From CMO to CEO: Susan Lintonsmith of Quiznos Weighs in on Navigating a Successful Career (Part I)

Susan Lintonsmith,
President & CEO,

While we can never really know where we'll end up professionally, many of us have an idea of where we'd like to be, the things we'd like to achieve and the brands we'd like to work with. For Susan Lintonsmith, President & CEO of Quiznos and a CMO Club member, that meant setting her sights on the CEO role - a career move that isn't traditional for most marketers, yet is absolutely obtainable with the right dedication and skill sets.

In this two-part series, we interviewed her about some of the challenges and opportunities she experienced in her career as she made that move from VP to CEO:

First off, your career trajectory has been nothing short of amazing. You moved from VP, to CMO, and then ended up as President & CEO of Quiznos. What are some of the factors that you believe played a key role in the success of these transitions?

I appreciate that. I feel like I took the “long way” to get here. I started in restaurants and probably could have made it to the CEO position faster if I had stayed in the industry. But, I made the decision early in my career that I wanted to get experience in different industries and all aspects of marketing and now feel that I'm a better business thinker because I’ve had well-rounded experiences.

I've been in headquarters and in the field - working on both regional and global assignments. Each role made me more marketable and more prepared for a bigger challenge.

Other factors I believe played a role include working hard and stepping up for challenges - while keeping a positive attitude. I have a very strong work ethic. It was instilled in me at a young age working in restaurants - I would take other people’s shifts to get more hours and earn more money for college.

Throughout my career, I’ve never lost that drive to volunteer to take on more. Personally, I love being challenged and, for some reason, seem to have more energy and be more productive when I have more to do. It's those moments when I feel “over my tips,” where learning and professional growth happen.

For example, four years out of graduate school, I was promoted to Regional Director of Marketing at Pizza Hut, (which was the lead marketing position for the region). I was still in my 20’s and found myself with an unbelievable amount of responsibility. Looking back, I know I was given that opportunity because of the results I had gotten in previous roles and because of that position, I was able to propel my career to even greater heights. That's what it's about - continuous learning.

What was one unexpected obstacle you’ve encountered in your career, and how did you overcome it?

A personal obstacle that impacted my career was my mother being diagnosed with incurable cancer in 1999. I was working for The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, and she lived alone in Denver. She didn’t want to move and leave her network of doctors and friends, so I was faced with the tough decision of whether or not I would move. 

Ultimately, I decided to put family first. She beat the odds and lived several years longer than projected, and our family got to be there for her the whole time - she loved being around my two kids.

During that time, many great career opportunities came my way that would have required me to leave her, but I passed on them. I’m grateful for every day I had with my mother and learned the value of putting family first.

If you were to give advice to someone looking to advance their own role in marketing, what are the top 3 competencies you would say a CMO needs?

1. Be Proactive and Take Initiative: 
When you are in a VP role, you typically have a great vantage point of the company. You are included in key meetings (if not, get yourself invited), and work closely with the CMO, so you're able to see where the opportunities are. If you see a gap, step up and present your ideas.

Additionally, make it a point to stay close to your CMO. Offer to take things off his/her plate, attend meetings or lead a project. They'll be grateful (I promise), and you will get a taste of what it's like to be in that role. I had a VP of marketing who was very proactive and - when I was promoted from CMO to CEO - it only made sense to move him to head of marketing because he was already my right-hand man.

2. Volunteer to Lead Key Projects: 
I have definitely benefited by being involved in the most important projects. Yes, I had to work on some that were not very exciting nor very visible to the executive team, but, I made the most of the situation and used them to take on bigger projects. It's key to lead those touch projects that are really important for your company - you'll get great opportunities to meet with the CEO and Board and set yourself up for future successes. 

As a CMO, I was helping my Operations counterpart on a few initiatives, when he unexpectedly went on leave. I was the logical person to step in and lead while he was out because I had been actively involved in what he was doing and had stepped up to the plate on several occasions. Then, when he left the company, I assumed the U.S. COO role in addition to my CMO role. When the CEO left, I was again sitting in the right position - I was leading key growth projects for the company and could hit the ground running without transition time. I was fortunate, but the reality was that I had been working hard to lead important projects, and people were noticing.

3. Have a Great Attitude: 
My personal mantra is “Attitude is Everything.” I love optimists - I even have a rock plaque on my desk with this quote. How we approach situations makes all the difference. I frequently say, “you can’t control the winds, but you can adjust the sails.” 

Right now, we are in a turn-around situation and the reality is we’re still trying to fix issues from the past. It gets tough watching stores close or having franchisees upset because their sales are negative, but we can’t afford to let it get us down. We have to be resilient and keep a positive attitude. If we do that as a team, we can deal with a lot more. 


Next week, we'll be sharing the rest of our interview, where Susan shares with us even more words of wisdom and her outlook on the future of marketing.