Years ago, I watched a talented director of marketing take a high-profile startup from stealth to launch to millions in revenue.
She built out product marketing, corporate communications, PR, brand, and partner marketing teams. In all, her marketing organization grew to nearly 20 people in less than a year, including three experienced directors who all really liked working with her. Looking around, she saw others with less experience in their functions with VP titles, and she wondered: Why am I not one?
She went to her CEO and asked why, despite a long list of marketing accomplishments, she wasn’t a vice president? His answer was, “I’m sorry, but you’re just not quite ready.” Not only was she hurt, she couldn’t understand why, and he wasn’t able to clearly explain his reasoning. It was frustrating and demoralizing. And she left that exchange not knowing what she needed to do to get there.
That director was me. And that CEO was Ben Horowitz.
What I couldn’t see then, I see very clearly now because I’ve worked with or been on the interview path for hundreds of marketing leaders and recognize the symptoms I exhibited myself.
I’m sharing what I wish Ben had told me then.
These lessons don’t just apply to directors wanting to level up. They apply to any marketing leader who is functionally excellent but feels like their abilities aren’t quite reflected in their title.
Strap in. The work might be different than you think.
Stop focusing on marketing excellence.
This is counter-intuitive but is actually the biggest tell between someone who is functionally excellent and someone who is truly ready to assume a meaningful leadership position. Marketing leadership is not about individual marketing abilities — it is about your team’s’ ability to perform and your ability to enable that performance. A VP must create connective tissue between people and functions, providing an environment where people are inspired and can grow. If your outlook on marketing excellence is still about what you’ve directed and not what you’ve created structurally for your team to be excellent, you’ve got work to do.
The company > team.
While related to the above, it’s not the same. Often I see this in the form of a marketing leader saying his team did a great job on x or y. It comes across as either promoting or protecting the team, both of which are important, but at higher levels of leadership, the “we” needs to be cross-functional. Are you defining excellence within the company’s broader goals and multiple functions’ abilities to succeed? Are you attuned to leadership dynamics among your peers, and how do you navigate them? The latter is some of the most important work for senior marketing leaders, so make sure to forge effective partnerships with sales and product and define your success together.
Redirect to “why” versus “what.”
This can feel tough because everyone has an opinion about marketing, but few actually understand how it works. Marketing teams tend to focus on showing everything the team is doing, sharing campaign results, CAC: LTV ratios or MQL metrics. “See what we’re doing? It works!” These metrics mean something to marketing people but not much to the rest of the organization. Great marketing leaders take a step back to not just plan and report. They spend at least as much time helping the organization understand the why. This work is hard because there is no reward for it, nor is anyone asking you to do it. But it is what ultimately makes the rest of the company feel like the function is being led versus just being done.
Don’t be an expert, be open.
Let’s be honest. There is a lot of talk about embracing mistakes, failing fast, and showing vulnerability. But expertise is both rewarded and embraced, and often essential to being viewed as credible. How do you balance this? The marketing leader finds ways to communicate expertise while still showing openness towards others, inviting participation.
This balance is serious Jedi-level $h#t (I’m still working on it). You’re never really a master. But the difference between a functional expert (director) and a leader (VP) lies in tone, tenor, and self-awareness. You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to develop tools to navigate challenge with grace. Experts feel closed. Leaders feel open.
The hardest part about all this? Getting quality feedback so you know what to work on because so much of this is subjective and not about marketing skills. If you find yourself butting up against a title ceiling, ask for brutally honest feedback from people who want to see you succeed. Then forge a plan with a peer, coach, mentor or manager. And if no one inside your company can do it, that’s exactly why career coaches exist.
Better yet, don’t wait for your next annual review or lack of a promotion to try working on some of this. These are essential marketing leadership skills at every level, and learning how to practice them will benefit you at any stage of your career.