How Do Marketing Leaders Learn Their Craft?

MasterClass doesn’t have an intro to CMO class so how do marketing leaders learn their craft?

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Some jobs have a clear career path—medicine, law, engineering. Others are more freeform. Marketing falls into the latter category, especially senior leadership.

MasterClass doesn’t have an intro to CMO class. When you’re the most senior marketer, your line manager (the CEO) often lacks in-depth marketing knowledge. And when you’re building the go-to-market strategy, trial and error is risky, not to mention expensive.

I wanted to learn how the best marketers approach learning, growth, and development. So I asked three amazing leaders how they learned their craft. Here’s what they told me.

1. Be confidently ignorant

Ronnie Higgins, Director of Content at OpenPhone

I remember in one of my first meetings earlier in my career at Eventbrite, I had to ask what an MQL was. We didn't do MQLs at Intrax, the company I worked at previously. After the meeting, I followed up and asked more questions. I was confidently ignorant.

Usually, I got the gist because I knew concepts, but not the names. Much earlier in my life, I used to throw raves. Everything I was doing to promote club nights back then is the same stuff marketers are doing today.

It wasn't tough to ask stupid questions, but internally I had bad impostor syndrome. I felt it most when I started at Eventbrite. While I worked with really good marketers at Intrax, it wasn’t the same. It was a 30-year-old company that didn't need to grow as fast. It wasn’t gunning for an IPO. When I joined Eventbrite, it felt like I was drinking from the firehose.

I knew concepts, but not the names.

I realized I had a big knowledge gap. Even though I was confident about learning, I didn’t feel like the people who showed up already knowing things.

One of the people I reported to was Margaret Jones. I’d been learning about content marketing from her when she was at Marketo. It was HubSpot and Marketo championing content marketing. Feeling like I was gonna get found out and tossed aside was the hardest part of it.

2. Build your personal board of advisors

Nicole Wojno Smith, VP of Marketing at Tackle.io

When you're an executive, especially at a tech startup, it can be a lonely role. Your CEO hires you and expects you to know how to do the job. If you have a question, your CEO might not be able to help. They might not know what marketing programs are being run or what results you should expect.

I recommend that people fill out what I call their ‘personal board of advisors.’ Find people you can go to with questions. Find people who have been there and done it. Reach out to peers in professional communities or people you've worked with before.

When I started at my last company, I built a base of Atlanta people. I reached out to CMOs who had been in their role for a few years and said, “I know you’re another CMO. I’d love to have a monthly catch-up with you and talk through questions and ideas.” I had a group of around five people in that network.

When you're an executive, especially at a tech startup, it can be a lonely role.

After that, I joined some professional groups, one of which is Pavillion. It’s a global organization, so I started meeting people from different industries and geographies. I was suddenly outside my bubble of Atlanta.

Then I started joining small cohorts within Pavilion of 8–10 people. We would have monthly meetups where we talked about common problems or challenges. I can’t underscore the importance of having a sounding board (or multiple sounding boards) outside of your organization. 

Asking for help can feel difficult. It feels like you're supposed to know everything. You can feel silly asking a question—whether it's a Slack group or community forum. You’re worried people are going to judge you.

But all of the communities I'm part of feel like safe spaces. There's no judgment. As soon as I ask a question, people post saying they’re facing the same thing.

3. Create shared learning opportunities

Jo Eyre, Head of Content and Communications at Omnipresent

I spent the first seven years focused primarily on communications so lacked the ability to speak to the commercial side of things. I wanted to get a thorough working knowledge of all areas of marketing.

I focused on making friends with experts and asking a lot of questions!

At Opera, I benefited from reporting to our VP of Communications and our VP of Marketing. They were supportive and ensured I had a full view of all the different areas of marketing. I relied on their expertise in different channels. They relied on my regional expertise. We learned from each other, which was fantastic.

Later, I focused on making friends with experts and asking a lot of questions! In South Africa, we have the benefit of having a very beautiful country that people want to visit. When I went into the market to work with our telco partners, I’d invite someone from, say, product marketing to join me. I could learn from them and they could learn about the region. It was mutually beneficial for everybody.

Many ways up the mountain

I love talking about career paths, not least because mine is so winding. I’ve been an arts reporter and marketer, an editorial leader and a salesperson. Most recently, I took over as Campfire Labs’ general manager. My own experiences remind me that there’s no “right path” in industries like ours.

While there’s no one right path, I think there is a right way to approach the journey.

Be confidently ignorant like Ronnie recommends. Don’t shy away from the ideas, skills, and insights you lack. Embrace your ignorance and seek answers. Don’t tackle the climb alone, either. Build your version of Nicole’s personal board of advisors. Recruit people who will challenge you to be better, celebrate your wins, and lift you up when you’re down. And focus on others. Find shared learning opportunities. Just like Joe, you’ll build great relationships and grow as a team.

David is a former craft beer journalist turned writer and digital strategist. He now helps ambitious technology brands tell narrative-driven stories.

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