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Diageos Syl Saller on empowering next generation of female leaders

Diageo's Syl Saller on empowering next generation of female leaders

 September 11, 2018

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Syl Saller is the Chief Marketing & Innovation Officer for Diageo and a member of the Executive Committee. Syl talks to Marketing Week Meets... about her work with Diageo and empowering the next generation of female leaders.

An impressive career 

Syl Saller is one of the UK’s highest-profile and most respected marketers. Beginning her career at Gillette in 1984 she had a number of senior leadership and marketing roles before joining Diageo in 1999, rising through the ranks to become global chief marketing and innovation officer in 2013. Syl oversees all Global Marketing, Design, Innovation as well as the Futures Group, and Reserve, Diageo’s luxury division, worldwide. Her expertise is broad and includes marketing, innovation, sales, supply and general management. Syl is a very impressive woman!

The best company in the world

For Syl, it was a tremendous opportunity to start when Diageo was two years old and to have a hand in shaping and expanding the company. She helped early on to develop Diageo's corporate purpose and set of values, which mainly include being a force for good. When Diageo celebrated its 20th anniversary, it was a really emotional moment for Syl to reflect on how far the company has come. 

“I honestly think Diageo is the best company in the world – the people are hugely talented, and equally driven, kind and helpful. It’s a winning combination," comments Syl.

Teamwork as a key to success

For Syl, the key to sucess at Diageo is the people, and she believes in a collaborative approach to her leadership. Syl is intensively supportive of the people who work for her, but also intensively demanding, always stretching them and encouraging them to achieve things they never thought possible. 

“No one has to worry I don’t believe in them – if I didn’t believe in them, they wouldn’t be on the team,” says Syl.

Empowering female leaders

A big way in which Syl defines herself is a sense of responsibility to empower other women in Diageo. Syl supports all kinds of diversity, but says “if you get gender right all the other buckets fill more naturally. I think it’s a very powerful place to focus.”

In Diageo Syl is not alone as a senior female leader. Diageo's Exec is 40% women and its Board of Directors is 50% women. “That does change the tone. It feels really great," says Syl.

“I think we all, men and women, have a responsibility to be role models for gender equality. Within Diageo, I put a lot of attention to that, I give voice to that, and it is a big part of what I do externally," adds Syl.

Overcoming her fears

Even someone as successful as Syl has her fair share of fears and misgivings.

According to literature, says Syl, women tend to be less optimistic about their ability to do things, and this is a trait she can recognise in herself. She gives an example of when she turned down a promotion because she was pregnant, or the children were too young. In reality, Syl believes she turned down the promotion because of a fear that she couldn't do the job.

“As I’ve learned to grab the opportunities and embrace them, I think if I’d done that earlier I’d not necessarily been more successful, as that’s not how I define my happiness, but I think I would have stretched myself sooner and learned more and that would have been more fulfilling. So what I would have said to my younger self is: don’t be afraid," says Syl. 

Syl has some advice to women to overcome these fears and embrace opportunities. 

Firstly, the important step is to recognise that everyone has that voice of doubt in their heads. Secondly, you need to contextualise the fear. "If my husband and kids are healthy, then nothing else matters quite so much," says Syl. One of Syl's fears was that her children would keep her up at night and she wouldn't be able to transition back into work. Although this fear came true, it's about "taking stock of the fact you have been able to overcome these things," Syl adds.

Syl's final piece of advice is simply ignoring your fears. "When the voice of doubt comes in your head, just think 'I don’t have time to listen to you, I have to get on [with work].' And that becomes the focus, not the doubts in your head," says Syl.

Leaving a legacy

Syl discusses what legacy she would like to leave after working with Diageo. "My legacy [would be] my impact on people," says Syl. In terms of her family, she wants to be the best mum and wife she can. In terms of her work with Diageo, Syl tries to go into every conversation thinking how she can leave someone inspired and thinking about how to become a better leader. Syl explains it could either be talking about how they’re going to deliver a presentation but other times about what’s going to take them to the next level. That could be words of encouragement, asking the right questions, or direct feedback, but ultimately it’s all in service of the people at Diageo. 

“My hope is that people are standing around at my funeral, and my workers are saying 'She made a difference to me'," says Syl.

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