Marketing Leadership Marketing Services

From CMO to CEO: the qualities every modern startup boss needs

By Paul Evans | CEO

March 22, 2021 | 7 min read

In the most recent CMO to CEO column, Paul Evans mulls over six months in the top job, what he’s learned so far and the qualities he believes every startup boss should possess.

from cmo to ceo

Attitude and function are the two key requirements needed for a startup CEO

Today marks my six month anniversary at Adgile. It’s been a rollercoaster. That kind of ride with highs and lows, twists and turns. This is as much a function of the startup to scale-up world that I work in as much as it is about me. Me, a 20-year marketing veteran who was offered the chance to step up into the chief executive role. Without chief exec experience. What were they thinking? I feel very lucky that they made that choice.

Six months in feels like a great time to reflect on things and I particularly wanted to zero-in on the role of the chief executive. I’ll be honest – because it had never been a job that I had been working towards, I’ve always been a strategist, marketer, planner, media, tech and data guy – I really didn’t know what I was getting myself in to. I said to Shaun (the founder and chief technology officer of Adgile) that this would be a journey for me and if I were to do this, then I’d need to fail and learn.

This was positioned with context. I’m someone who lives and works to very high personal standards. I hate letting anyone down. I hate letting myself down. So with this choice to take on the role, I was confident that my marketing experience would be a solid grounding in which to step into the chief exec shoes, because of what marketing represents – problem-solving, long- and short-term thinking, customer value, brand guardianship, market positioning, bottom-line accountability.

More than marketing

So how should I reflect on that theory coming into Adgile? Well, there is a ton of truth in that the value of marketing experience should be at the core of any chief executive’s DNA. It goes without saying that, within my functional specialism, I’ve been able to deliver marketing fundamentals to the business, underpinned by deep customer and industry understanding – evolving brand identity, category vision, mission and go-to-market value proposition – to create a business that resonates with customers and employees alike.

But this isn’t what constitutes the complete role of a chief executive – this is my chief marketing officer comfort zone at play, which was a natural way to assimilate and build value to the company in a short period of time.

Clearly then, I have also had to build out this role more fully, working with the Adgile leadership team to deliver against the needs of our scaling and maturing business.

This work-in-progress has allowed me to identify what I have felt shapes the requirements of a startup chief exec – something I can break down into two parts: attitude and function.

Give it some attitude

The attitudinal component is critical, often overlooked and undervalued. To dramatize this, I’d call out three core characteristics that the chief executive role must perform strongly against:

Give direction: Passionately communicate – and over-communicate – the business roadmap. Make this simple to understand through continuous refinement – a process I call ’edit to amplify’. Targets and KPIs become proof points to validate the evangelism.

Be responsible: Take ownership. There are tasks that fall in the lap of the chief executive – for example, working with the board or leading a capital raise. There are also functions, tasks and people that you must empower. Both ultimately ladder up to the chief exec in terms of performance and outcomes. Roll your sleeves up, get your hands dirty. Identify and solve problems – directly and indirectly.

Motivate: Drive and push your immediate team, and the business as a whole. Startups are like roller coasters, with good days and bad days – encourage everyone to embrace the journey. The top job can be lonely – remember that you are not alone – share leadership with your leadership team and harness the strengths of coaches and mentors.

This is not meant to be exhaustive – undoubtedly there are more – but these resonate strongly with me. Bottom line – you have to step forward and lead through structured and well-directed emotion. For a natural introvert, this has been a learning process for me, but I’m enjoying the experience.

Form and function

The chief exec role also comes with many different functional ’hats’ to wear, beyond what we might classify as marketing in its narrowest definition. In its wider definition, marketing, of course, straddles business holistically, but even then you can’t wear a marketing ’hat’ all the time, and the person in the top seat must appreciate, build comfort and expertise in these disciplines:

  • Products and services
  • Culture and talent
  • Operations and processes
  • Finance
  • Strategy
  • Sales (and marketing)

I don’t think these require explanation in terms of definition and scope. What’s key is how a chief executive must embrace them. Although the chief exec won’t be the functional leader in any of these aspects, they do need to know a lot more than just covering the bases.

So when I say wearing ’hats’, what I mean is being able to fully understand the subject matter at a technical and operational level. It’s this knowledge that will bring credibility, but also stronger outcomes through influence, challenge and empowerment.

Building on this, there is also a requirement for balance, in that the chief exec can’t rest on any natural bias through experience. As with my bias towards marketing, even though this applies itself well across the business, the chief must up-level across all these functional areas to ensure they deliver well-rounded and competent knowledge and leadership.

So, rounding this out, I’ve had a great first six months in the chief exec role. As a marketer, I’ve stretched this native experience and applied it to my best ability, with clear impact and benefit.

But am I the finished article? Far from it! I’ve got a long way to go, but I’m working with a team that understands that and sees my potential. Here’s to the next six months and beyond of personal development and business progress as chief exec.

Marketing Leadership Marketing Services

More from Marketing

View all


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +