BITE Focus

WACL Gather 2020: Go Further Together

Syl Saller CBE, outgoing CMO of Diageo and Camilla Harrisson, CEO of Anomaly, discussed the importance of psychological safety at work as WACL Gather went virtual.

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE


As the lockdown continues, one of the more positive aspects of the industry being forced to work from home is the increased accessibility to events. As long-established industry events embrace being virtual and free the erosion of traditional barriers to entry has encouraged more people to get involved, watch and learn.

WACL (Women in Advertising and Communications London) exists to accelerate gender equality across the industry by focusing on three vital things: inspiration, support and campaigning. The organisation has been hosting their annual Gather event for many years as a not-for-profit training event. But this year marked the first time the event has operated solely online, allowing them to reach more people than they might otherwise have done. 

For a week, WACL hosted talks and sessions with inspirational women across the industry to offer, as they say, “training, inspiration and support for ambitious women.” For the final session of the week, Syl Saller CBE, outgoing CMO of Diageo was in conversation with Camilla Harrisson, CEO of Anomaly. The pair talked about the importance of creating a feeling of psychological safety for employees, particularly during the ongoing crisis, and how they build both trust and honesty amongst their teams.

Anomaly is a long-time agency partner of Diageo, and the pair opened by sharing how they first met. Saller first saw Harrisson when she was speaking at what was WACL Forum that then became Gather. She was impressed so they met and had lunch after which they became firm friends and later client/agency partners.  Harrisson shared how they make a success of their working relationship: “It just comes down to trust, you have to force yourself to be honest,” she explained.

I didn’t even know the phrase psychological safety. Turns out, it is the answer to everything.

Camilla Harrisson

Creating a sense of psychological safety

That honesty is key, both believe, to creating and maintaining the psychological safety that is fundamental to establishing the best working environment for individuals. Saller explained what that means in practice: “Psychological safety is about feeling like you can show up without fear of negative consequences, whether it’s image, status or career. In psychologically safe teams, people feel accepted and respected.”

Harrisson added: “I didn’t even know the phrase psychological safety. Turns out, it is the answer to everything.” But, she added, “when you think about the opposite of psychological safety, you get fear, If you’re in a fearful environment, we all know that’s going to stifle ideas, it’s going to stifle creativity.” 

The idea of safety is thrown into particularly stark relief at the moment when, as Harrisson explains: “everyone’s sense of safety feels particularly fragile.” But encouraging people to feel safe comes from a place of honesty, something that is particularly important to uphold as a leader. “People are so intuitive, and they can tell and pick up if you’re being cagey or if you’re withholding things,” she adds.

Honesty & vulnerability build trust 

Communication isn’t just in the act of speaking but in the importance of choosing your words carefully, believes Harrisson, whether you have the answers or not. This movement towards honesty and transparency is vital at the moment, even if it’s just to admit you don’t know the answers. “It’s OK for people to see it be hard,” says Harrisson. She believes there’s power in acknowledging when you’ve got something wrong because it sets a powerful example to those working alongside you. 

That level of honesty ultimately requires vulnerability which both leaders believe can help to build the trust that is so integral to a successful and happy team. As Saller explained: “By being vulnerable yourself, you can bring it out in others.” Saller believes that this can be done at scale, citing an online meeting she hosted for 800 marketers in which Saller shared how she was feeling about the lockdown and ongoing crisis, and the tips that helped her. “I think every conversation can be a coaching conversation,” she adds.

The pair also spoke about how vital honesty is when it comes to maintaining a successful client/agency relationship. Harrisson revealed that “agencies are often fearful,” citing the pitch processes they go through as well as the competition element as a reason why many agencies feel the need to constantly impress their client partners.

For the partnership to be a success, Harrisson believes in the importance of “trusting the equality” of the relationship. Saller believes that “as clients we need to first look at ourselves and say how can we be a better client?”

It’s such a waste of energy for people to pretend to be something they’re not.

Syl Saller

Bring your whole self to work

When people feel safe, and they feel seen is where they find the space to be their best self, believes Saller. And leadership plays a key role in fostering that setting. “I believe leadership is about creating an environment where people can do their best work and lead their best lives,” explains Saller.

“Wherever you’re leading, whether it’s a project or a company, you want people to lean in,” says Harrisson. When people are afraid, they shrink back, and they conceal their true selves. Saller alludes to the voice in our heads as being more often than not contradictory to the way in which others see us. What’s important is to turn that voice off. “Ultimately we are really bad judges of ourselves,” says Saller. 

For Saller, everyone should feel able to bring their whole self to work, “because I think it’s such a waste of energy for people to pretend to be something they’re not.” While people supporting one another matters, for Saller, she urges people to get to a point where they’re less stirred by what other people think: ““the journey is about that locus of judgement being in you,” she adds. 

To enable people to bring their whole self to work, they need to recognise what Harrisson calls, “the cycle of confidence and the wheel of shit.” Confidence breeds confidence, and a lack of it breeds the same. When you’re in the cycle, “you’re in an environment where people help you understand your potential and you’re allowed to be safe and your confidence thrives,” says Harrisson. The wheel of shit is the total opposite. 

Prioritise more ruthlessly

One of the predominant issues for individuals and businesses navigating life under lockdown, and working from home, is the lack of boundaries around what constitutes work and life. This flexibility does have its benefits of course but it also can mean, “that the boundaries are even worse,” explains Harrisson. If you’re working all hours, you’re not going to feel energised and passionate, and that’s what your team and the business needs.

Saller believes it’s important to remember the job in hand. Ask yourself two questions, she says, “what are you working on and is it really important? Because there’s a lot of stuff that we do that doesn’t really matter.” Being more discerning will enable you to carve out a better work/life balance. “Prioritise more ruthlessly,” adds Saller, because that’s what’s within your power and control.

Answering a question from the audience, Saller revealed she doesn’t like referring to imposter syndrome because, what we should be doing, is understanding the nuance of the moments in which you feel like you’re not good enough. “Growth is never a straight line,” she adds. As Harrisson concluded, “focus on your superpower not someone else’s.”


WACL Gather 2020 was hosted online with any donations being directed to NABS, the support organisation for the advertising and media industry.

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