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Tips On Making The Jump From CMO To CEO

As part of the CMO Insights Series, I interviewed Michele Kessler, the President and CEO of thinkThin, a privately held nutritional food company. What makes Kessler’s perspective interesting is that she began her career, after graduating from the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, in brand management at Procter and Gamble. With her formative training in marketing and general management, she discusses how she was able to leverage this expertise to ascend to CMO and ultimately, CEO.

Kimberly Whitler: Can you briefly walk through your career path?

Michele Kessler: After I got my MBA from Darden, I joined P&G, spending over seven years in a variety of brand management roles. After P&G I joined Nabisco / Kraft in NJ and worked in confections and new business development, ultimately serving as VP of Crackers. I was then recruited by Mars to become CMO and VP of US Confections. In this role, I had P & L responsibility and managed brand development and created a marketing services department, which included: promotion, package design, PR, advertising, media, etc. I was at Mars for five years and then spent some time on the media side before joining thinkThin.

Whitler: How did this career path prepare you to be a CEO?

Kessler: Marketing is a great training ground as you develop key skills that are needed in a CEO role. In many marketing roles, you have to demonstrate results and to accomplish results requires leadership across the enterprise. Many functions work primarily within-function; marketing can’t. This experience working across all of the different functions is great preparation for executive level positions. As a result, in Brand Management, you develop the strategy to drive profitable growth, lead the organization to achieve your vision, oversee enterprise-wide implementation, and then measure your results. This is a large part of what a CEO has to do—just on a smaller scale.

Additionally, I had some unique experiences, such as creating an organization from scratch. The HR-type aspects of that experience (i.e., staffing a new department; developing the organization structure; creating the organization design) have helped me prepare to be a CEO. Thinking about the work that needed to be done and then having to structure the organization around the needs is an important part of being a CEO.

I also think that starting at bigger companies and investing in my own training by working with and for the best-of-the-best was critical to accelerating my growth. It’s always easier to go from a big company to a small company—but not vice versa.

Whitler: What advice would you give to today’s aspiring CMO and CEO to help them get to the top floor?

1. Lay the right foundation: Begin your career at blue chip, branded, larger training companies. These companies aren’t going away and as your career progresses, the brands that you worked at early in your career will matter. When you talk to recruiters, HR experts, and potential bosses, they will know P&G, Kraft, Mars, etc. If you have a list of failed or unknown brands on your resume, it becomes more difficult to have control over your career progression. So, not only will these companies provide better training but they open doors not available to individuals who choose a non-branded career path. And, importantly, these large, blue chip brands will enable you to more easily transition across industries. In all, it just provides better flexibility down the road. Of note, a lot of VC and PE backed companies are looking for well-trained people. They want to hire people who have already demonstrated they can do the job in a rigorous, competitive, selective, and challenging environment.