A leader's commitment transforms Campbell Soup

A leader's commitment transforms Campbell Soup

During Doug Conant’s ten years as president and CEO of the Campbell Soup Company (he retired last fall), Conant helped refocus the company. In the first half of his tenure, his goal, he says, was to bring the company from being “a poor performing company to being a competitive company to being a good company.”

After about five years, that goal was achieved. “We said, ‘we can do better,’ and we started to explore how we could bring what I call our DNA, our natural inclination to corporate social responsibility, to a new level, and kick it up a notch,” Conant said.

In 2006, Campbell Soup began studying what sustainability commitments would mean for the business. In 2008, it recruited a specialist to head up the efforts. And in 2010, Conant set out some “big, hairy, audacious goals” to pursue — like cutting the company’s environmental footprint in half by 2020.

Were you actively engaged with any of the (sustainability goal area) teams, or did you just hear about things from your executives?

I was engaged in the review process, but I think as a leader the qualities you have to bring to this work are an openness, a humility to realize you don’t have all the answers and a fierce resolve to get it done. And if there’s one thing I did, I was a broken record. I brought a fierce resolve to the work, and this notion of we were going to persevere through the challenges and we were going to find a way. That to me was my primary role.

If I were a lower level employee at Campbell Soup, how would I know that you were saying that? You said you were a broken record.

Well, we would have employee forums every quarter. I had a pulpit in our portal for our Internet. My executive team and I would meet with the four virtual teams that were creating the goals.

Photo of Campbell's Soup provided by By Ramon F. Velasquez via Wikimedia Commons

Did you see or hear from employees directly?

Oh, yeah, I would get notes on it from employees. I had a couple practices at Campbell that are relevant to this conversation. One is I would write personal notes to people, and I would write about ten to twenty a day.

Ten to twenty personal notes a day! How did you choose who to write to?

Well, I had access to our portal and I would see all the things going right in the company. With the aid of a staff member, I would pick about ten to twenty things every day and I would hand write a note to the person saying, “Thanks for your help on the solar field in Napoleon, Ohio. I understand we’re ahead of schedule. Nice job.” It wasn’t just on CSR issues, but it included CSR initiatives. Over the course of my career I sent out about 30,000 personal notes, and we only had 20,000 employees.

So I was personally connecting with them, and as I would send notes to them, it created a platform where they would send notes back to me. We sort of naturally had this unique dialogue that could be hand written or via email, where employees would start sending me things, like “I think this is a cool idea. Couldn’t we look at a solar field in our facility?”

Another way was, I practiced management by walking around. Inevitably, every day, I would have a half an hour or an hour free, where a meeting would end early or be changed. And whatever time that was, I’d go in my office, I’d put on my walking shoes and pedometer and I’d go walk around our complex.

I guess the third area that really brought it to life for our employees is I started to talk about it more boldly publicly. I find if you want to get an organization to pay attention, start telling people externally that you’re going to do something.

So between my notes, my walking around and my public speaking agenda, I think we brought it to life for employees in a very out-in-front kind of way.

This article is adapted from “How an “Abundance Mentality” and a CEO’s Fierce Resolve Kickstarted CSR at Campbell Soup”  byNina Kruschwitz, which was published byMIT Sloan Management Review on August 14, 2012.The complete article is available at  http://mitsmr.com/NEWaUq.

Copyright © Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2012. All rights reserved.