Forbes CMO Leadership Talk: Syl Saller, Diageo

Syl Saller
By Thomas Barta
Last updated: February 24, 2017

In this interview with Syl Saller, Diageo’s Global CMO, we discussed several insights into successful CMO leadership—from her remarkable career:

  • Marketing as a Growth Engine: Marketing at Diageo is perceived as a growth engine that focuses on understanding consumer and customer needs and aligning them to drive growth. The emphasis is on speaking the language of the company, which is growth, and demonstrating how marketing contributes to brand, company, and people growth.
  • Creating Overlap between Customer and Company Needs: Syl emphasizes the importance of operating in the overlap between customer desires and business requirements. She gives an example of how Diageo invests in new brands to capture emerging customer needs while driving growth for the company.
  • Role Modeling and Culture: Syl believes that everyone in the organization, especially members of the board, is seen as a role model. She emphasizes the importance of spreading the right culture, values, and leadership behaviors throughout the organization to have a more significant impact.
  • Authentic Leadership: Syl strives to be an authentic leader by balancing candor and care for her team. She puts her family first while managing her role as a parent and a global CMO.
  • Skills Mix and Leadership: Syl highlights the importance of having the right mix of “Metrics and Magic” in a marketing team, along with leadership skills and diversity. Leadership is expected at every level, and balancing data-driven decision-making with instinct is crucial.
  • Diversity: Diageo values both gender diversity and diversity in thinking. They encourage employees to bring their authentic selves to work and appreciate the unique skills and perspectives each individual brings to the organization.
  • Scouting External Agency Talent: Diageo has a disciplined approach to scouting and managing its creative roster. They also review numerous start-ups and tech companies through their Futures Team. Syl emphasizes the importance of thoughtful engagement when trying to collaborate with the company.
  • Building Trust and Confidence: Building confidence in teams is essential for better performance and trust. Coaching plays a significant role in helping team members gain confidence, and Syl believes that every conversation can be a coaching conversation.
  • Inspiring People: Syl sees inspiring people as a fundamental part of her role. She aims to inspire individuals by believing in their potential and fostering a sense of belonging, safety, and shared purpose. Communication and connecting with people on a personal level are key to her approach.
  • Leadership Learning: Syl acknowledges the need to understand the impact of her role as a leader and moderate her leadership style accordingly. She values asking questions, self-awareness, and the power of her words.
  • Effective Communication: Syl emphasizes the importance of communicating through personal interactions, such as town halls and “working the work,” rather than relying solely on video or presentations. She believes that real problems are solved through hands-on engagement.

Syl Saller’s leadership philosophy centers on authenticity, balancing metrics and creativity, fostering diversity, and inspiring individuals to achieve their best while maintaining a strong focus on driving growth for Diageo.