Diageo CMO Syl Saller on four ways women can build their careers

Diageo CMO Syl Saller on four ways women can build their careers

Individuals must take responsibility to progress themselves and not wait for structural interventions to make the difference.

Much has been written about the issues surrounding gender inequality in the workplace. Data quantifying the scale of the gender pay gap is plentiful and concerning.  The world has woken up to the issue of unconscious bias and many companies have programmes to actively address this.  We all know that there aren’t enough women in senior roles. Thanks to the efforts of Lord Davies and many others, there has been progress in the number of women being appointed as non-executive directors but women are still poorly represented in main board executive positions, accounting for less than 10% of these roles.  

Much is being done to address this, including the government-backed review led by Sir Philip Hampton and the late, great Dame Helen Alexander. Aiming to get more women in senior roles, they have set their sights on companies having at least a third of their executive pipeline positions filled by women by 2020. We hope this voluntary business-led approach will see results.

Progress however, won’t continue if we don’t, individually and collectively, take personal responsibility for our own careers, and boldly carve a path that allows us to achieve our unique aspirations.

How to get the career you want

Coaching people on how to fulfil their hopes and dreams is a real passion for me.  So rather than adding to the debate and data around gender equality at a structural level, I’d thought I’d focus on what people can do personally to advance themselves.  As ever, when I talk about gender equality, my focus is on equal – not better – and my intent is seeing both men and women flourish in their careers.  But recognising some of the structural and perceptual disadvantages women face, the ideas below tilt toward what women can do to ensure they have the career they want.

This isn’t a definitive list.  They are merely a few of the coaching tips people have found most useful in our conversations.  They are meant to get you thinking about what’s right for you.  

1. Seek sponsors, not just mentors  

I get asked to unofficially mentor people all the time, and my answer is no. I believe the best people seek advice from a variety of people all the time, rather than having one mentor. Lean In author and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg cites specific examples of advice she was given that made a difference.  Sandberg credits Eric Schmidt for telling her years ago "not to be an idiot" and always take jobs based on potential for growth (not stability), and Mark Zuckerberg for saying that you can't please everyone — it will only hold you back.  

Sponsors on the other hand are people who are in a position to help lever open the doors of specific roles you might want.  You need to know what you are going for and understand who’s backing will really make the difference.  But most of all, sponsorship has to be earned – based on the quality and impact of your leadership, and your track record of results.

2. Recognise your career path is never a straight line (and is a marathon not a sprint)

Think laterally about being mobile – and take those moves early.  For most of my life, I defined my career as rooted in Boston (truly one of the best cities on the planet!) but my husband’s push for me to take a job in London because he felt our family was "too comfortable", was life changing.  It’s easier to move when you’re single, when kids are young, so look for international moves early.

Horizontal moves across functions or companies can build strength and diversity into your skill set.  I am more entrepreneurial than many people in big corporates for having spent half my early career in a venture-backed small company.  Julia Child worked in advertising, media and secret intelligence before launching her career as a celebrity chef in 1961.  Jeff Bezos worked on Wall Street before switching to the world of e-commerce at 31.

3. Be bold – ask for what you want and understand the structure of the reward system  

The gender pay gap is never going to get solved if we don’t get better at asking for what we want.  But sometimes those requests are naïve. You need to understand how your company rewards people.  For example, many use external benchmarks and know where people sit in that range.  If indeed you are at the top of that range, you may need to have a different conversation – for example – what does it take to get to the next level? Make it easy for the person to give you an honest answer to that.  If you’re not seen as having the potential for a particular role, better to know that and either overcome the objection or make different plans.

4. Seek the very best networks and best training

There are some great networks out there. My quick google search of women’s networks London returned 41 million results. The ones I’m most familiar with are Wacl and Working Girls which is open to young professional women in all industries. There are fantastic training programmes available as well.    Applications are currently open for the Wacl Future Leaders program, which funds 75% (up to £3,000) of whatever training programme you want to attend (apply now – deadline is 31 October!)   The Marketing Society runs the exciting International Marketing Leaders Programme and the stellar Marketing Academy has just opened their application process for 2018.

My simple insight is that individuals must take responsibility to progress themselves and not wait for structural interventions to make the difference.  Becoming a leader involves much more than gaining a leadership role, it’s about having the skills, resolve and relationships that make a difference to people and results.   The collective impact of women each taking their own careers, their own progression into their hands, will  multiply the impact of what business and government do, by a factor of as many women who try.

Syl Saller is the chief marketing officer at Diageo, a proud member of Wacl, president of the Marketing Society and a coach for the Fellowship programme of the Marketing Academy.



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