Close Encounters: Leadership and Handwritten Notes

Effective leadership is not confined to grand gestures and high profile public appearances. It can manifest itself in something as simple—and personal—as a handwritten note.

If there were a Hall of Fame in the American food manufacturing industry, Douglas Conant would be in it. He served in senior executive positions at General Mills and Kraft, then as president of Nabisco Foods and as CEO at Campbell Soup Company.

When Conant talks about leadership, he often says “the action is in the interaction.” By this he means that leadership is all about showing up in the moment whenever one interacts with others. It means earnestly working to advance the agenda in a constructive way.

“You can’t expect an organization to perform at high levels unless people are personally engaged,” Conant says. “And they won’t be personally engaged unless they believe you (the leader) are personally engaged in trying to make their lives better.”

Conant says there are two keys to staying on the message of engagement. The first is to “declare yourself.” People aren’t mind readers. They can’t know what you’re thinking unless you tell them. Explicitly. By declaring yourself, you might say something like, “Okay, we’re going to make it safe to challenge the status quo. We’re going to make it safe to offer opinions that run counter to the current thinking. We’re going to have a culture that places real value on fresh ideas.”

Conant says a second step to staying on message is to “deliver on your promises.” You must hold yourself accountable to the high standards. You must model high standards at every opportunity. You must walk the talk.

As Campbell’s CEO, Conant walked the engagement talk in the most literal way. He wore a pedometer on his belt, and sometime during each day—whether at the headquarters building in New Jersey or at a production plant in Europe or Asia—he put on a pair of walking shoes. His goal was to log 10,000 steps a day (great for the heart!) and to interact meaningfully with as many employees as possible.

“This practice showed people I was paying attention, that I was ‘all in,’” Conant says. These brief encounters had multiple benefits. They helped Conant stay informed with the goings-on throughout the company, and to connect personally with people at every level. They enabled people to put a human face on the company’s strategy and direction. And they enabled Conant to help celebrate the thousands of little successes that add up to big differences.

In addition to putting in lots of steps, Conant did something else that’s unusual for a CEO. He hand-wrote up to 20 notes a day to employees celebrating their successes and contributions. “In my line of work I’ve been trained to find the busted number in a spreadsheet and identify things that are going wrong,” he says. “Most cultures don’t do a good job of celebrating contributions. So I developed the practice of writing notes to our employees.”

Over ten years, it amounted to more than 30,000 notes, and Campbell had only 20,000 employees. Wherever Conant went in the world, in employee cubicles you’d find his handwritten notes posted on their bulletin boards. Conant’s notes were not gratuitous. They celebrated specific contributions. And because the notes were handwritten, they seemed to be treasured more than an email message might be.

What’s the primary point here? Messages matter. Repetition matters. Clarity matters. The “personal touch” matters. In fact, Conant coauthored a bestselling book on the subject. It’s entitled TouchPoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments.

At a time when the information age has morphed into the interruption age, great leaders like Doug Conant learn to look at daily interactions through a fresh lens. Every interaction—whether it’s planned or spontaneous, casual or choreographed, in a conference room or on a factory floor—is an opportunity to exercise change-friendly leadership.

Conant used a simple behavioral model to help operationalize this high engagement philosophy. “Leaders have a bias for action,” he says. “When they’re listening, it may not feel like they’re accomplishing anything. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

He recommends what he calls a “TouchPoint Triad.” In music, a triad describes the three tones needed to form a complete chord, the three notes that create the harmony. Likewise, Conant says, the “TouchPoint Triad” describes the three key notes needed in even the briefest interactions: (1) Listen Intently, (2) Frame the Issue, and (3) Advance the Agenda.

To “Listen Intently” is all about bringing a “how can I help?” mentality to the discussion and earnestly trying to understand the situation. To “Frame the Issue” is about making sure you understand who owns the issue and what the expectations are of you in the interaction. Finally, to “Advance the Agenda” is about looking for some way to move things forward in the moment.

Over time, this disciplined approach to conducting interactions can exponentially improve one’s effectiveness and efficiency, systematically helping to raise one’s leadership profile.

This column by Dr. Duncan was also published by Forbes where he is a regular contributor. Follow on Twitter @DoctorDuncan

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Rodger Dean Duncan

Rodger Dean Duncan is bestselling author of CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP and a regular contributor to Forbes and Fast Company magazines. He is widely known for his expertise in the strategic management of change, for organizations and for individuals. In 1972 he founded Duncan Worldwide to train and develop leaders. His clients have included some of the top companies in the world, as well as cabinet officers in two White House administrations.
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