Marketing Roles - What Companies Look For in MBA Candidates

Marketing is one of those functions, that if done successfully, requires a little bit of everything. In other words, it is highly cross-functional and requires a lot of different skills. In Kathryn Ullrich’s Book, Getting to the Top, Strategies for Career Success, she states that close to a third of CEOs have a sales/marketing background, which also turns out to be the biggest bucket for CEO background functions.

Being somewhat new to business, this was something I did not know before or during my MBA at Duke. I think my biggest misconception back then, which many other non-MBAs also had, was that marketing equated to advertising – the kind that went on cereal boxes at the supermarket.

Advertising, while a tactic that results from the development of marketing strategy, is only a very small portion of a marketer’s role, and probably the one that is the least impactful from a value-add perspective.

Where marketers add more value is in developing the strategy of a brand and deciding how to position it in the marketplace. This is the strategic side – after this marketers rely on leadership and operational skills to align teams and ultimately execute the plan. As you may imagine, the newer the brand, and the more brands that compete in a market segment, the bigger the challenge to marketers. Here's my experience taking the Marketing Strategy course at Duke Fuqua.

Here’s what hiring managers and commercial leaders look for in MBA candidates recruiting for marketing roles. Before you read on, here's a backgrounder on commercial/marketing roles in the pharma industry. 

Strategic thinking

MBA candidates should position themselves (if not already by their company) as future senior leaders. Strong executional skills, while critical to success, are considered basic and don't differentiate MBAs from each other or from non-MBA employees. Furthermore, the ones with the best executional skills are often not MBAs, but those that have stayed at the junior level for many years – even decades – in the company or industry.

The ability to “get” strategy and understand how it applies to tactics is thus a key trait to have. It’s actually quite hard to build alignment among multiple teams in a matrix environment without a strong understanding of strategy. In addition, strategic skills are ultimately what senior marketers rely on when making decisions ahead of market changes or when trying to innovate and defeat the competition. 

Therefore, MBAs should demonstrate their ability to think strategically early on in their careers, and continue to strengthen this skill as they build additional expertise in the respective industries they are in.

Analytical skills

Analytical skills are what makes strategic thinking possible in today’s business environment. Business for virtually every industry is evolving so quickly that assumptions are changing every few months, making anecdotal evidence less of a factor in marketing decision making. 

Don’t get me wrong – qualitative evidence from years of experience is still important – it’s just that empirical, objective evidence is much less costly to obtain nowadays. In addition, the evolution of market trends is accelerating to the point that subjective experience may not be enough to build confidence behind a marketing decision.

The challenge for most hiring managers in marketing is that folks in functions that build strong analytical skills often lack the other traits that make someone a great marketer, such as strategic thinking (discussed earlier) or leadership potential (discussed next). On the flip side, people with great leadership or customer-facing communication skills may not be great analytically.

If you don’t have great analytical skills, learn how to work closely with those that do in your company. This is also what John Beeson recommends in his book, the Unwritten Rules, the 6 Skills You Need to Get Promoted to the Executive Level (to be reviewed soon). In addition, identify opportunities to work cross functionally with market research, competitive intelligence or other groups that focus on generating insights from data.

Leadership potential

As many folks who know me in real life and who read my blog may already know – leadership is my most favorite topic to discuss. This is demonstrated early on in a marketing career by how you manage teams of external vendor and agencies, your relationship with others in your matrix teams, and how you perform in large, multi-team meetings.

Virtually all marketing tactics (advertisements, brochures, etc) are actually built by agencies – this creates a great opportunity for those who are new to marketing to demonstrate their ability to lead. If you’re transitioning into marketing, this is an important transferable skill to show that you have had success with in a previous role.

Marketing also requires a lot of collaboration with other teams, such as finance, operations, analytics, and other industry-specific functions. However, marketers are usually the ones accountable for business performance (as in senior marketers own the profit-and-loss of a brand), and thus naturally assume a leadership role among peers and is ultimately responsible for holding everyone accountable. 

It is therefore important to demonstrate, first, a desire to lead – and secondly – the potential to do so effectively.


Hopefully this post creates a clear picture of what hiring managers look for in potential candidates for marketing. 

Look, there are so many traits there that out there that can make someone successful, and everyone has their own individual styles. However, I see the above three skills as the most fundamental building blocks of a marketing career.

Read this post if you're interested in a commercial/marketing career in the pharmaceutical industry.


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