September 7, 2023

The Leadership Leap: From CMO to CEO

If we had to choose one member of the C-Suite to step into the CEO role at the drop of a hat, take one guess who we’d choose. We’re not biased or anything—the CMO has a clear view across the org that no other function does, and the function itself is geared towards driving growth.

Don’t just take our word for it though. In this episode, Karen Starns of OJO Canada joins to share her journey from CMO to CEO, a beacon of inspiration for B2B CMOs who aspire to the top leadership role. Tune in to hear how she did it, what it’s like in the CEO seat, and what building blocks can help you make the jump, too.

What You’ll Learn

  • Why you should aim to be a CMO+
  • How to transition from CMO to CEO
  • The difference between CMOing and CEOing

Renegade Marketers Unite, Episode 361 on YouTube

Resources Mentioned


  • [3:28] Be a learner
  • [5:26] Contribute to culture: Be a CMO+
  • [8:11] Starting the CEO conversation
  • [12:33] How to get P&L experience
  • [14:29] Make a bet on your #2s
  • [16:06] Shifting priorities when shifting roles
  • [20:07] Is the CEO role more stressful?
  • [21:51] Keep a pulse on business without overwhelming your team
  • [23:46] Pre-CEO accomplishment benchmarks
  • [28:26] The most unexpected aspect of the CEO role
  • [30:12] Time management: EAs, timeboxing, no-meeting days, zero inbox
  • [32:41] OJO’s organizational methodology
  • [35:06] What to know before becoming CEO
  • [39:20] Providing opportunities for women
  • [41:08] Dos and a don’t for moving from CMO to CEO

Highlighted Quotes

“One of our biggest jobs as CMO is to be a growth driver.” –@karenstarns @ojolabs Share on X “Give voice to your ambition internally and within your network. If people don't know what's in your head, what's in your heart, the likelihood that's going to happen is less.” –@karenstarns @ojolabs Share on X “Contribute at a business level first and at a functional level second.” –@karenstarns @ojolabs Share on X

Full Transcript: Drew Neisser in conversation with Karen Starns

Drew Neisser: Hey, it’s Drew. I’m excited that you’re here to listen to another episode of Renegade Marketers Unite. And if this is your first time listening, then welcome. This show is brought to you by CMO Huddles, the only marketing community dedicated to inspiring B2B greatness and that has a logo featuring penguins. Wait, what? Yeah, well, a group of these curious, adaptable, and problem solving birds is called the Huddle. And the B2B marketers and CMO Huddles are all that and more huddling together to heat up the coldest job in the C suite. And now that CMO Huddles has three membership tiers, we’re ready to inspire B2B greatness at all levels. To learn more, check out Now before we get to the episode, here’s a shout out to the professionals at Share Your Genius. We started working with him over a year ago to make this show even better and have been blown away by their strategic and executional prowess. If you’re thinking about starting a podcast or want to turbocharge your current show, be sure to talk to Rachel Downey at and tell her Drew sent you. Okay, let’s get on with today’s episode.

Narrator: Welcome to Renegade Marketers Unite, possibly the best weekly podcast for CMOs and everyone else looking for innovative ways to transform their brand, drive demand, and just plain cut through. Proving that B2B does not mean boring to business. Here’s your host and Chief Marketing renegade Drew Neisser.

Drew Neisser: Hello, Renegade Marketers! Welcome to Renegade Marketers Unite the top rated podcast for B2B CMOs and other marketing obsessed individuals. Alrighty folks, you’re about to listen to a Bonus Huddle, a specially curated Huddle that we run once a month with experts sharing their insights into the topics that are most important to our CMO community. We call them Huddlers. Take a listen. The expert at this particular Huddle was Karen Starns CEO of OJO Canada, she joined us to discuss her journey from CMO to CEO. Let’s get to it. Welcome to today’s Bonus Huddle. I’m really excited to have the honor of interviewing Karen Starns, the CEO of OJO Canada, who has accomplished the relatively unusual feat of transitioning from CMO to CEO, Karen’s journey, I think serves as a beacon of inspiration for B2B CMOs, who aspire to take on the top leadership role. And the next 45 minutes or so we’ll explore some of the building blocks, both planned and perhaps serendipitous that helped Karen get to the CEO role, as well as some of the lessons that she learned along the way. So hello, Karen, thank you for joining us.

Karen Starns: Thanks for having me Drew. I am here in Austin Texas hunkered down at home, it’s supposed to be 106 today, so many of us who were going to go into the office thought maybe this would be a work from home day.

Drew Neisser: It is certainly hot, hot, hot out there across the country. All right, well, looking at your LinkedIn profile, you’ve spent the bulk of your career in marketing, starting with 13 years at Microsoft, a couple of stints at Amazon sandwiched between three years at Pearson, and then you were the CMO of OJO for more than three and a half years. As you look back at these experiences, what were a couple of choices that you made that helped prepare you for an executive leadership role?

Karen Starns: I would say you can go back and find the breadcrumbs, which perhaps at the time weren’t intentional, but I’m a learner. And so throughout my career, I’ve made it a practice to seek out messy, challenging work where success isn’t guaranteed. Often projects other people didn’t want to do things that might involve change management, acquisition, structuring restructuring turnarounds, and I found that you learn way more from that less attractive stuff. Well, I raised my hand to lead consumer marketing during one of its turnarounds, I was really very excited to take on offline retail experience at Amazon despite a host of challenges in that most of our devices were sold online. So, trying to figure out the role of offline retail. But I really feel like taking that hard road whether you succeed or fail really is incredibly valuable in the long term, and especially for the role of CEO so I feel like I’ve put the miles in.

Drew Neisser: It’s so interesting, I think I’m remembering a couple of books that I read from CEOs. And there’s often that thing, they took the hard challenges, they took the ones that others didn’t want to. So I can see that as not something that worked for you. But it is an approach that I’ve read about is something that folks can do because often everybody else doesn’t want to do it. And they just say, “Oh, no, no, okay, you take it. There’s another part of this, which is, that we talk a lot about this in CMO Huddles about, what’s your plus and CMO plus and thinking about going beyond the job of CMO. You and I talked a little bit about that in your plus while you were the CMO of OJO can you talk a little bit about that?

Karen Starns: So at OJO, my plus came on the culture side and a couple of concrete ways. And I use the word concrete intentionally Drew and I had an interesting back-and-forth on this topic, I’m doubling down on the value of doing this. It can be a misperception to think about culture or ways of working as kind of fluffy or optional. Having worked at a lot of companies known for their culture, I know that it can be such a big factor in the success of a business. And so my contributions to the culture at OJO, the first one was really about building new muscle around scaling. And so I took a lot of what I brought with me from Amazon, I had two stints there. Things like the development of repeatable mechanisms, strategic tools, like working backward, documents that really set us on a path to say like, How can we scale? How can we be efficient? How can we be really predictable in the way that we’re going to do some of our things? The other aspect was providing leadership around defining and operationalizing values and behaviors. And I think the operationalizing piece is so important to say like, what does it look like? What do we expect from people? Are we using the language in our meetings, are we moving beyond its words on a wall somewhere or on a plaque? These were key contributions that I made in my CMO plus, but ultimately, those are things that are in the CEO lane. So when I had the opportunity to do those, in my new role, I’d already spent quite a bit of time honing it and having some things in my toolbox that I could pull out.

Drew Neisser: I asked a very sensitive question about would there be, oh you’re the woman who’s doing culture. And that’s why I brought it up, because I have had conversations where there are certain things that ambitious women don’t want to take on because they don’t want to be labeled as XYZ.

Karen Starns: I think that’s a fair question. I look at it. And I don’t mind doing any important work. And at the time, it was a place where I could contribute at the highest level and have things to bring to the table that others didn’t.

Drew Neisser: And just to emphasize, no company can be successful without employees, you just can’t be. So if you get the culture, right, and get the values right, you have a real competitive edge from the get go. I’m curious, was there a particular point in your career when you realize you wanted to be a CEO? And what drew you to that?

Karen Starns: So when I was a child, if someone asked me, What do you want to be when you grew up? My answer was “in charge”, or sometimes it was orthodontist. But in all seriousness, what drives me most is contributing to a business at the highest level. My appetite for the CEO role really has taken hold in the past five or so years, you know, I’ve been in the tech space more than 25 years. Part of that is really the scope and the importance of the CMO role growing and the opportunity for me to do so many things you all know so well, that like our roles of CMOs are so rich and so varied that you really can’t compare them to other roles in the C suite, given how many different things that we often have within our scope. And so part of that is increasing in scope really caused me to think about the CEO role as being an interesting and viable potential path.

Drew Neisser: What I thought was really interesting is you actually had this conversation with your CEO, when you were CMO. Talk a little bit about how did it come up? How’d you even get there?

Karen Starns: It really started in a weekend in late 2021. I really wanted to just spend some time thinking about what I wanted to do, not only with the rest of my career, but with the rest of my life. And so I did some work laying out my top personal and professional goals and ambitions. And number four on the list after mom, CMO, board member of a public company was the joined up idea of entrepreneur or CEO and I had this parenthetical note there that said, like, solo for alt career path. I sent it to my CEO and said, Hey, I’d love to have a career discussion with you, I really value your perspective. And when we sat down, that was the first thing he honed in this really dense one pager and about midway down the parenthetical piece on item four, he was like, What’s this? And we talked about it, that’s kind of like, What the hell do you want my job? And I said, maybe, but really, we got into the heart of like, what would that look like? How can I use my time and my role is CMO to best prepare for things like board exposure, which I had plenty of, because we’ve done a bunch of brand work. And that’s super interesting for the board conversations about how we might broaden my scope, and then really diving into areas where I was driving results for the business. And so we kind of left it at that. And then six plus seven, eight months later, when the likelihood of this acquisition that put me in the role that I have right now, as that likelihood was increasing, I reached out to him to make the case. And that turned out to be a really positive initial reaction from him. And then there was several months of a process where I was running a bit of a skunkworks, a presumed leadership team in case this acquisition happened, we were getting ready to say, what would it look like on the other side?

Drew Neisser: We’re on a public board, and maybe you still are, how much credibility does that give you? Because I know that as a board member, you’re really there as a business person, not a marketer, even though you got there perhaps because you bring marketing expertise to the table. How important at all I was having that experience to help you get the CEO not?

Karen Starns: Right now I’m on a nonprofit board, I’m not on a public board.

Drew Neisser: Okay.

Karen Starns: Still have that aspiration, had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time with the OJO labs board as well. It’s always a full set of experiences and elements that help make the case I have set up. Even though we are an RBC company, we’re owned by a giant financial institution, we’re running our organization with a board. And so one of the early actions that I had with the team that has brought us into the company is to set up a board. And so now I’ve got the opportunity to lead and run the board, we’ve got our second board meeting coming up in about a month.

Drew Neisser: So we talked about the need to have P&L responsibility at some point in your career. It’s often one that CMOs that have ecommerce, for example, under them, they get that because they get to run really literally a business where they are not just driving demand, but they’re closing deals and driving revenue for the company. Where did you get your P&L experience? And how important is this relative to the other skills that you’ve gained along the way?

Karen Starns: I think this can be a tricky one. And let me take a slight step back and say like, in my view, any requirement in a job description is never as black and white as it seems. And so I wouldn’t have any criteria that I didn’t meet the reason that I didn’t raise my hand. And so I think regarding P&L, it certainly depends on the business, I’ve managed a billion-plus dollar budget as a CMO. That’s the spend side. I’ve driven highly compelling ROI through advertising, especially when I was at Amazon, I can speak to being a highly commercially minded leader, and someone who’s delivered growth. And to me, that alone feels like a strong case. And none of that is P&L. But that said, I did manage what I would call a mini P&L for our Amazon devices and services for those physical retail efforts that I mentioned. So offline retail sat with me, it was an opportunity to look at that little P&L and manage that entire business as a single-threaded owner. So I would just say to this group, if you don’t have P&L experience, and you want to think about a small or medium project where you can throw your hat in the ring and say like, I want to manage this thing holistically and be the single-threaded owner. Otherwise, I really wouldn’t sweat it, I just look to your other bonafides that show that you’re commercially minded and financially savvy and lean on your other strengths that are irrefutable.

Drew Neisser: So I’m thinking about the CMO plus idea and there you are taking on culture. And I know and you know that there’s so many demands on the CMO that it’s hard to find time. And now we’re saying oh, why don’t you just go ahead and take care of culture or why didn’t you run innovation? The answer to me at least is you really have to have strong people in place. Talk a little bit about your approach to your number two’s and how those folks really allowed you to to be that CMO plus and how it helps you get to CEO.

Karen Starns: So I think that part of this is giving trust, giving people the opportunity that someone probably gave you to step up the opportunity to fail the opportunity to show what they’re able to do. So in some cases, you have that ready now successor where you can continue to give them more and more, which allows you to focus your attention on some of these other plus things. In other cases, they’re unproven, you have nurtured that talent, and now it’s the time for them to step up. So you don’t have to step down, because you’re going to go build out your portfolio. And it doesn’t always work. But I would say for the most part throughout my career I’ve made bets on people. And as I have pulled back, maybe sooner than I might have thought I should give someone that chance to lean in. More often than not, they show so much of what they have that you didn’t even see, to me it is about you making a bet on people. And then you’re there as a safety net because you are their leader, you are the functional head.

Drew Neisser: Interesting, I’m thinking about the CMO to the CEO role. Also, it’s funny because the same thing happens when a CMO gets on a board, there is a cliche that when a CMO becomes the CEO, they’re all in the underwear of the CMO. Similarly, when they’re on a board, they might do that, which is sort of board mistake number one, I know you’re there as a business person, not as the marketing person. But I’m curious how your perspective and priorities changed when you transitioned. And then there’s the second part of that, that we can talk about with now how are you interacting with the marketing given your knowledge.

Karen Starns: My priorities today are about people, culture, results, and board management. And as a new entity or a brand new organization, we weren’t kind of an existing group that got sent out. So I’m literally founding a company inside of a company. I’m spending a lot of time on vision and planning as well. I see those as key inputs to results. And day to day, I’m not in the weeds on individual strategies, but I’m making sure that I’ve got the time to jump in to deep dive where and when the business needs me.

Drew Neisser: Talk about your relationship with your senior marketer and how you’ve sort of navigated that.

Karen Starns: Yeah, it’s a timely question, because I got a piece of feedback yesterday, somebody was worried about and it was essentially that they were worried that I wasn’t going to be as hard on the CMO, because of our history and my background. That hadn’t panned out, and that I was holding kind of an equal and high bar of accountability for everyone, it’s not been as hard as you would have imagined to stay out of the weeds of the job that I used to have. And at the same time, there’s a couple of places like brand, which is my first love, where I said to my CMO/CGO, you know how many times I’ve done this, as he’s in the throes of some complex decision making on brand. And he didn’t need that reminder. But it was for me to say like, I’m not going to try to do your job for you, but please use me as a resource. And we’ve had a really great collaboration in that particular area. That is pretty high stakes for the business.

Drew Neisser: CGO. Why did you want that title? And why did you bestow that title and what makes that different from CMO title?

Karen Starns: One of our biggest jobs as CMO is to be a growth driver. When I think about like marketing with a capital M it is that you are a growth driver. It’s not the olden days of MarComm, and things like that. And for me, you all are in the B2B space, we’re in the consumer space, driving pipeline, driving acquisition, having ownership for that, managing the funnel, and wanting to really shine the light on that the role had the breadth of accountability.

Drew Neisser: When I think about that, I think about products and innovation and new markets. So that means that this individual has product reporting to them?

Karen Starns: He has product marketing reporting to him, he doesn’t have product, he has acquisition and funnel accountability.

Drew Neisser: There’s no right answer here. It’s just how do you drive growth if you don’t control product? You really have to collaborate pretty carefully with them. Are you seeing the CMO role differently than you did when you were in that seat?

Karen Starns: I would say that now I have accountability, a whole C suite reporting to me and looking at the range of those roles. I think I might have a greater appreciation for how much scope we jam packed in to some pretty small and mighty teams, and that a lot is riding on our shoulders as CMOs.

Drew Neisser: So you’re more sympathetic for the role, so interesting. Because it’s not always the case, sometimes it’s that, oh, I’ve been there, I’ve done that I know. And so get on it. Now, interestingly, I’ve spoken to a number of CMOs within the CMO Huddles community who have no interest in being a CEO. Part of it is their concern that having the whole business on their shoulders is just too darn stressful. I’m curious, from your standpoint, are you finding it more or less the same different than when you were CMO?

Karen Starns: To be quite honest, I’m finding the controllable aspects of the CEO role, less stressful than being CMO. I have access to all the information I need. I’ve done a great job with the people that I brought on board, I have an excellent executive team leading the charge. And so I’ve got all the people who are driving the facets of the business that I need to drive, I would say the parts of the role that are toughest now are those that are associated with integration. And so anyone who’s been through M&A is going to understand that change management and that point in time, however many months that can be pretty intense. So I wouldn’t say it’s a cakewalk, but I actually don’t feel it as being another layer of stress, I’m sleeping pretty well.

Drew Neisser: That’s amazing and important in all this and I just thinking about the CEO role. And in my mind, one of the definitions that you have three jobs to set the vision, build the team, and then allocate resources. And then off they go. And it sounds like that’s what you’re doing. And if you get the team right, then a lot of other challenges go away. Another challenge that CMOs talk about behind closed doors is my CEO called me at nine o’clock on a Saturday night to chat about something in a brand campaign that could have waited till Monday. I’m just wondering how you’re approaching that, there’s things you just think about all the time.

Karen Starns: Oh, gosh, yeah, curiosity can get the best of you. And so I’m learning every day, I’m trying to be smarter about asking the right questions, especially of my CLL but also asking him at the right time. So keeping a pulse on the business, or asking those additional questions in a way that isn’t randomizing is important. It’s because I want to be equipped in all the interactions that I’m having. At the same time, I don’t want to be like X factor swooping into people’s Slack or texts. And I think there’s a takeaway here that even goes broadly to your own direct team, but it’s about realizing as the CEO that you have to add some caveats or some context to those inquiries. Am I curious? Do I need this now? Is this direction? Is it input? Am I just sharing a perspective? Or am I just musing about what if? Has anyone ever thought of and so adding some language to make the request or the comment more specific? It’s really important because otherwise, people are going to take all of that as direction. And they’re going to run off and like spend the weekend doing something when you’re like, Oh, I just mentioned that I didn’t think that someone was going to burn their night or their weekend getting that answered.

Drew Neisser: And so yeah, suddenly, every email or text thread or Slack channel message is going to have much more importance than you might have and is certainly going to have a sense of urgency, so temporary, that makes a lot of sense. So we’re talking to the CMOs here, and they’re obviously interested in their career. What were some of the accomplishment benchmarks that you had at OJO, when you were the CMO that you could point to and say, I’m doing a damn good job in marketing. And I’m just curious what those metrics were or KPIs and how you sort of said, I’m ready because I’ve done this job.

Karen Starns: I certainly wouldn’t say my last job is the whole case for my current job. But to call out some things from OJO, I would certainly say the work that I did on brand, specifically as a CMO, we went through a rebrand we went through a visual identity change, and all the complexity that comes in that you’re pulling it all the way through product, not just through go to market. One of the things that I did in this role that I’d never done in my career was having PR and communications as part of my role. And I’ve loved doing that. And not only just your typical product announcements, and earned media side, but standing up a data storytelling practice. And so being able to get more value out of the consumer and market data that we were sitting on inside of our product experience and turning that into very interesting fodder for reporters that just blew any coverage that we had out of the water, as a startup, also awards strategy. So great places to work, great tech companies winning AI Awards, winning thought leadership awards, if you all have done that there’s machinery and strategy and a lot of energy that goes in behind that. And as a company that’s in fundraising mode, all of those things are incredibly important. In addition to what you’re doing to drive consumer engagement, things like retention usage of your product, we had the whole lifecycle there. But I would point to the pieces that probably are most relevant to a company in a startup mode that is about how you’re being perceived and how you’re showing up in a space as you’re trying to ramp your business.

Drew Neisser: A couple of things that I want to highlight in that one is the data storytelling and you had data in house that you could use that would help generate PR, at what point in your three and a half years as CMO did you start the rebranding process?

Karen Starns: Well, we started and then we restarted. So about a year and a half in is when we started with real emphasis. And that was six months after we made a really big acquisition, we acquired a business, we acquired a real estate search portal that was bigger than the business we were running. The brand was Movado on that and we were OJO labs, and that introduced a complexity that said, Okay, we’ve got some work to do to figure out what our brand architecture is gonna look like what we want that strategy to be. So we really started from the very beginning.

Drew Neisser: There was a business need to do that. And I’ll tell you the reason I asked this question, I have seen any number of B2B CMOs start a rebranding process in their first six months, often to their detriment, because if you’re doing that, you may or may not at the same time be building the demand engine and doing the things that help really drive growth, it can be a kiss of death.

Karen Starns: It can be and if you’re part of a leadership team, or working for a CEO that isn’t bought in on brand, there’s a lot of education to be done to say like, Okay, here’s what a strong brand can contribute to a business if you don’t have a strong brand, or here’s what this messiness or complexity, what challenges it’s introducing to the business. And because we have that acute business need, it didn’t make it easy, but it made it easier for folks to get on board to say, Yeah, we didn’t have to rationalize this. And so along the way, of course, we should consider a visual identity and the other pieces, because now you’re getting in there. So like, why not look at the whole package.

Drew Neisser: The thing that I emphasized, at least in my book, and in these conversations is, this was not a coat of paint on an old barn you talked about all the way through product. And so this was a significant company wide change in terms of your go to market offering, and the new brand needed to reflect that. All of that makes a lot of sense. We have a question from the audience. And it is, what’s been the most unexpected aspect of your CEO role?

Karen Starns: That it’s as lonely as people say it is. And why it’s unexpected is, I was just kind of like nah you’ve got your team, I kind of poopoo the idea of It’s a lonely job. But as you rise through an organization, and you have fewer and fewer peers, who are the people that you are sharing your frustrations or really kind of rely on them for perspective. And when you’re the CEO, it’s all on your shoulders. And so how you engage with your team or how you engage with your trusted circle, it does change. And I think that I didn’t give all the wise people who told me it would be a lonely job enough credit.

Drew Neisser: It’s funny, because the CMOs always talk about how lonely that job is, because there really isn’t anybody else in the organization, typically who understands marketing, which is of course why we have CMO Huddles, and I’m curious, have you found a peer group that you can go to to help you talk about the challenges of being a CEO?

Karen Starns: Yeah, I have a couple of friends that were CEOs before me that I really rely on quite a bit. It’s really great. When I moved into this role, the Canadian operations of our former business was acquired and so the CEO of the business that I was in continues to provide really great and wise counsel. He’s also a member of our board, which is great. How I’m using our board and how I’m tapping into a new brain trust to help me in this role. It’s been some good learning. And I came around to it pretty quickly.

Drew Neisser: Yeah, to make it un-lonely for yourself. One of the things that I think the person who actually shared this expression, if you think you can outwork this job, we’re talking the CMO role, you’re crazy. So we talk a lot about how the need to outsmarted obviously, that’s priorities, and it’s effective time management. I’m curious, what’s your approach to time management?

Karen Starns: I’ve got some things that are really working for me right now. So I have a great EA. And that’s hugely helpful. I’m not dealing with any of the requests or any of the complexities of juggling and changing, which is really wonderful. And I’ve had a lot of success with time boxing, every single day, I have at least a couple of hours without meetings, which is not the world that I’ve come from throughout my career, but really saying, hey, it’s important for me to be thinking to be looking around corners to be available. If I need to parachute in somewhere. We’ve also as a broader organization, we’ve implemented no meeting Thursday afternoons across the organization. So this gives everybody time to do their heads down work, or to have some think time, whether it’s catch up, etc. And so we don’t have any meetings anywhere in the organization on Thursday afternoon. And then the final one, and so far, so good for the first time ever embraced zero inbox. And I’d say part of that is now I have time by having time really making sure that I’m dealing with email in a good way. And right before our Huddle, I was at 19. So to me, that is as close to zero as I’ve been since email was invented.

Drew Neisser: Yeah, zero inboxing is one of those things that actually drives me crazy, because I just simply can’t do it. How do you do that?

Karen Starns: We mostly work in Slack. So the good news is, the world doesn’t revolve around email. A couple times a day, I just go in and I deal with everything. I’m deleting it. I’m flagging it to read later. The only things in my inbox right now are things that I still need to action or have eyes on. But I think when I left my last role, I had like 183,000 emails. So like I’ve been on the far side of it’s good to have a clean slate. I’m six months in with a clean slate. So far, so good.

Drew Neisser: Yeah, there you go. All right. Well, it is something that a new job creates that opportunity for so, go you. I’m reinspired to try. I certainly know all the methodologies to do it. It’s a discipline, and the time boxing is obviously key. Okay, what kinds of things are you doing? Do you have a operating model? Are you like an iOS company or an OKR company? Do you have a organizational methodology?

Karen Starns: We do have a methodology. It’s really of our own definition. Well, it’s one that I brought with me from Microsoft that I’ve used over the years. So we’ve got a pretty good approach that we’re taking to goal setting and operationalizing. Our business, one of our operating principles that we put in place was a focus on operational excellence as being one of our biggest levers. And so we’re doing a lot of things around how we can be really smart with our cadence, with our times in meetings, as well as how we plan and report back to the organization.

Drew Neisser: As a former marketer, I’m imagining that you have ideas every minute. And I know lots of CMOs are really good at that. And the CMO complaint is always, the CEO just threw another idea at me, we’ve covered this, but how are you managing your own creativity? Because sure, you could come up with 25 ideas that could be implemented, but there isn’t time. So how are you getting things back to keeping your priorities on track and holding yourself in?

Karen Starns: Yeah, and it’s not my job anymore. So I think it’s about sitting with ideas for a little bit longer, and then saying, Okay, which of these do I want to raise? And because I think all jobs can be creative, I think about my contributions to consumer experience. And so we’re problem solving in that space. And so it’s like, okay, I have this concept for something that we could test. And so it’s starting the ball rolling of how fast could we do that test? And there’s a lot of moving parts there. On the marketing front, I think it’s first about just asking good questions to understand where the thinking already is to contribute in a way that is augmenting that versus saying like, there’s a whole different thing, and I’ve got my one on one with my CMO later today. So it’s always then checking in to see like, how is this going? Are you getting too much are you getting not enough? And checking in on that relationship.

Drew Neisser: I imagine it’s hard to get honest answers from folks, because they’re gonna want to tell you what you want to hear, it’d be interesting to see how you sort through that. I’m curious, looking back at your career, were there things that you wish you had learned along the way that would be really helpful right now?

Karen Starns: The one thing that I was very intentional in not doing that was never a problem—I’m not saying it’s a problem now it certainly wasn’t a problem in getting to CMO—is, I never held a product management role. So when you’re intact, and you’re deciding your path, there are so many opportunities in product. And it just didn’t light me up pretty early on, I closed the door to that knowing that there are fewer roles if you’re closing that giant door of product and a tech company. I’m sure I could be adding more value to the product and consumer experience conversation today had I actually sat in one of those roles, having led product marketing now is my way through to say okay, what is my experience that is helping me add value to the conversation. And certainly being a brand leader where I see that role is the number one advocate for your consumer, that’s a really valuable way to engage with product as well. But that’s a door that maybe had I thought about being CEO way back when I might not have closed, maybe I would have taken a tour of product.

Drew Neisser: Even if it didn’t light you up, just because it was an important stop in the mix of things that you’re now responsible for. Is there anything else that you wish you had known before taking on the job?

Karen Starns: Yeah, I would say it’s another facet of what we talked about around kind of communications, not only when you’re giving direction, but to think about your responsibility as a communicator, as the head of a company. And as a CMO, we should be really great at this. We’ve trained people to be spokespersons, we’ve done a lot of comms, it’s basically pulling out the playbook and applying it to yourself. Things like, don’t sit on bad news, communicate frequently. Don’t be so focused on the problems that you forget to sprinkle in the good news and celebrate those little wins along the way. Don’t be an alarmist CEO, your job is to calm the waters, maybe a CMO or in another role, you can be the person that is ringing the alarm bells. Now it’s more like okay, how can I take a broader view and look to really calm things down? Maybe those are some of the things again, to just add some dimension to communications.

Drew Neisser: Yeah, it’s a great list. So question from the audience came in, do you think you could or should have taken on the CEO role earlier in your career?

Karen Starns: I was having too much fun. I spent a lot of my time in really big companies. I love the work that I’ve done as a marketer, as a consumer marketing lead as a CMO. One of the things I learned as I was in the last handful of years exploring what would it take to become a CEO, one of my learnings was typically people their first CEO job is at a company they’re already. Andy Jassy was in line, I wasn’t in line for Jeff Bezos’ role at Amazon. So I think if I would have wanted to do it earlier, then it’s rethinking also, what company size? And are you getting in line on that slate to be a successor of someone that you’re reporting to, there’s both planning and luck that went into me landing at this stage.

Drew Neisser: It is really interesting and probably as CMO, you may have pigeonholed direct reports and saying, the product marketer, they’re not going to be a CMO. And I’m imagining that as a CMO, saying, Hey, I want to be a CEO and talking to recruiters about it, they’re saying, Well, you’ve never done it. And it’s got to be a hard sell. So doing it within an organization. And I’ve seen that with other CMOs that have become CEO, the board got to know them. But it was a divisional opportunity. Or they were a GM and a division. And that’s how to sort of manage their career because you needed a group of people who already knew you and trusted you. You’re a known commodity. And that’s so hard to do, going into a new company. I didn’t think about this earlier, but there’s a lot more male CEOs out there. So what advice do you have for women who want to be the CEO?

Karen Starns: I don’t think about it in my day to day I don’t feel like I carry myself differently. But I do think about it relative to my responsibility as a mentor or a role model and the choices and the decisions that I’m making an even with the very best of intentions as I established what I consider to be an amazing leadership team. I only have one woman on my leadership team. And we didn’t talk about this, there was the amazing moment where I could hand pick, but I’m hand picking out of the organization where coming from I’m building my whole team from scratch. As a CEO, or as a leader, it’s not often that you’re building your whole team from scratch. I built an amazing team, I feel great about every single person in their seat. Do I feel great that I only have one woman in another executive role? No, I don’t, then that causes me to make sure that I’m focusing on where our up and coming women leaders on the next layer down, what opportunities are we providing for women? Because I certainly know that women can see each other as competitors. And not to say like, it’s everyone at the table that I might be competing for with the next role. And I don’t think that way. And I also don’t want it to look that way. So definitely feel like there’s a lot of opportunity when you just think about building capability in an organization and making sure that great women are being spotlighted and given opportunities.

Drew Neisser: Got it. Okay, first of all, amazing conversation. Thank you so much for joining us today, I want to wrap up, maybe you could provide two do’s and don’ts for CMOs who aspire to become CEOs in their organization.

Karen Starns: Number one, we talked about this, give voice to your ambition. So internally and with your network, people don’t know what’s in your head, what’s in your heart, the likelihood that’s going to happen is less so give voice to your ambition, I would say contribute at a business level first. And so Drew, you mentioned this marketers show up as marketers, whether on a board or on an ELT show up at a business level first, and at a functional level. Second, that means that you’re going to need to stay up to speed on the business and making sure that you have well informed opinions on those key business topics, and that you’re able to catalyze conversations that aren’t necessarily in your lane. And then on the don’ts. I would say don’t be shy about filling out your dance card with experiences that we’re going to help you make the case. Each of us have a different case for whatever next step we have in our career but propose new areas of investment like I did with data storytelling, or raise your hand to head up some news speculative strategy and think about do you have enough pieces on the board to make a compelling argument?

Drew Neisser: I love it. All right. Well, Karen Starns, CEO of OJO Canada, thank you so much for joining us.

Karen Starns: Thank you for having me. Appreciate it.

Show Credits

Renegade Marketers Unite is written and directed by Drew Neisser. Hey, that’s me! This show is produced by Melissa Caffrey, Laura Parkyn, and our B2B podcast partners Share Your Genius. The music is by the amazing Burns Twins and the intro Voice Over is Linda Cornelius. To find the transcripts of all episodes, suggest future guests, or learn more about B2B branding, CMO Huddles, or my CMO coaching service, check out I’m your host, Drew Neisser. And until next time, keep those Renegade thinking caps on and strong!