Doug Conant on Leadership in the Workplace

About Our Guest: Douglas Conant is a superstar in the American food manufacturing world, having served in senior executive positions at General Mills and Kraft, then as President of Nabisco Foods. In 2001 he took over as CEO of Campbell Soup Company. The company’s stock was trailing the S&P 500 and falling sharply. Over the next several years, Doug and his team led Campbell back to greatness. By 2009, Campbell was outperforming both the S&P Food Group and the S&P 500. Sales and earnings were on the upswing, and employee engagement was at world class levels. During his time at Campbell, Doug sent more than 30,000 handwritten notes of encouragement to employees. He wrote about this in his bestselling book entitled TouchPoints: Creating Powerful Leadership- Connections in the Smallest of Moments.Doctor Duncan

When you talk about leadership, you often say “the action is in the interaction.” What do you mean by that?

Douglas ConantThe expression, “the action is in the interaction, grew out of the observation that in many quarters the concept of leadership had evolved to almost mythical proportions in such a way that it was felt untouchable by the everyday contributor. The concept of “the action is in the interaction” means that leadership is all about showing up in the moment whenever one interacts with others. It connotes earnestly working to help advance the agenda in a constructive way. In that sense, anyone can be a leader in any moment. To me that is a very powerful and approachable idea. 

The term “Leadership by Walking Around” was first introduced decades ago. When you were CEO at Campbell Soup Company, how did you operationalize that term?

“Leadership by Walking Around” is all about being visible to your organization in a fashion that brings your enterprise mission, strategy, and values to life in a tangible way. Every day when I was in the office, I would look for an open half hour in my schedule and I would walk around our campus for exercise and for the opportunity to interact with our people to discuss the issues of the day. Wherever possible, I reinforced our strategic intentions and our values. Over time, I connected with most of our people in a personal way, clearly increasing our sense of connection and collegiality.

You recommend that leaders do a better job of connecting with their team by using the “TouchPoint Triad.” What exactly is that, and how does it work?

In music, a triad describes the three tones you need to form a complete chord, the three notes that create the harmony. Likewise, the “TouchPoint Triad” describes the three key notes you have to hit in even the briefest interactions.

Those three notes are to (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 all 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 all 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.

A lot of business people try to “lead” by announcement, by slogan, or by executive decree. What would be your advice to them?

Announcements, slogans and executive decrees have their place in every organization. However, the challenge for the leader is to bring those things to life in a fashion that tangibly galvanizes the organization to pursue them in an enduring way. Put another way, words matter but ultimately actions matter more. In my experience, organizations hunger to both hear the words and see the leaders behave in a way that unmistakably demonstrates their deep personal commitment to the agenda. In fact, I’ve never seen it work any other way.

If you were coaching an up-and-coming leader, what “leadership myths” would you warn him or her about?

There are two “myths” I would seek to dispel. First, that leaders are born, not made. I view leadership as a craft, and in that sense I think it works off the mastery model. In my experience, aspiring leaders who treat their leadership journey as a craft become students of the craft, and seek out opportunities to apprentice with masters of the craft (either in person or virtually) will ultimately be the most sought after leaders of tomorrow.

The second “myth” is that people should not take their work personally because “it’s just business”. Nothing could be further from the truth. The most effective leaders of yesterday, today, and tomorrow were, are, and will be the leaders who take their work personally and who work passionately to advance their agenda. I’ve never seen a great accomplishment that was brought about without passion.

Over your years as a business executive, what three books have had the greatest influence on you? Why?

The three people I would highlight would be our mutual friend Stephen Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People); Jim Collins (Good to Great); and Bill George (True North and Authentic Leadership).

All three of these people have had a powerful influence on my leadership journey. Importantly, their influence on my development is against a backdrop of decades of study of leaders from all walks of life. I think it is mission critical for all aspiring leaders to make time for the study of leaders who intrigue them and from whom they can learn. It creates a context that will help them shape their leadership approach in a more enlightened way.

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.
Rodger Dean Duncan

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