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Inclusive leaders panel event

Inclusive drinks leaders share their best advice

September 11, 2019
By Alana House

Four drinks industry executives have shared their thoughts on leadership and inclusion during a panel session for emerging leaders. 

The event was one of the highlights of the 2019 Drinks Association Inclusive Leadership Program and featured Michelle Phipps, Group Head of Talent, Learning and Inclusion at Coca-Cola Amatil; Sally Byrne, Marketing Director, Alcohol & Coffee, Coca-Cola Amatil; Michiel Tops, Global Marketing – Digital Director, Pernod Ricard Winemakers; and Andy Kim, VP Finance Director ANZPI, Brown-Forman.

The panel session was facilitated by Serendis Leadership and offered mentees in the 2019 program the chance to pose questions to the panel on topics ranging from work-life balance, pivotal career moves and their best advice.

This year, 12 drinks companies are involved in the program, including Coca-Cola Amatil, Diageo, Lion Beer, Casella, Campari, Australian Liquor Marketers, Australian Vintage, Brown-Forman, Moet Hennessy, Pernod Ricard and Taylors Wines.

The panelists highlighted the importance of showing courage through vulnerability, having a strong network of sponsors and mentors, and leading with empathy.

Sally Byrne said one of her highlights during this year’s program was being matched with a male mentee whose thinking processes were completely different to her own.

“I’ve learned so much from the experience,” she said. “We’ve both grown to appreciate each other’s motivations and it’s reminded me just how valuable it is to be surrounded by teams with different approaches and mindsets.”

Serendis Director Bianca Havas agreed: “Inclusion can be hard, but it makes a tangible difference to business outcomes.”

Building a strong network

Kim, who has been with Brown-Forman for 14 years in roles across the US and Europe, noted that its important to nurture a wide network within an organisation.

“I’ve learned not to tie myself to one person,” he explained. “If they leave, you’re on your own. And be professional in all your interactions. You can never be quite sure where things might land you.”

Byrne said she formed a “board of directors” for herself in her thirties.

“These were people who would help me in all areas of my life, from my career, to my finances, health and wellbeing and relationships. Some didn’t even know they were on the board!”

Just before Byrne turned 40, she realised she had been taking and not giving. She resolved to become a “board member” for others.

“The awakening that I was only serving myself and it was time for me to start giving back, I think that’s a strong leadership quality to gain,” she said. 

Phipps advocated seeking out mentors and listening to podcasts on negotiating the more difficult aspects of leadership. 

“You need people you can trust to talk about how to handle the tough conversations and tough corners in your career,” she said.

She noted that it was important to be brave enough to reach out and connect with potential mentors and sponsors. 

“Go and ask for half and hour of someone’s time, build your board of directors,” she said. “But make sure to sit down and plan those conversations – be ready to explain how you are adding value to the business. You need to know the value you bring and believe it.”

Byrne added that the litmus test of whether your network was strong enough was to imagine what would happen during a time of career crisis.

“If you lost your job tomorrow, who would you pick up the phone and call? If you don’t have many people on the list, that’s something you need to work on.” 

Being your own PR machine

Havas reminded attendees that the biggest decisions about their careers will happen when they’re not in the room.

“You need sponsors who will advocate for you when you’re not in the room,” agreed Byrne. “You also need to verbalise what your aspirations are, so you’re on the radar when opportunities arise.”

Kim added: “If they don’t know about you, they’re not thinking about you.”

He recommended being open to out-of-the-box opportunities that might not initially fit with your game plan, as long as they keep you moving in the right direction.

“It’s what led me to progress from an accounting role into the finance side of the business,” he explained. “The corporate world is experiencing a lot of structural change at the moment. If your focus is too narrow, your specific role might not exist in six months.”

Byrne said she started backing herself from a very early age, making her first bold career move at age 14.

“I applied for a job at Gordon McDonalds,” she recalled. “I had to give a score out of 10 for how well I could do the job. I said 11 and I got the job.”

Maturing as a leader

While there was discussion around the challenges of juggling family and career, Tops said having children had made him a better leader. 

“I learn more from my kids than any management book about what makes people tick,” he said.

He’s also careful to maintain a work-life balance, which means leaving the office early if he has a late night call with Paris to pick his children up from school and spend some time with them.

When it comes to getting the best from teams, Havas said transparency and performance feedback were key.

“People need to know what your expectations are and where they stand,” she said.

Tops agreed: “Your team needs to know what you think isn’t working, as well as what’s working really well.”

Phipps added that she’d learned the value of being an empathetic leader. 

“When I was 26, I thought the right way to manage a team was to not be their friend,” she recalled. “And I couldn’t understand why my staff weren’t performing. I learned that kindness played an was important part in getting a team to work productively and cohesively.” 

Byrne noted: “The leaders you respect are the ones who always have capacity and time for their teams. Understanding the importance of that generosity was a game changer for me.”

But Byrne added that it was equally important to understand when to nuture and when to empower your teams.

“The biggest shock for me was the human side of leadership,” she said. “I crumbed because I didn’t realise how much people would need me. I was taking on the burden of solving all their issues, which was unsustainable. I had to put the questions back on them so they could own them.” 

You’re not supposed to have all the answers

One mentee asked for advice on what they should do when faced with business situation where they don’t know the answer.

Byrne said she felt the concept of a leader needing to have all the answers was out-dated.

“I think the strength of great leadership is knowing you have people around you who have deeper knowledge and tapping into that knowledge,” she said. “Empowering and trusting your team is incredibly rewarding.”

Tops agreed: “My role as a leader is to provide a framework, support my team and create a space of trust. You help people grow into their roles. Getting the right people in the right place to help you make the right decisions is a leadership skill.” 

The bigger picture

Byrne and Phipps have experience as Directors of the Drinks Association Board and were strong supporters of the value of its networking opportunities.  

“Shane Richardson sponsored me as an alternate director,” Byrne said.” I didn’t know what I was walking into, but it was brilliant. It was an amazing opportunity to meet different people across the sector and being involved in Women in Drinks was a pivotal point in my career.”

Phipps added: “I miss it greatly. When you stand on top of the hill you see the whole valley. It was an incredible experience to work as a collective for the betterment of the industry. It’s an industry unlike any other I’ve worked, where your competitor is your friend.” 

The panel discussion was followed by a networking session in the Brown-Forman bar. Thank you to Brown-Forman for hosting the event.