Fresh from being named our Marketing Leader of the Year, Syl Saller, CMO Diageo talks to Elen Lewis about her ideal marketing director, motivating people during tough times and her own lucky break.
Describe your leadership style in 10 words.
Deeply caring, demanding, supportive, results focused – and believing in the amazing people I’m privileged to work with. (More than 10 words but I don’t like rules.)
You're well known for your love of learning - what's the most important thing you've learned this year?
How to keep a team motivated in the face of a difficult external environment. Our people are working hard, pushing the boundaries, and while we are seeing increased momentum, our results aren’t where we want them to be. We all, including me, have had to dig deep to lead with fresh bold ideas. In the face of adversity, people can get conservative. In the face of adversity they can doubt themselves. What I’ve been learning to do is to encourage people to be even bolder with their thinking, and believe that they will grow faster from facing challenges.
What's the secret to a strong, sustainable relationship between brands and agencies?
A few things… Way more honesty than usually exists! Clients should be brave enough to say what they really think of the work, while at the same time knowing how to nurture ideas that aren’t quite there yet. This takes real skill. Which brings me to my second point – agencies should demand the right decision makers are involved. Often they aim too low e.g. the brand manager who doesn’t actually get to make the call, or too high – e.g. Me – in a big global, portfolio company, if I was making all the calls it would get in the way of agility and pace. It’s important to have a clear and open discussion about how decision making should work – then stick to it. Finally, the top-to-top relationships should be about how the relationship is working in totality with a holistic overview of whether the work is truly great, the talent of people on both sides, and the results we are delivering together.
Describe your ideal marketing director.
I look for what I call – the 'good human being factor'. They want to do the right thing by the company and its people, rather than for themselves. They are authentic, but do it with real skill. I look for strong abilities in judgement (making the right decisions), drive to get things done, and the ability to influence people. Functionally, there’s a broad spectrum out there, loosely described as ranging from high flair to high commercial skills. No one person has to embody greatness in both – but we should look to put together teams that bring these skills to bear in service of delivering extraordinary growth for our brands.
You've talked about the importance of being on the edge of your comfort zone as a junior marketer to accelerate learning and experience. When have you most been on the edge of your comfort zone at work and what did it teach you?
Committing to transform innovation and creating £1 billion of net new revenue within five years. I agreed, but didn’t really believe… In that process, I learned the criticality of my own belief, the value of audacious goals, and what a high performing team can do. We achieved that goal, and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of.
The journey from the edge of my comfort zone to a deep source of confidence was both hard and exhilarating.
What was the most important step in your life towards being named Marketing Leader of the Year 2015?
Taking the job with Diageo! There comes a 'lucky break' in many people's careers where you don’t know quite what you are getting into, but it turns out to be the best decision ever. For me, that was joining a relatively new company (Diageo was less than two years old when I joined) with brands that have centuries of history. What a combination! I feel like I’ve grown up with the company, and had the chance to shape the extraordinary culture we have today.
You can view some of the pictures of our Awards night on our Facebook page.
Syl's reaction to her winning the Marketing Leader of the Year award on the night will be available to view in our Cinema soon.