You have to win in the workplace before you can win in the marketplace: Douglas Conant

You have to win in the workplace before you can win in the marketplace: Douglas Conant

Douglas Conant, the former CEO of the Campbell Soup Company and a top leadership expert, shares how he led the remarkable turnaround of an iconic brand back to greatness. He also shares his best advice on how leaders can deal with uncertainty and embrace critics.

You joined Campbell Soup when the company’s stocks were plummeting, earnings were declining, and employee engagement was at an all-time low. How did you reverse these trends to turn the company around?


I started at Campbell on January 8th, 2001. By July of that year, we had a transformation plan, which was all about rebuilding the workplace to reinvigorate our performance in the marketplace.


At the time, the Campbell Soup Company was headquartered in 38 countries and marketed in 125 countries. We had 25,000 direct employees and many people who worked for us beyond our direct control. So rebuilding the workplace was a challenging task. What I found as the key to turning around our culture was being doggedly persistent around the key focus areas. At a high level, the focus needed to be, obviously, on performance. But first and foremost, the focus had to be on the people we were expecting to deliver that performance.


Jim Collins, in his book, Good to Great, rightly says that the first thing you need to do in a transformation is to get the right people on the bus, put them in the right seats, and get them to a point where they understand the expectations of the enterprise.


The better part of my first three years at the company was getting the right people on the Campbell Soup bus and helping to create a culture that valued two things: people and performance. The first day I started at Campbell, my going-in language was that we cannot win in the marketplace until we can demonstrate that we can win in the workplace.


We focused on people. Then we held ourselves accountable for delivering an improving performance. We did not overpromise our performance in the near term, but we continued to improve it. We ensured not to overpromise and underdeliver on performance expectations.


I believe that you can’t talk your way out of something you behaved your way into. You have to behave your way out of it.


It took us a long time to start falling apart, and it was clear to me that it would take us a long time to get out of it. We were competing against large, well-healed consumer products companies with strong balance sheets, cash flow and brands. It was going to take us a while to get out of this.


During my first three years at Campbell, we reinvigorated the workplace. We developed enlightened business strategies and brought them to life by year three. We focused heavily on employee engagement, tracked it and measured it. During my first year, we discovered we had abysmal employee engagement in the Fortune 500s. We set about focusing on building a culture that invited our employees to be more engaged.


We challenged our top 350 leaders to either get with the programme, which we hoped they would or make other career choices. By the end of year three, we had turned over 300 of our top 350 most senior employees. That was a lot, and it was scary. But at the same time, we needed to get people who would be with the programme and get on the Campbell Soup bus as we envisioned it.


Of the 300 we turned over, we could promote 150 people from inside the company to new levels of responsibility. But we did have to go outside and hire another 150 leaders from all around the world who helped us lift our game.


It was a blending of old, established Campbell folks who knew how to get it done and some new people from outside the company who had an appetite to be part of this transformation. Ultimately, it worked out. Over the decade, we developed a profile of going from the worst employee engagement in the Fortune 500s to having the best. We also delivered financial returns in the top tier of the global food industry for the last seven years before I retired.


While many aspects of leadership are timeless, what new skills and mindsets will be needed to lead effectively into the future when “knowing all the answers” is no longer something we can expect of (or require of) modern leaders?


The more things change, the more certain things remain the same. I believe we were naïve to think a leader could ever have all the answers. The reality is that, out of a thousand decisions made at the Campbell Soup Company when I worked there, I was only in the room for maybe two of them. The other 998 decisions were made by other people, which was a good thing because they knew what they were doing. They were closer to issues than I was. Many hands make light work. As the world is changing rapidly, you need to build a team with the portfolio skills that can enable you to deal with whatever comes at you.


An old mentor of mine, Warren Bennis, created the term VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous). He said in 1987 that it’s a VUCA world, and it’s only going to become more so. Today, we would call it a VUCA world on steroids.


We’re encountering a new normal as we try and navigate through this pandemic, which could become endemic in that it will be with us forever in some way, shape or form. The one thing we know is things are going to keep changing.


How do you deal with change when you know there’s so much uncertainty? I believe you have to focus on what’s changeless. That’s your purpose as a leader, as a company and your commitment to each other. You create a culture that is all about high trust and high performance, knowing that whatever comes at you is going to be unpredictable.


The one thing you have to be able to count on is that the team you’re working with will be there for you and will be engaged in the work and will have the eye of the tiger. That’s what I challenge leaders to do today, as you can’t deal with all the change out there – it’s too much. What you can deal with is building up an agile, high-performance team with strong trust that will flow to the challenge of the day and address it.


Great CEO–CFO relationships have always been praised, but what is your take on the CEO–CHRO partnership? Do you see the CHRO of as much value as the CFO?


As a leader, managing and leading your people is the most important thing you do because you have to win in the workplace before you can win in the marketplace. I would say a CEO’s partnership with the CHRO is undoubtedly on par with the CFO.


The CHRO helps you craft a culture-building strategy, and the CFO enables you to win in the marketplace. The CEO has to be focused on winning in the workplace first and be the culture champion. You can’t delegate that down: You are the culture; you create it.


You have a perfect example in Mahatma Gandhi. He created a culture, lived it and modelled it. Everything flowed from him well beyond his ability to influence people. I think a CEO needs to do that, too.


The CEO has to be the culture champion, but I believe the CHRO has to carry that flame 24/7 when the CEO is doing all kinds of other things. Moreover, the CHRO needs to be financially literate to understand the marketplace challenges, and the CFO needs to be culturally literate to understand what the organisation is trying to do with the culture. Both have to partner with the CEO to create a culture that delivers in the workplace and the marketplace.


What would your best advice be for CEOs who are under increasing pressure to make smarter and faster decisions at a time when uncertainty abounds?


That’s a real challenge because people want answers. You can’t offer them the certainty they want because the world is changing too fast and whatever you say today could be viewed as inappropriate tomorrow. What I encourage CEOs to do is to be focused—not necessarily on an outcome but on the process of how we’re going to manage a situation.


Talk not about the “what” but the “how” of addressing an issue. Then, create a rhythm to report on your progress and the steps you’re taking. Never lock yourself into an outcome unless you’re positively sure that you can deliver on that outcome. The last thing a CEO wants to be known as is someone who overpromises and underdelivers.


You’ve got to be very careful with what you promise. You can promise a smart process that moves with alacrity, that keeps all the key stakeholders apprised of where you are, and that keeps everyone in the boat with you. Focus on the “how”, not on the “what”. It’s not that you don’t want to have a clear idea of what the outcome should be, but in terms of communicating beyond the four walls of the C-suite, you have to be careful.


The most effective CEOs that I know of around the world tend to focus on “how” and show sensitivity and earnestness when dealing with each situation but keep a realistic view that we can’t promise something in a changing world.


Criticism is an unavoidable part of leadership. CEO decisions are frequently subjected to review from those who are not always aware of the underlying intricacies, complexities and choices involved. Do you have some strategies that leaders could use for not internalising or personalising criticism?


It’s hard because you tend to take your work personally as a CEO, C-suite leader or team leader. You personally identify with the position you’ve taken. It’s difficult not to take feedback personally. At the same time, the key for me was always to be curious. If somebody had a new insight or a better way, I’d ask, “Tell me more, what did I miss? How can we do better?” The key to being a successful leader is to bring curiosity to the table.


If someone has an input or has done some analysis that suggests we’re on the wrong path, and if I haven’t contemplated that, I would say, “I’d like to hear more about it. Share with me.” If I have contemplated it, I’m happy to take a position on it because I’ve thought about it. But often, you get feedback that seems to come out of the left field and may or may not be relevant. I think the answer for me was always, “Tell me more. What am I missing? How can we do better?”


Good ideas can come from anywhere. Often they come from outside the people who are in the room, and I always welcome that kind of input.


I remember talking to the Chairman CEO of Walmart years ago. They had just embarked on a massive sustainability programme where they were challenging the entire system such that Walmart managed to dramatically become more sustainable and reduce its carbon footprint.


The Chairman CEO told me a fascinating thing. Before they went out with the programme, they invited their single biggest critic to come in privately and opine on the programme they were designing, helping them make sure they weren’t missing anything. At the time, their largest critic was an activist group called Greenpeace. He invited them in and had them critique the programme before he ever went out with it. He learned some things and made it better.


If you focus on trying to do the best for the enterprise and be open to the input from all around you, you don’t get lost in a sea of input. You make decisions, and you move forward. You’d be foolish not to listen to inputs from stakeholders who have an interest in what you’re doing.

Ankita Sharma is working as Senior Editor with Human Capital. With 6+ years of experience, she has performed diverse roles across the entire spectrum of corporate HR — from hire to retire.


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