Former CEO of Campbell Soup, Doug Conant, On Rules for Leaders

Doug Conant had a successful decade as the CEO of Campbell Soup Company. He inherited a floundering company and put the iconic brand back on track — and double-digit gains. Conant says that it’s CEOs who look for and act on every opportunity to deliver authenticity who succeed in engaging employees.

September 12 2011 by Jennifer Pellet


Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell Soup Company 

Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell Soup Company

“Behavior matters,” asserts Douglas R. Conant, who recently retired from his post as CEO of Campbell Soup after a successful 10-year run. “It’s not just what you say, it’s what you do, and it’s what you do every moment—for CEOs in particular.”

Conant, who recently partnered with consultant Mette Norgaard to write TouchPoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments, is on something of a mission. The veteran of successful turnaround efforts at Nabisco and Campbell is urging CEOs to recognize the importance of every exchange with employees, no matter how small. “You’re on display 24/7,” he notes. “It’s not the words on the wall, it’s how you show up in every interaction.”

It’s CEOs who look for and act on every opportunity to deliver that authenticity who succeed in engaging employees, he notes. “That’s when they will go the extra mile to advance the agenda—where the relationship is viewed as a principle of honor rather than a transactional relationship of a good day’s pay for a good day’s work.”

Conant honed that leadership philosophy over years of working to reengage disenfranchised employees at both Nabisco (where he revitalized the floundering Planters and LifeSavers brands and launched Snackwells while head of marketing at the $3.5 billion company) and Campbell Soup Company, where he took the CEO seat only after the global food company had frittered away half its market value. “When I came into Campbell I told the board, ‘You can’t talk your way out of something you behaved your way into,’” he recounts. Three years into his corporate culture-building program, “The Campbell Promise: Campbell Valuing People. And People Valuing Campbell,” the company was back on track. It went on to deliver double-digit increases for the next five years.

While quick to note that the long-term perspective of the company’s founding family shareholders—who hold about half its shares—helped, Conant feels that all CEOs can boost results by nurturing engagement. “There are lots of opportunities to validate good behavior, create clear direction and give employees energy,” he says. “You just have to be vigilant.”

So how can CEOs transform otherwise ordinary interactions into powerful leadership moments? Conant outlines three steps:

  1. Listen Intently. CEOs often feel besieged with interruptions—from casual hallway chats and phone calls to text exchanges. But each of those communications are also opportunities to influence employees. Careful listening lets you make the most of them.
  2. Frame the Issue. Before you move to action, take the time to summarize what you’ve heard. In addition to ensuring that you understand this issue, framing the problem can help the employees embroiled in it to gain clarity around the issue.
  3. Advance the Agenda. When people come to the CEO with an issue, they want to make progress. Work with your employees to identify the next steps to take and who will take them—whether that means making a decision then and there or connecting them to someone who can help.