Turnaround Tips From Comeback King Doug Conant, Fmr. Campbells CEO

Doug Conant, who brought Campbell’s Soup back from a near-death experience, shares strategies for tackling turnarounds.

Conventional wisdom used to be that a new CEO observe and then develop a plan over the first year. It feels like we just don’t have that much time anymore.

Right. I’m gonna say I have three years, and the first year is the other guy’s fault. The second year it’s our fault, we’re learning. The third year you own it. So you can’t be fiddling around for one-sixth to one-third of the time walking around, shaking hands and learning. You gotta be ready to hit the ground running.

I was hired January 8. In July, at the end of our fiscal year, we launched our transformation plan, so seven months in we had a plan for the next three years. I wish it could have gone faster, but we were building for long-term success. We knew it was just a fool’s errand to over-promise and under-deliver. Stephen Covey had a great line: ‘’Doug, you just cannot talk your way out of something you behaved your way into. You have to behave your way out of it.’’

When you go in as a leader, you’ve gotta be clear about two things: the what, which is the plan, and the how, how are we going to do it? And quite frankly, the how is almost more important to the people in the organization then the what because they’re walking on eggshells. You have to tell them the behaviors you expect… and put everyone on notice that you’re gonna be evaluated against the what and the how. We’re gonna look at your results, and we’re gonna look at how you get them. It’s the what and the how together that start to bring stability to the process for all the people working there.

How did that work at Campbell’s?

For the how, we created a Campbell’s leadership model where we said, “There are six expectations of our leaders.” By the way, everybody in the company was a leader. The first one was that you inspire trust. If you have a high-trust team, you can do almost anything.

Once you start building trust, you have permission to create strategic direction, which was the second expectation. The third expectation was to get everybody aligned to execute that direction, and the next was to build organization vitality and support the people trying to get this thing done.

The fifth expectation was that we would execute with excellence because we believe that a good plan well executed beats a brilliant plan poorly executed every time. And the sixth expectation was that we would produce extraordinary results. Those expectations were engineered into our performance review process. We found that as you went through those six steps, it got easier to inspire trust, create direction, align the organization the next time because you had produced results.

What was behind your habit of personally writing between 10 and 20 thank you notes a day to Campbell’s employees?

As a leader, if you’re not tough-minded on standards, you won’t be a leader very long. I would also tell you in today’s world with the millennials and Gen Xers, if you’re not also tender with people, you won’t be a leader very long either, at least not in the same place because you won’t have followers. So I advocate being tough-minded and tender-hearted same time.

You have to call out the two things that aren’t going well in a tough-minded way, but you’re also obligated to celebrate the eight things that are going well…. I got known for writing thank-you notes to people about specific contributions. When I retired, we did the math and I had written at least 30,000 notes over 10 years to Campbell’s employees—and we only had 20,000 employees. This is about building a performance ethic in the company where you call people to account for what they’re not getting done and you celebrate what they do get done when they do it well.

You’ve dealt with significant adversity at different points in your career. What did you learn from those times?

We all have crucible moments when we are challenged in the most significant way we can imagine. I’ve had several, from getting fired from a job, totally unprepared, after working for the company for 10 years and with a large mortgage, a wife and two small children. It was not pretty.

Then, I was in a near-fatal car accident. Coming back from all that, hell, I’m just happy to be here right now.

I’ve been knocked down several times and gotten back up, and actually blossomed from the experience because I’ve really gone down into the dark spaces of my being and landed on a perspective that helped me with the next leg of my journey. When I was fired, man, was I motivated to get back on the horse again after being out of work for a year and desperately trying to find a job that would be fulfilling. That led me back to the consumer products industry, where I ended up working for Jim Kilts and learning so much from him.

The car accident was extraordinarily difficult. Then, I found out I could get up and resume most of what I wanted to do with my life. I’ve had a new lease on life ever since, and I’ll be celebrating 10 years recovery from that accident on July 2 of this year of 2019. We all have those crucible moments, it’s what we do with them that defines our legacy or contribution. We need to say, “Okay, how can I learn and grow from this experience so that I can be an even better contributor tomorrow than I am today?” And the lessons are there. You just have to be looking for them.


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