Why top CMO Syl Saller doesn't set out a 5-year career plan

Lara O'Reilly
Executive Producer

Syl Saller is frequently cited as one of the world’s most influential marketers, having served as chief marketing officer for UK-based global drinks giant Diageo (DGE.L) for six years.

Her tenure as the top marketing executive at Diageo is somewhat unusual given that the time CMOs spend in their jobs — in the US at least — tends to hover at just 43 months on average, according to research from executive search firm Spencer Stuart.

Speaking on Yahoo Finance UK’s Global Change Agents with Lianna Brinded show, Saller said she isn’t the type of executive who sets out a rigid five-year career plan.

Watch the full Syl Saller Global Change Agents interview here

“I’m very future-focused in terms of where are we going as a business and I think the thing that surprises people the most is... I don’t have a huge amount of ambition for myself,” Saller said. “The reason is, by the time I was a brand manager [at Gillette] I had achieved more success than I ever, ever dreamed possible, so the rest was kind of gravy.”

Saller joined Diageo in 1999. Prior to that, she held senior marketing roles at Allied Domecq, The Holson Burnes Group and Gillette, having graduated with an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1984. She also serves as president of The Marketing Society trade body.

Saller said there is “tremendous freedom” in not obsessing over the next rung of the career ladder.

“It gives you license to focus more on what’s right for the company, what’s right for people,” Saller said. “Then a strange by-product of that is people trust you more because they don’t think it’s your agenda — or in my case even marketing’s agenda — it’s Diageo’s agenda: it’s the agenda about what’s right for all our people and stakeholders and consumers.”

Having a leadership style that is laser-focused on the job that you’re in, rather than the job that could be next, “really wins followership” within the company Saller said.

Global Change Agents with Lianna Brinded explores the journeys of some of the world’s most inspirational women across business, tech, and academia. Catch up on all the latest episodes here.

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