Ten years into his career in the food industry, Douglas Conant was fired from his job at General Mills. He had two small children, a big mortgage, and a feeling of bitterness. Then he called an outplacement firm where the man on the other end of the line answered as he always did: “Hi, it’s Neil McKenna. How can I help?”
That moment–in a new book, Conant describes it as a “touchpoint”–shaped his approach to leadership. “Leadership isn’t about you,” he says. “It’s about them.” McKenna became a mentor and friend, and Conant saw how seemingly small interactions can have a deep impact on people. He went only to a long career at Kraft, Nabisco and as CEO of Campbell Soup, where he led an impressive turnaround before retiring in July.
I met Conant this week in Washington to talk about his 10 years at Campbell and about the book. In Touchpoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments (Jossey-Bass), Conant and his co-author, consultant Mette Norgaard, argue that “the daily interruptions that leaders face in nearly epidemic proportions are actually the moments where the greatest leadership opportunities lie.”
Each of the many connections you make has the potential to become a high point or low point in someone’s day. Each is an opportunity to establish high performance expectations, to infuse the agenda with greater clarity and more energy, and to influence the course of events. Each is a chance to transform an ordinary moment into a Touchpoint.
“The soft stuff is the hard stuff,” Conant likes to say.
Conant, who is 60, is not a touchy-feely guy. Leaders, he says, need to be tough-minded and set high expectations. Three years into his tenure at Campbell, he replaced 300 out of 350 senior managers. “They either didn’t have the skills to lead their organization,” he said, “or they weren’t engaged in the culture-building we needed to do.” Boy, was culture building needed. Shortly after Conant took over, Gallup came in to survey employees and found that their engagement scores were rock bottom.
But it’s a sad fact that most workers in corporate America aren’t engaged. Towers Watson’s 2010 Global Workforce Study, which surveyed 20,000 employees, found that 21% were engaged, 42% were “enrolled” (meaning they do their jobs without much enthusiasm) and 38% were disenchanted or actively disengaged. That’s bad for business and a terrible waste of human potential. “Confidence in leaders and managers is disturbingly low,” the survey says.
This is why Conant’s message resonates. If you don’t treat people right, nothing else you do as a leader – the more visible work of devising strategy, buying or selling businesses, improving operations – is likely to succeed. “High trust leads to high performance,” he told me. The first thing he did as CEO was to drive the development of what became known as the Campbell promise: “Campbell valuing people; people valuing Campbell.”
Of course, the claim that “our people are our most important asset” has become a corporate cliché, and a hollow one at that. So I asked Conant what valuing people means in practice? Do people really need to read a book to learn how to treat others well?
“The key is to be disciplined and vigilant about it,” he told me. For example, he set aside time daily as CEO to write 10 to 20 personal notes to workers at Campbell – newly-hired staff, people who got promoted, others whose kids won a scholarship or were celebrating their 20th or 25th anniversary with the company.
“Over the 10 years, I sent 30,000 notes out,” he said. “And we only had 20,000 employees.” That’s impressive.
Conant would invited 20 employees from all levels of the company to lunch every four or six weeks, urging them to speak candidly and promising that nothing they said would leave the room. Many days, he practiced what Tom Peters called Managing by Walking Around; he’d change into a pair of casual shoes and wander the Campbell campus in Camden, N.J., talking to people along the way. Often, he’d engage people with the greeting he’d learned from Neil McKenna: “How can I help?”
He also tackled social and environmental concerns including obesity and the impact of the company’s purchases on agriculture and carbon emissions. “Companies have to step up to a new level of social engagement, in a way that’s a win for their shareholders and a win for the world,” he said. “People…want to feel grounded in a very frenetic world. They hunger to contribute to a greater good.”
How did it all work out?
Not bad at all. Campbell grew revenues and earnings throughout Conant’s decade as CEO and outperformed the broader markets, although not by much. During the last 10 years– an imperfect window in which to measure his impact, but it’ll have to do — Campbell stock grew by 18.12% while the S&P500 was up by 12.43%.
The company was doing better before Conant was sidelined by an automobile accident in July 2009, which required three extensive surgeries. “It’s been horrible,” he said. Joking that he prided himself on staying away from drugs during his youth in the 1960s and 1970s, he said: “I’ve been living with morphine and Ambien.”
There was, however, one aspect of the experience that wasn’t horrible at all. Personal notes poured into his office as word of his accident spread. Thousands of people who worked at Campbell took a few minutes to write a note or send cards.
“I never expected that,” Conant said. Touchpoints, it seems, are contagious.