Lessons in Leadership: Syl Saller CBE, Board Director, Executive Coach and former Global CMO

The most important insight Syl Saller gained during her extraordinary leadership career, including seven years as Diageo’s Global Chief Marketing and Innovation Officer, was to understand it was never about herself. Her focus was leadership as a coach to help people develop skills to handle huge amounts of responsibility.

In a fireside chat with Sherilyn Shackell, Founder and Global CEO of The Marketing Academy, Syl Saller answered many of the leadership questions every marketing leader striving for a successful and rewarding career should be asking.

We’ve summarised Syl’s talk to share her pearls of wisdom.

What are the challenges faced by today’s CMO’s?

Handling difficult work relationships, influencing stakeholders within the organisation, inspiring teams and the wider organisation, overcoming insecurities, managing and retaining talent, boosting productivity in a high-pressure job without working 24/7, moving up the ladder within the organisation, meeting clients’ needs or moving job from agency to brand side. These are all questions playing on the minds of today’s senior marketers.

What is fundamental to the success of a CMO?

Leaders can’t be successful without the support of high performing teams who are capable and empowered to take on responsibility. Growing talent and inspiring others to join them on the journey is crucial. Syl did this in two ways:

  • Individual approach: Coach and inspire team members to grow (even more important today to retain talent);
  • Organisational approach: Communicate with other business units and inspire teams cross-functionally so they understand and support the marketing objectives.

As a result, always being focused on the company’s goals and objectives and aligning marketing goals to these, is a must. When people within the organisation realise the marketing’s work is to the benefit of the company’s end goal, as opposed to personal objectives, you can win people’s trust.

Chief Marketing Officers need to be resourceful and have the right people on the right team working to achieve the right mission to deliver marketing objectives.

How can CMOs handle the stress and pressure that comes with the job?

Knowing you have a team of marketers to support you and share responsibility with helps you figure things out, but when things feel hard or overwhelming, seek perspective, the ability to see the situation clearly without bringing baggage or drama to the table.

It is equally important to stop the negative talk in your head and be aware of the story you are telling yourself. Research shows our emotions are the result of the stories we are telling ourselves, they are about the way we interpret what is happening. But there is always another way to interpret a situation. As Shakespeare once said “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking make it so”.

Which skills should a CMO have to drive business transformation?

When you set out to transform the marketing function or the entire organisation, there are three important factors to keep in mind:

  1. Have a clear vision of how you think the consumer landscape will evolve and how the organization needs to change to win in the marketplace. Make sure you break down the ultimate goal into milestones for every single year and take people with you on the transformation journey;
  2. Deliver the end of year results but keep the focus on the medium and long term;
  3. Be willing to stretch yourself and coach others to do the same: growth begins at the end of your comfort zone.


How can a leader overcome “imposter syndrome”?

The word “syndrome” makes it sound like it’s a pathology when instead it’s about being human. Everyone experiences times of low confidence, which is nothing more than a natural protective mechanism. Syl prefers therefore to define this as a “journey of confidence”.

Try to identify which situations trigger the feeling of inadequacy and accept there will be highs and lows during the career of every leader. Most important is to recognise if you are heading in the right direction.

To develop your own “journey of confidence”, listen to the feedback that you get and develop your own sense of self. That is not the same as listening to your own inner critic. Instead constantly practice situations that make you feel uncomfortable, listen carefully to feedback – that will help you learn what you’re really good at too.

And focus on developing your strengths and work on your weaknesses. Consider what is important to achieve your mission, which is often growth for your employer and growth for yourself. Limit yourself on working on just a few things, at most three at the same time. For example, what are your one or two greatest strengths? Leverage these and make them even greater. At the same time, work on your weaknesses so that they don’t become a derailer and stand in the way to achieving your goals.

How to prepare for career progression?

There are several activities to consider when planning career advancement, whether this is internal or external to the current employer:

  1. Seek sponsors, not just mentors. The best people seek advice from a variety of people continuously rather than having one mentor. Sponsors are people who can help you open doors to specific roles, so you need to be clear on what you want to achieve. But most of all, sponsorship must be earned based on the quality and impact of your leadership and your track record of results.
  2. Be prepared to move horizontally across functions to build strength and diversity into your skill set. A career path is never a straight line or a sprint, it’s a marathon. Consider moving abroad and out of your comfort zone to learn and immerse yourself in new perspectives. Your career opportunities will be multiplied by the number of functions you have experienced, the number of places you have lived in, and the number of languages you speak.
  3. Understand the structure of the reward system, particularly if it’s with your own employer. Many companies are transparent on compensation. Ask where you stand compared to the benchmark, what it takes to get to the next level and to get that specific job you are after. But most of all, make it easy for people to give you an honest answer.
  4. Seek the best networks, the best training and make connections. Attend courses relevant to the skills you wish to sharpen, enrol into an MBA course, or invest in the Marketing Leadership Masterclass.
  5. For talent in agencies or consultancies who are considering a move to a brand role, focus on developing the skills which are new to you, for example by demonstrating understanding for manufacturing, sales and distribution. Agency people are often overly focused on making the client happy by selling their ideas while the client side is much more about listening to people, determining the right direction and bringing people along the journey.


How do you redefine your role within the business?

When being promoted or moving to a different role, consider what you stand for and start from a place of “delivery”: what are you setting yourself to accomplish? Don’t focus on your personal branding, that feels a bit too “packaged up”. Instead, be clear on the benefits you bring to the organisation, what you stand for, what are you going to achieve in your functions and for the company. Be very open about your goals and help others around you to see your role as an enabler to the company’s growth.

How to manage internal politics?

Politics is just seeing the landscape for what it is: understand the goals of other organisational functions, respect them and work with other functional leaders on how to achieve both departmental and overall business objectives.

You need to understand how other leaders in the organisations are feeling about a particular situation. Seek a fresh perspective and look at things cross-functionally.

Marketers need to be the engine of growth. Syl encourages people to have the “conversation under the conversation”: create a less formal situation, like having a coffee with another functional leader, to go deeper and really seek understanding about each other.

How do you juggle the demands of a high pressure job and find work-life balance?

It’s less about work-life balance and more about how to make life work. There are many ways to do that:

  • investing in the right kind of support, be it a cleaner, child-care, a live-in au-pair, etc.
  • finding creative solutions to make the situation work for you and your family
  • having the right partner and getting into a rhythm of sharing responsibilities. There are important and perhaps hard, but essential discussions to have.

So, it’s important to recognise that you’ll have to make tough choices but do recognise which strengths you can bring. For example, try to be very present in the moment, when you are with your family. And don’t spend time feeling guilty; there is not enough time for that.

To watch Syl Saller’s talk, visit Grace Blue’s Vimeo channel.

To learn more about Syl Saller and how you can boost your marketing leadership skills, visit MarketingLeadershipMasterclass.com