Conventional wisdom these days maintains that, to rise to a top level position in marketing, you may have to change companies to gain a variety of experiences.
Not so for Michael Ziebell of The Schwan Food Company, America's largest producer of frozen pizza and egg rolls. Ziebell joined the company in 1982 as a marketing assistant, made Brand Manager in less than two years, and continued to climb the ladder to his current position of EVP and CMO.
We talked with Ziebell about how he went from Brand Manager to CMO. He offered these 7 tips:
o Tip #1. Get out of your cubicle and be passionate
"The biggest mistake a brand manager can make is to recline in his cubicle and just focus on his brand," Ziebell says. That type of isolation doesn't help you gain a reputation, no matter how well you do your job.
Before becoming brand manager, Ziebell had taken it upon himself to teach the sales force to use syndicated research to sell. Pleased with his interaction, management promoted him to brand manager of Red Baron pizza.
"That's when I stepped on the gas," he says. "I *was* the Red Baron. I was so identified with the persona of the product that there was a lot of energy and passion."
He approached his job with the attitude of 'Make some magic.' "I caught the attention of the sales force and they did the work," he says.
o Tip #2. Take jobs that nobody else wants
"I always took on challenges other than my day to day marketing work," he says. "I took the jobs nobody else wanted."
Some projects rejected by others actually offer high visibility. "One of the things I seized was large sales conferences and meeting development. That provided me greater exposure to senior management. They saw the quality of my work."
That led to speechwriting and ghostwriting articles.
"It isn't as though you can plan that," he cautions. "But when you see an opportunity to get involved in something that's on a larger stage, you have a chance to grow."
The additional jobs should be over and above your daily work, Ziebell says -- otherwise you run the risk of landing yourself as the sole proprietor of the new, unwanted job. You should also involve other people so you can eventually move on to new projects.
With the sales conferences, for example, he says, "As they became bigger, I grabbed some of my younger marketing colleagues and drew them in, explained to them that it was a good thing, and that freed me up to move on the next thing. By then I had Mr. Schwan's visibility," he explains.
o Tip #3. Work on communications and presentations skills
"People don't pay any attention to how they write or speak, especially in public," Ziebell says. If you want to come across as professional, able, and knowledgeable, you have to know how to communicate.
o Tip #4. Join cross-functional teams
Ziebell attributes much of his success within the company to the fact that he volunteered for and participated in so many cross-functional projects.
Working on a cross-functional team helps you to build a constituency within the company, gets your work exposed to other elements of the company so you become a known quantity, and earns you respect.
"You have to be cross-functional to demonstrate that you have more of a mind than just marketing," he says. "Fully understand how the business works and how the company makes money."
o Tip #5. Find people who can replace you
You'll never be promoted if there's nobody to take your place. Try to fill your team with people smarter than you who can take over your job.
When Ziebell made brand manager, he was told that among other things, he was in charge of the growth of Red Baron, the margin of Red Baron, and finding a replacement for himself. "I said, that's crazy, I just got here, and (the director of marketing) said, Do you think this is the end of the line here?"
So that's what he has tried to do. "The organization always knew who the replacement was, I did, and the transition was smooth," he says.
o Tip #6. Don't jump ship just for the change
Sometime after he became brand manager, Ziebell interviewed with a brewing company, and couldn’t believe how far behind they were.
Why didn't he take the job? "There was nothing for me to learn in what they were doing," he says.
o Tip #7. Gain wider experience through company partners
Instead of jumping ship, go looking for different types of experience to avoid losing perspective, Ziebell suggests. By working with a broad array of agencies and partner companies throughout the years, Ziebell feels that he gained valuable experience.
Ziebell also went back to school to get an Executive MBA, "which turned out to be the best thing I ever did," he says. "It's not enough to just have the skills of marketing."
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