of Margaret Molloy, global CMO of brand strategy firm Siegel+Gale; Mary Ann Fitzmaurice Reilly, SVP of global brand marketing and communications at American Express; and Doug Bewsher, CEO of Leadspace. They responded candidly to questions from an audience of marketers at various career stages.

It turns out that although each had taken a distinct call path, they all had four approaches in common.

1. Be deliberate about decisions and choices

When asked about the best career advice they ever received, both Mary Ann and Doug emphasized the power of making deliberate choices. Setting boundaries had enabled them to maximize success where it was most possible.

Mary Ann said part of making choices involves a deliberate decision to set aside time to network. Margaret insisted that in this exercise, it is crucial to diversify your network. Deliberately looking beyond those in your own industry brings you in contact with disparate input that provide a marketer more informed and nuanced perspectives.

For the panelists, making choices extends into deciding what advice not to follow. Mary Ann recalled ignoring advice to look two roles ahead of where she was as a means to govern her actions. She avoided that advice as too prescriptive, because following it would risk missing opportunities that did not fall within that rigid framework. Margaret ignored those who told her "life is too short. Avoid conflict." She asserted that she knew that having tough conversations was necessary, but added that they could still be managed graciously. Doug spoke of defying instruction to avoid his gut instincts, which, he argued, often prove correct.

2. Build skills strategically

All three leaders emphasized finding a balance between gaining a breadth of experience and specializing. Today, they argued, marketing is an incredibly broad and complicated discipline. At a large company, it is likely that you will need to specialize. Although doing so is essential to honing competitive expertise, it is equally valuable to spend time at a smaller company managing the entire marketing mix.

Doug summarized: "Build your [specialization] spikes at big companies and get breadth of experience at small companies." Mary Ann spoke of her experience working across disciplines and functions at American Express; she advocated seeking opportunity, where possible, within your organization.

The group advised that if you have your heart set on becoming a chief executive, you need to invest time in acquiring the necessary financial skills and fluency needed for the role, because those are often not gained merely by virtue of success within the marketing path. Doug recalled seeking out opportunities that gave him more P&L experience, and Mary Ann recalled bringing in colleagues from the finance department to get her team up to speed.

3. Gain perspective from diverse media sources

The panelists shared their top reads and agreed on the importance of engaging with a variety of media.

Mary Ann recommends Halftime: Moving From Success to Significance by Bob Buford because it prompts its readers to look beyond success for themselves and their organizations, and to achieve more meaning and significance from their work.

Doug prefers novels and a diverse range of media over business books. He asserted that curiosity and engagement with diverse sources and perspectives are crucial in developing an informed perspective. He spoke of how Ernest Cline's Ready Player One changed his approach to leadership. Doug also referenced a classic HBR article, "Management Time: Who's Got the Monkey?" as a helpful resource in building management muscle.

Margaret recommended Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Gregg McKeown because it offers useful instruction for removing peripheral activities and peripheral mind space from the day-to-day.

4. Build your managing muscle

For those contemplating the transition from managing a few directs to an entire organization, the panel had some sage advice.

Mary Ann insisted on "hiring employees...smarter than you." Above all, she argued for the creation of dialogue between manager and employees in order for each to effectively respond to feedback.

Doug emphasized learning how to delegate. Not often considered a skill, effective delegation is necessary to focus and learn what to assign to others, he said. He subscribes to the RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed) model to determine roles and responsibilities, and to give his employees a language for understanding their contribution.

Margaret asserted that the scarcest resource is time. At the C-level, it is crucial to find the right balance among executing, working alongside team members, and maintaining a strategic vision. Learning to effectively manage time in this new way is equally important to developing managing muscle, she argued.

* * *

It is clear from the diversity of each panelist's career path and experience, and the resulting individual perspectives and approaches, that there is no one track from modern marketer to CMO to CEO. Just as clearly, being purposeful about your career and managing your personal brand with the same degree of deliberateness as your company's are crucial to success.

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Four Career Lessons for Would-Be CMOs and CEOs

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image of Clare Pearson

Clare Pearson is marketing and business development coordinator at Siegel+Gale, a global brand strategy, design and experience agency.

LinkedIn: Clare Pearson