Over the past year or so, I have really come to enjoy reading The Thought Leader Interview articles published by strategy+business magazine. A recent interview featured Douglas Conant, former CEO of Campbell Soup Company. Conant took the helm at Campbell in 1999 when “the company was in a very tough spot.” Campbell was in a decent position as far as several of its food categories were concerned.
They were large and growing with the top or second-place brand. However, behind the scenes, things were falling apart. “Sales, earnings, market share, and employee engagement were waning, and the company was involved in several prickly legal situations.” In addition, the company’s stock price had dropped by half, from $60 per share to $30.
Employee-engagement statistics were just shy of 2 to 1, so a large number of employees were dissatisfied with their jobs, to the point that they were looking for other employment. In fact, Jim Clifton from Gallup performed an employee engagement survey at Campbell and found that engagement levels were the lowest ever surveyed for a Fortune 500 company.
The situation at Campbell was dismal for a number of reasons:
- Over-promising and under-delivering (across the board)
- Poor short-term decisions
- Reduced marketing spending
- Actively reducing product quality
- Compromised product quality because output levels were too high
- Hasty cost-reduction efforts (firing 250 R&D employees in one day)
After Campbell let 250 of their R&D people go, their new-product pipeline staggered. They lost a lot of their best people and the morale of those who stayed on was precarious at best.
Conant came into Campbell after helping Kraft and Nabisco get back on the right track. However, the first few years at the iconic food company were rough. Conant commented, “You’ve got to get ‘the right people on the bus,’ as Jim Collins put it. They’ve all got to be sitting in the right seats, and they have to be highly engaged in the work. ‘You can’t talk your way out of something you behaved your way into,’ I told the staff. ‘You have to behave your way out of it.’”
It was with that paradigm that Conant “turned over 300 of the top 350 leaders in the first three years.” Half of these leaders were replaced by promoting from within and the other half were brought in from outside of the company.
Once the right people occupied the right seats on the bus, Conant and his team started to rework things throughout the company, from better addressing customer issues to revamping executive-compensation structures. Conant came to Campbell already enjoying the utter craziness a busy office offered, including the constant phone calls, endless e-mails, and incessant interruptions.
“I don’t view them as interruptions,” he said. “They’re opportunities to help advance things. So I look forward to them . . . It’s also how you bring strategies to life. As Campbell CEO, I sent 10 to 20 handwritten notes out a day. For example, I might have said, ‘I saw you did good work here. You got this line up and running on time.’ Or maybe I said, ‘You helped us get into this test market ahead of schedule.’
I avoided gratuitous compliments and focused on the business priorities; I had a part-time assistant who collected reports about what was going on in the company. Over my 10-year tenure, I wrote 30,000 notes. It got to the point where I felt something was missing if I didn’t have a chance to do it; I blocked out half an hour a day just to write the notes. I also deliberately wandered around the buildings, asking people about how things were going. It created a platform for candor: ‘Well, it’s not going very well.’ Then I could ask, ‘Really? Is there something you need?’
People can have 200 or more interactions a day, if you count e-mail. Each is an opportunity to advance the company’s agenda. We found that many executives brush these interactions aside because they’re too busy trying to get the ‘real work’ done. But this is the real work, and it ripples out around you . . .
You can’t manage every interaction well. There are times when you can’t talk to people; you have to discriminate. But if you manage three encounters better today than you did yesterday, every day, you can fundamentally change the trajectory of your leadership profile. And we’ve found that people who take on this discipline, just one interaction at a time, start to improve their ability to contribute.”
That is the lesson. When leaders connect with their people, their people feel appreciated on a personal level. When people feel appreciated, they improve their ability to contribute as professionals. Improved contributions add to the strategy of an organization and move the needle on getting things done. When things get done, organizations and leaders move closer and closer to their strategic targets.
 Kleiner, Art. “The Thought Leader: Douglas Conant.” strategy+business, August 28, 2012. http://www.strategy-business.com/article/00128?pg=all (accessed November 20, 2012).