Peter Horst, former CMO of The Hershey Company, speaks at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

4 tips for finding your career sweet spot

Alan Hart (MBA ’06) – Alumni Council member, host of the podcast “Marketing Today with Alan Hart” and ATOMCK managing partner – hosted marketing executive Peter Horst for a talk at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. Horst is the former CMO of The Hershey Company and served in executive roles at Capital One, General Mills, US WEST (Qwest) and Ameritrade. During his visit, he shared insights from his marketing career – which one recruiter called a “mosaic background” – with students, faculty and staff.

Peter Horst, former CMO of The Hershey Company, speaks at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

Peter Horst, former CMO of The Hershey Company

Find the sweet spot.
“I love marketing,” says Horst. “I’ve spent close to 30 years doing it.”

But before he found his sweet spot, he navigated a diverse career path – working for a talent agency, law firm and magazine publisher. He discovered his passion for marketing while earning his MBA at Tuck.

Marketing offers the “whole-brain experience I’d been craving all along – strategy, numbers, rigor, magic in language,” says Horst.

Keep exploring.
Once Horst discovered his passion for the field, he built a career of “continuous discovery.”

He was hired as a marketing manager by General Mills, where he was assigned to the then-new Nature Valley Granola Bars business. While he felt the weight of the responsibility, he valued the sense of ownership.

After six years, Horst moved on to a new industry, region and diverse experiences as director of marketing for US WEST. He also worked for a classic  entrepreneur founder in Omaha who, he says, “wanted to spend 100 percent of prior year’s revenue on marketing but needed a marketing guy.” Horst developed multi-channel marketing campaigns for the startup and discovered the “loneliness of leadership.” Working for the company’s founder provided “dog’s years in learning,” he says. “It was like building and flying an airplane at the same time. It was a “great stretch experience.”

When Horst joined a small tech firm working in cybersecurity, he no longer had deep marketing resources. It was like having “50 cents and a toothless police dog” to do his job, he says. When the tech bubble popped, the company’s value went down and its marketing needs changed – so he took a deep dive into using different tactics, moving from multi-channel to email campaigns and working with the firm’s sales force.

Know when to stay and when to go.
Over the years, Horst learned to strike a balance between being patient and knowing when to make a bold change. He played the long game as he weighed career opportunities, focusing on building new skills and finding new challenges rather than simply chasing a higher salary or better title.

When Horst took a leap to work at Capital One, it was in order to get back to the right “80/20 stretch” of comfort zone vs. stretch.   He stayed at the firm – which was “driven by improbable, audacious goals” – for 12 years. During that period, the subprime credit card company transformed itself into a retail bank, which included the purchase of online bank ING.

His next move took him “from credit cards to candy bars” when he joined The Hershey Company. Horst was an unusual choice for Hershey’s, an industry that typically hires from within the consumer packaged goods. Back at a company where marketing is the lifeblood of the firm, Horst drove Hershey’s digital marketing transformation.

As a leader, he practiced “confident humility.” One of the most important things a business leader can do is to be humble and open, he advises. “Learn, ask questions and soak it up.”

Now he’s made a life choice. Rather than asking his wife – who loves her job at the cyber security firm where they met – and family to move yet again, he relocated to Washington, D.C., where he is consulting, speaking and writing – for now.

Find what you value.
After almost 30 years in marketing, Horst still gets excited about using “every aspect of thinking and capabilities – analysis, intellectual challenges and artistic aspects.”

These days, marketing is getting more complicated, he says. Leaders will increasingly need an “incredibly broad sensibility” across functions, as well as seamless collaboration between the CIO and CMO, who need “Vulcan mind melds,” says Horst. While you can’t be expert in everything, you do need to know how others think and work, he explains.

Marketers are storytellers who provide the voice and language to move minds and hearts, says Horst. “There’s a great insight at the heart of every successful campaign.”

“Marketing is often at the center when a transformation is under way. You have an opportunity to be a catalyst,” he says. A marketer’s role is to “be a truth speaker” and “stand for something meaningful” by putting the organization’s values on display and playing a role in society.

Find what you value, advises Horst. “Choose where you are and where you stay.”