Leadership That Works: It’s All About The People

In leadership, there are few things more powerful than letting people know how much you care, and allowing that caring to guide your approach to delivering results.

Douglas Conant was hired as CEO of Campbell Soup Company when the company was struggling to meet stakeholder expectations. Within a few short years, he led the company to deliver superior financial performance, world-class employee engagement, and become a recognized leader in corporate social responsibility. Conant credits a significant part of that success to an epiphany he had early in his career about being his authentic self at work. In the following excerpt from his forthcoming book, The Blueprint: 6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights (Wiley, March 2020), Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell Soup and founder of ConantLeadership, shares his take on why CEOs can’t become world-class leaders without being anchored in the fundamentals of their craft—the craft of leading people.

Grant Achatz is one of the most innovative chefs working today. A trip to his renowned restaurant, Alinea in Chicago, is half experimental theater, half fine-dining experience; it’s white tablecloth refinement and childlike wonder in equal measure. One of Achatz’s most dazzling signature dishes is an edible helium balloon, which elicits oohs and aahs from charmed patrons as it floats above them. Another show-stopper is a scallop dish that arrives at the table with an ethereal citrus mist that envelops the diner in a cloud of vapor. A pioneer and expert in modernist or “progressive” cuisine, Achatz has achieved worldwide acclaim including multiple James Beard awards, Michelin’s venerable three-star rating (the most prestigious global measure of a restaurant’s quality and service), and Alinea has earned the top spot as the best restaurant in the United States three different times as well as earning the accolade of best restaurant in the world.

Lauded as a visionary, Achatz’s rule-breaking creativity in the kitchen is often the topic of wonder. Food writers, restaurateurs and diners alike all want to know: what’s his secret, how does he stretch the idea of what food can be so skillfully and yet with such abandon? Is it magic, a muse, an unfair dose of talent bestowed at birth?

The answer is much less fanciful. Achatz explains, “People like to think the creative process is romantic.” But, “the truth . . . is that creativity is primarily the result of hard work and study.” He didn’t awake one day with superhuman chef skills. Like most people who have reached the pinnacle of their profession, he had to learn the rules first before he could break them. What appears to be second-nature to him now is actually the result of years of careful honing.

The same principle that applies to the culinary arts applies to leadership: You can’t become a world-class leader without being anchored in the fundamentals of your craft, the craft of leading people.

Building on Bedrock 

The best leaders have an unmistakable appetite for growth. They’re usually forward thinking. Sometimes, they’re even a bit restless (even when they are measured, patient, and personable); there’s an urgency to the way they approach their work and walk in the world. They always want to know: what’s next?

Often, these top leaders read, question, probe and search endlessly for the next big idea or innovation. And that’s a good thing. A thirst for fresh ideas is what propels organizations towards bold initiatives that can make the world better. But as we look to emulate these leaders in our quest for the visionary and exciting, it’s important to not lose sight of the basics: our leadership bedrock.

Leaders at the top of their game are able to improvise and gallop towards the horizon with abundant foresight and genius because they are rooted in everlasting principles of effective leadership.

To transform your leadership, you must understand the parts of it that are steadfast no matter the era, situation or person involved.

What Is Leadership?

Leadership is the art and science of influencing others in a specific direction. While this definition can apply to hierarchies, it is not limited to a hierarchical view of the world of work; it applies to collaborative work as well. Leadership is about influencing people in any direction—up, down, or sideways.

To influence people effectively and create an evolved leadership approach, you must first learn how to leverage enduring leadership principles: the basic building blocks. Once you’re better steeped in the fundamentals, you can more ably deploy innovative, high-impact leadership practices that capture the spirit of your foundation. The more you ground yourself in these principles now, the more enduring your leadership legacy will be tomorrow.

There are ten key building blocks to leadership that works. I’ve seen them. I’ve lived them. I’ve learned and analyzed them. Every leader I’ve observed or studied who produced sustainable results—no matter how wildly different their temperaments, beliefs or skill sets—had some mixture of these elements in their approach. Likewise, to deliver lasting results, you will be well served by becoming more committed to these ten tenets. Although there are an infinite number of pillars that contribute to effective leadership, if you take care of these ten, everything else takes care of itself.

The ten foundational tenets of leadership that works are:

1. High-Performance

2. Abundance

3. Inspire Trust

4. Purpose

5. Courage

6. Integrity

7. Grow or Die Mindset

8. Humility

9. How Can I Help?

10. Have Fun

These ten tenets are numbered to keep them organized, but there is, by design, no hierarchy to how they are presented; they are not intended to be in any particular order. True to the spirit of The Blueprint, the progression I’ve used may not resonate with your personal leadership philosophy. You may find that if you were to rank them, you would move one that I’ve placed lower—like “Have Fun” for example—to the top of the list. And that is perfectly OK. My hope is that you will make these yours in a way that aligns with your emerging view of leadership. As long as you understand these principles, apply, and internalize them in a way that makes sense to you, it doesn’t matter what order they are in.

Many of these principles overlap; there are aspects to some that can also be found in others. They exist harmoniously with each other. Try to be fluid with your adoption of these tenets. If there is a practice that I used as an example of, say, “Inspire Trust”, but you find that the practice makes more sense to you within the framework of “Humility” or “Integrity”, there is no need to force yourself to view it through the “trust” lens; use the practice or absorb the lessons and apply them in the way that makes the best sense to you, the way that brings your leadership to life more fully and effectively.

The Spectrum

As you look at the 10 essential tenets, you might think, “But wait—there are many leaders who are successful despite not fully embodying these virtues.” It’s true. Some get great results only in the short-term, or through an approach that doesn’t sufficiently honor people. Some are needlessly tough or unforgiving (take Steve Jobs for example; he got results but who’s to say he wouldn’t have gotten even more powerful results had he expanded his approach to be more conscientious with people?) You’ve seen these leaders. You’ve read about them in the news. You’ve probably worked for some. I’ve worked for more than a few who didn’t embrace all these principles.

While some leaders are inadequate, and some are great, even extraordinary, most leaders, myself included, fall somewhere in between; there’s a spectrum. Some are less humble but exhibit great courage. Others may always be looking to help but are lacking in a strong performance orientation. And every combination in between. Leaders whose behavior glaringly contradicts many of these principles frequently produce short-term wins. But their ability to deliver long-term results often becomes compromised—resulting in burnout, disappointment or even infamy.

Can you get results while ignoring these 10 tenets? Yes, you can absolutely succeed, at least for a time, while ignoring some of these bedrock principles. But history suggests that isn’t the best possible way to deliver first-rate—and enduring—results. Shouldn’t leaders search for the best way to practice their craft and impact the world around them? 

These 10 timeless tenets are not the only way to lead. They represent a better way to lead. Attending to them in a manageable way offers your best chance at delivering enduring results in the marketplace, creating a legacy of contribution, delivering consistent value for all stakeholders – and, most importantly, charting a course to professional joy and fulfillment. They can help you build a legacy you can be proud of.

I’ve tested this approach—and it works. This better way can weather the ebbs and flows of the marketplace and the endless complexity of human behavior, so you can produce quality results no matter the situation. Results you will feel good about.

If this all sounds a bit pie-in-the-sky, let me bring it back down to earth. You don’t have to be perfect or equally strong in each of the ten tenets. Try to attend to them in a measure that makes sense for you within the rhythm of your life. Start where you are, with what you have, and do what you can. The rest will take care of itself.

The Highest Truth about Leadership

There is a “higher truth” about leadership that knits the ten tenets in this manifesto together. Your ability to apply any of the learning in this book and grow as a leader is predicated upon this: leadership is all about the people.

Leaders need followers. Followers are earned; they’re not guaranteed on the merit of your title alone. To earn the confidence of your constituents and spread your influence, all of your actions must be tethered to a commitment to honoring people. This is the single most important thing for leaders to understand.

Sure, this seems obvious. But in practice, it is surprisingly overlooked. Even highly experienced leaders are at risk of forgetting that our success is dependent on other people. At a basic level, leadership requires that you are able to Attract, Develop, Engage, Leverage, and Retain talent.

Talent is paramount. You simply cannot accomplish everything—or much of anything—all by your lonesome.

Passing the Test

The more difficult the scenario, the more important honoring people becomes. Often, when leaders are facing a tough situation, the emphasis on honoring people is the first thing that gets abandoned or ignored, because it appears to require extra effort. This is unwise. In practice, the solution to many tough leadership problems should begin with an emphasis on honoring people; what is mistakenly viewed as a “nice-to-have extra” should actually be the starting point, the non-negotiable that guides every other decision and sets the tone for how you will proceed.

Although the scope and situation of your specific leadership challenges may vary, no matter who you are, there will be a time when your leadership is put to the test. When that time comes, you must remember to stay level-headed and continue to honor people, putting them at the forefront of your response and centering their needs in the way you adapt and respond. Otherwise, they may not feel inspired or supported to respond in a constructive way; as a leader, you become at risk of not getting their best efforts when you need them the most.

That said, the best time to honor people is before you are ever put to the test, before the going gets tough. That way, you have a reservoir of good will to draw upon when things do go awry. And even if you do make a misstep or stray from your commitment to honoring people in the thick of things, they will trust that you are well intentioned based on your positive record of prior behavior.

People First: How One Leader Made People Safer at Campbell

When David White became Global VP of Supply Chain at Campbell Soup Company in 2004, the company had a shocking lost-time injury rate of 1.24%. This meant that of the 24,000 people working in the company at the time, one person per day was getting seriously hurt somewhere around the world. These were bad injuries, not just burns or cuts—maladies that often required hospitalization and significant time away from work. David considered the statistic to be awful—gasp-worthy—but was met with indifferent shrugs by the safety committee.

David knew Campbell could do better. I agreed, which was partially why I’d hired him. The injury rate showed a problem with our workplace culture: that it did not sufficiently center people. After all, safety isn’t just about a number in a report; human lives and livelihoods are at risk. A company cannot claim to value people if it does not put keeping them safe at the forefront.

So David pledged to turn things around. And he did. Over the course of his decade at Campbell, lost-time injuries went down by 90%. By the time he left in 2014, there were an average of two lost-time injuries a month, down from the staggering 30 per month they were experiencing when he began. And the improvement has held steady in the years since his departure.

How did he do it? By demonstrating that he was committed to people. He started by being crystal clear with staff about what was going to change and he followed that up by showing, time and again, that he cared about what happened to employees who were injured. Here were the steps he took.

1. Be Clear about What Matters

In 2004, David’s position at Campbell, Global VP of Supply Chain, was in its infancy. As a result, there were no universal safety standards to which people were held accountable. That had to change. Within days of starting the job, David sent a personal letter to every Campbell plant manager and warehouse manager worldwide. In that letter, he declared two crucial things. The first was a goal: to cut lost-time injuries by 50% in three years. The second was a directive that anytime a plant or warehouse manager had a lost-time injury they needed to send him an email within 24 hours explaining what happened, how the person was doing, and what could be learned from the incident.

With these letters, David made three things clear to the entire enterprise:

Safety is incredibly important. It involves people’s lives.

• We’re going to improve by a specific amount in a precise timeframe.

• As the leader, I care deeply and personally about this.

Initially, there was some pushback. The modus operandi up until this point regarding safety had been sandbagging—grossly under-promising so that not-great results still presented as wins. Across the company, while most people wanted to follow David’s leadership and reduce injuries, setting a goal of 50% worried some who were more averse to change. David shares, “one person came to me in a panic saying, “You can’t do that. What if you only cut injuries by 40%? You’ll get fired!'” But he knew it was worth the risk. People’s safety was on the line.

On your leadership journey, you will likely face similar hurdles, especially when you make centering people non-negotiable. Don’t let naysayers deter you; be confident you’re doing the right thing.

2. Show You Care

David’s key early decision in lowering the injury rate was to follow up every lost-time injury report with a personal phone call to the plant manager who reported the injury. While many leaders might call the injured employee, David knew that it would be the plant managers who would be empowered to champion better safety for employees around the world.

David shares, “I wasn’t beating anybody up. It wasn’t yelling and screaming, it was sincere.” He wouldn’t only ask about the injury, but also used it as an opportunity to get to know the managers better, to ask about their lives and to see how he could be helpful. He wanted to send the message: I care and I want to make things better for everyone.

Because David was leading safety in a personal way, it began to catch on. He shares, “once it got out that safety was really important to me as the new leader coming into Campbell, it became equally important to all the plant managers, and that made a huge difference in the organization.” This was the tipping point. With plant managers on board, the safety record started to improve. But the positive momentum didn’t lull David into a false sense of security or deter him from consistently reinforcing safety’s importance. In his entire 10 years at Campbell, he continued making personal calls every single time there was a lost-time injury.

A lesson here is that you will experience the best success if you are steadfast in your commitment to people; once you begin to see positive change (and you will), that does not mean you can let your diligence on this front slip—rather, it’s time to reinforce your efforts, to re-commit, and stay strong.

3. To Honor People, Have Zero Tolerance

Keeping people at the forefront—especially when it concerns their safety—isn’t always easy. In many cases you will have to persevere even when it is difficult. For David, this meant upholding a stringent zero-tolerance policy for safety.

In the mid 2000’s, our most unsafe plant in the world was a chocolate plant in Brussels, Belgium. When David visited the plant, he was met with excuses about the culture in Belgium and the local unions perpetuating the unsafe conditions. But something wasn’t adding up. Campbell had another plant 20 miles away, a soup plant that had one of the best safety records in the world. Two plants. Same city. Vastly different safety results. The difference had to be the leadership. David had to remove that plant manager, explaining that, “you just can’t put up with excuses.” That decision, while hard-lined, made people safer.

“Some things, you have to have zero-tolerance” says David; “it’s so important” because without tough standards, “you’ll kill people.” To address that fact in a tough-minded way, he used a progressive discipline system where repercussions for each infraction increased in severity, up to and including termination. “It’s all about setting the standards,” says David, and his aspirational belief was, “until we have zero injuries ever, our work’s not done yet.” He could easily connect that standard back to caring about people because, in his words, “this is real-world, real-life stuff. It’s people’s lives.”

4. Incentivize Change

To incentivize safety, David developed a recognition program to reward the safest places within Campbell: a safety flag that plants, warehouses, and offices that went one year, or 1,000,000 work hours, without a lost-time injury could fly proudly in front of their building. The program became wildly popular. Plants would sometimes invite the local newspaper or the mayor to take part in their safety celebration when they were presented with the flag. Flying the flag became a badge of honor; employees were proud to be part of a plant that valued their safety. And safety became more and more important to everyone, organization-wide.

5. Know That Good People Practices Are Good Business Practices

Despite the feel-good nature of David’s tireless commitment to safety, his actions were not rooted in kindness and kinship alone. Improving safety was good business. Making people safer is the right thing to do, but it’s also the smart thing to do. David explains, “In the end, if you reduce injuries, productivity goes up and worker’s compensation costs go down.”

But even though the outcome is good for business, David says, “that’s not what’s driving you.” What is? “Your love for people, your caring about the organization, your caring about individuals.” That was the message he repeated to the board and to the company at large. To enlist every stakeholder, he never put the emphasis on costs or numbers, he always kept the focus squarely on human lives.

As you can see throughout all of David’s actions – from being clear about what matters, to having zero tolerance, to finding ingenious ways to incentivize people to engage in the desired safety behaviors—he was able to execute on high-stake standards through an authentic commitment to caring about people. The “it’s all about the people” ethos underscores every choice he made. And that’s why he was effective.

What’s clear to David is that he owed his success to making personal connections. He testifies, “I think those personal phone calls to the plant managers made the most difference on safety.” That was the unique, intimate touch that spread exponentially. Says David, at the end of the day, “it’s a big thing, people feeling like their company cares about their safety.”

I agree wholeheartedly. In leadership, there are few things more powerful than letting people know how much you care, and allowing that caring to guide your approach to delivering results.

The persistent call of leadership is to find effective ways to deliver superior performance— not just in the present, but for the foreseeable future and beyond. As we saw with David, there will always be tough standards to enforce; your best chance of setting people up for success, in the here-and-now and in the long-term, is remembering to put people first in all your leadership endeavors.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from The Blueprint by Douglas R. Conant. Copyright (c) 2020 by Douglas R. Conant. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and ebooks are sold.