In the latest episode of The Drum's Leadership Lessons, editor Stephen Lepitak speaks to Syl Saller, chief marketing and innovation officer at Diageo, about the importance of drawing leadership inspiration not only from other marketers but also people within her own family.
When asked about which leaders made the biggest impact on her own leadership style, Saller spoke passionately about her own mother, who was a second-generation Greek immigrant and worked long hours as a nurse. “Back then women were confined to certain roles, but whether it was my mum in nursing or my aunt Mary, who was the director of the Pentagon’s Library and commanded all these politicians and generals around, I learned so much from them about the importance of working hard and making a good impression. They showed me what being a strong woman is all about!” said Saller.
She added: “I’ve also learned a lot from my boss Ivan Menezes, who is the marketing director at Diageo. When it comes to gender equality he has led so powerfully, but in a humble way, too. He doesn’t let the challenges of today get in the way of the bigger picture for 10 to 15 years’ time from now. He always meets challenges with optimism and ambition, and I’ve learned so much from that kind of mentality.”
According to Saller, great marketing leaders must really embody the values their brand represents and must avoid just putting empty slogans onto a wall. “When I say that Diageo is about ‘celebrating life every day, everywhere’, it is important that I really live out those values and that the business does too,” she explained.
“We really want to add true value to the communities where we operate; whether that’s becoming more sustainable in Nigeria, so Guinness there can be made with 60% less water, or working to ensure every employee, regardless of gender, gets six months paid leave when they go on paternity leave. It is important we’re genuinely making a difference not just to our consumers’ lives, but our employees too – that’s what great leadership is all about.”
Aware that leaders often project one image in public, but act another way behind closed doors, Saller says marketing leaders must always be their “authentic self” in order to win respect from employees. And fear, she claims, is often just a sign that a leader isn’t thinking things through in the right way. “Most fears and limitations are just in your head. When you really pick it a part, you start to see that nothing is insurmountable and can make real progress. If you bring your whole authentic self to your role then you will be okay, trust me.”
Last year, it was announced Saller had been given the honour of Commander for her service to business and equality in the workplace as part of the Queen’s New Year Honours recipients. And during the new podcast, Saller joked that she initially thought the letter could be a bill from the HMRC. “My husband thought it could be a bill from the HMRC, but when we worked out what it was, it really took us both by surprise,” she reflects. “You have to keep it secret for six weeks before the ceremony and it was so hard to keep it from my kids. They knew something was up and were convinced we were getting a puppy! They were maybe a little disappointed when they realised what it really was.”
A great champion of gender equality and getting more women into marketing, Saller says that her fundamental leadership values are about going after tasks that feel impossible and finding a way to make them work. She concluded: “I think you need real audacity to be a great leader. What I mean by that is going after things that people say are impossible and getting them done. If something
sounds difficult, whether it’s a sustainability or diversity goal, then that’s a good thing, as when you hit that target and make it work, you are going to grow so much as a leader.”
You can listen to the full interview with Saller in the audio file below while further episodes of the Leadership Lessons podcast can be found on The Drum's website.