A view from Syl Saller

Diageo CMO: Know when you're in a marketing bubble

Diageo's chief marketing officer shares her best career advice.

Great coaching is foundational to great leadership, and great leadership is what grows brands. I try to live by my own philosophy – that every conversation can be a coaching conversation.

I’ve been lucky enough to receive great coaching from many people. I thought I’d share some tips that have made a difference to me in the hope they can make a difference to others.

Forget work/life balance – it’s about making life work.

The idea that work is separate from life, and that these two worlds can be "in balance", is an illusion. It takes guts, creativity and determination to live your life in a way that works for you rather than following someone else’s model. I work "unusual" hours – not more, just different.

It works for me and I make it clear that everyone is free to do what works for them. As a business, we expect results, not conformity.

Don’t focus on the promotion – do a great job in the one you’re in

The truth is I never wanted the "next" job because I secretly doubted I could do it. But delivering results in my current role has always led to good things happening. I believe when we free ourselves from yearning and focus on living, we perform better.

Rewrite your sh##ty first draft

This one’s from author Brené Brown. Her research shows that our emotions are generated from the stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening in the moment. When your first draft of that story makes you feel lousy, rewrite it. There’s always another way to interpret a situation – or as Shakespeare said: "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."

Luke… I am (not) your father

This one’s a bit heavy. It took help from my coach Martha Graham to deliver this breakthrough. We all have baggage – triggers from the past that affect us at work and at home. It helps to step back and see what has us in the "grip" to get perspective. Our bosses are not new versions of our parents but sometimes we lose sight of that.

Growth begins at the end of your comfort zone

OK, this is a quote from a fridge magnet I bought at Miraval, but I like it! My growth as a leader accelerated when I realised that I needed to put myself in situations I was uncomfortable with, ranging from big ones (committing to deliver £1bn of net new revenue from innovation) to small ones (people are still talking about my ridiculous skit with Diageo’s president of Europe at our learning programme). The more uncomfortable I am, the more I learn that I have no boundaries (except for playing sports… that’s never going to happen).

You get your ‘musts’, not your ‘shoulds’

We are consistent with who we think we are, not who we think we should be. So decide on your musts. I must lead Diageo marketing in a way that serves the growth of our brands, our people and our company versus I should work out every day. Guess which one is going to happen?

Resourcefulness is the ultimate resource

I don’t put a lot of stock in what I can deliver on my own, but I’m good at understanding how to get talented people on to the right teams, with the right mission to deliver growth. My secret – it’s not about me.

Purpose + effort + optimism = success

This may seem like a ridiculous formula but it works for me. Understanding how what you’re doing connects to your purpose supercharges everything you do. It takes work, sometimes hard work. And optimism? For me, that glass is always full.

Understand the bubble and know when you’re in it

This is true on a number of levels. We are not the average consumer. To understand what real people want, we need to get out and talk to them, observe them, understand their lives. Another take on this – the more senior you are, the more likely you are to get "managed". There’s nothing I appreciate more than when my team tells me I blew it. I know they care enough to be brutally honest.

Trust that it will all work out

Words of wisdom from Andy Fennell [former Diageo CMO]. I was a chronic worrier. Andy pointed out that, somehow, it all works out (and if it doesn’t, somehow I’ll find my way). It makes me braver. Every day. 

Syl Saller is Diageo's chief marketing officer. She oversees the company's brands, innovation and luxury business, and sits on the executive committee. Previously, Saller was Diageo's global innovation director.