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4 tips to break into the C-suite and become a chief marketing technology officer

As tens of thousands of innovators — technologists, creatives, marketers and business strategists — descend on Austin, Texas, for the annual South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) conference and festival this week, many will find it difficult to choose from the event’s hundreds of world-class opportunities to learn, connect and inspire. For professionals working at the intersection of marketing, creativity and technology, making choices may be even more complicated, as this group, perhaps more than any other, has found its role in a constant state of expansion and evolution over the past decade. Once focused either on IT or marketing, today’s marketing technologist is now required to be so much more: part digital savant, part marketing director, part technology architect, part data guru and a strong influencer of people. Being good at any one of these roles is hard; being great at all of them is extremely rare. However, career paths for marketing technologists are promising. Forward-thinking enterprises acknowledge the increasing interdependency of marketing and technology. In response, they have created a new executive position: the Chief Marketing Technology Officer (CMTO). While CMTOs’ titles vary, these are the unicorns leading experience and digital business transformation within their organizations. Sadly, there are few academic majors that produce hybrid roles like marketing technologists. People come into these hybrid careers from varied backgrounds, and most level up on the job. The talent shortage is striking: Individuals who combine technical depth, business acumen, creative flair and the ability to inspire and lead others are needed at all levels, yet are challenging to recruit. While they’re hard to find, it’s a myth that these superstars can’t be grown. Talent development is changing: The keys to success lie in breaking discipline silos and worn expectations of ourselves and the places we work. For those attending SXSWi who want to advance their careers and even break into the C-suite, I suggest you attend a panel discussion in which I will be participating called “Amazing Talent Is Grown, Not Born.” In advance of that session, I thought I would share findings from a recent study we conducted on the marketing technology profession and its implications for those aspiring to lead their organization’s marketing technology function:

1. Consider your strengths… and the organization’s needs The CMTO role is not a one-size-fits-all position. The job will vary based on the needs of each organization. That said, we’ve identified six common CMTO archetypes that exist today: marketing mavens, data divas, infrastructure architects, content curators, experience engineers and media and marketing analysts. For those mapping a career trajectory towards a CMTO role, the first step is to identify your professional strengths, as well as your personal interests, and map them to the needs of the organization. For example, is your company in need of driving marketing with insights? A “data diva” would best address those needs. If that’s not a key strength of yours yet, there’s no need to worry. Consider building on your existing strengths in another marketing technology area while you level up your data and analytics chops.

2. Prioritize your skill set As we established, a CMTO needs to be a jack-of-all-trades and master of several. They must be as comfortable navigating a conversation about virtual reality or responsive design as they are discussing enterprise architecture or marketing mix modeling. Through it all, they must serve as a strategic adviser, understanding and articulating business and marketing issues just as effortlessly as they do core technology. At the same time, there are some skill gaps that particularly ambitious CMTOs-to-be may want to consider for specialization now. For example, our recent research reveals that big data and customer relationship management are two of the key areas most organizations are in need of. Those who can address these growing needs will find themselves very much in demand in the near term. That said, the needs of organizations are constantly changing. It’s important to consider not just a company’s immediate needs, but those of the future — which brings me to my next point.

3. Invest in the long term As with most careers, that of a marketing technologist can — and should — span many decades. To remain relevant in this field, it is critically important to not only stay up-to-date on skills, but also be a step ahead. Successful CMTOs commit to being lifelong learners. They invest in formal training and education in all areas of marketing technology. To progress one’s career, it’s necessary to challenge oneself with new assignments and responsibilities. For a role that is constantly evolving, it’s always necessary to take on the new and unexpected.

4. Work across silos By nature, the CMTO is a bridging and integration role. At a minimum, success requires driving collaboration between the marketing and technology functions. But those who are successful will find that it often takes much more. A broad understanding of the organization cannot be understated. And beyond martech, remember to always embrace any opportunities you have to work on projects that impact customers throughout the business, be it in sales, communications or even HR. Making inroads within these different groups will help break the silos that exist in many companies — which in today’s disrupted world can make the difference between success or stagnation.

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