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Nature of Business Radio

Doug Conant: Leadership is a sacred task

Nature of Business radio, created and hosted by Chrissy Coughlin, is a weekly show on business and environment.

This week on Nature of Business I had the great fortune of speaking with Doug Conant, the former CEO of The Campbell Soup Company and best-selling author of Touch Points. Continuing my series on leading with higher ambition, Doug spoke about his time at Campbell, what he did to turn the company around and why it worked, work-life balance, the importance of listening and communicating, the direct correlation between life as a CEO and whac-a-mole, and much more.

Most of us innately know that life is always better lived with purpose, and Doug certainly has a purpose. In his case, he says it is "to build world-class organizations that defy the critics and thrive in the face of adversity." And he's done it time and time again. Here's an example: In 2010, during a down economy, Campbell posted a 12 percent increase in earnings on $7.7 billion in sales. Moreover, Campbell boasts some of the highest employee engagement rankings in the industry. Not easy.

From day one on the job, Doug endeavored to walk the talk. He literally did just that. He put on his sneakers and pedometer and walked the campus talking to people, crashing meetings, tastings, to get a sense of not only what people were doing but also where their priorities lay. He understood that, prior to his arrival, Campbell employees had experienced a very difficult time. So he listened to them with the understanding that most of the big issues out there are issues of communication, not return on investment. In other words, the soft stuff is the hard stuff.

Speaking of which, I learned that Doug wrote 10 to 20 handwritten notes to employees every single day on the job. These were not simple emails or "have a nice day" notes. These notes were specific. Employees would post their notes on their cubicle walls and felt even greater pride in what they had accomplished because the CEO acknowledged them for it. When Doug retired, he and his team determined that he had written around 30,000 notes during his 10 years at the company. Remarkable, particularly when you realize that Campbell only has 20,000 employees.

Then, when Doug suffered a near-fatal accident 3 years ago, he in turn received thousands of hand-written notes from Campbell employees and former employees that, as he said, helped significantly in his recovery.

Perhaps a great part of Doug's success as a leader has to do with his philosophy of not leading two lives -- a work life and a personal life. By integrating his life in a way that worked, he was able to focus and achieve great fulfillment at the same time. He sums it up nicely:

"By and large I was either at work and doing work or not at work and thinking about work.... I began to see over time that I was leading one life, not two. One was enough. As I started to juggle a young and growing family, community commitments and work commitments, I developed a perspective that said 'if I am gong to walk effectively in this world I need to acknowledge all of these pieces in my life and try to adopt and develop an integrative approach to dealing with it all.' I started to focus on the 360 degrees of my life. And I found that I connected with people in all walks of life."

Doug has spent 35 years in the corporate world and has learned what works and what doesn't work as he continues he journey in transforming businesses and the people who run them. On a parting note, he says:

"Leadership is sacred ground. There is nothing more important than how you deal with the people with whom you live and work. Leadership is a craft, not a responsibility."

Amen. Enjoy the podcast!

George Papoulias edited this podcast.



Doug Conant photo courtesy of

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