Doug Conant – Leadership With Integrity [The Knowledge Project Ep. #118]

Doug Conant served as the President of Nabisco from 1999-2001 and then spent a decade as President and CEO of The Campbell Soup Company. In 2011 he founded ConantLeadership, a consulting company focused on championing leadership that works in the 21st century. He’s also the author of The Blueprint: 6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights.

He breaks down how putting his employees first made him an internationally renowned business leader atop both the Nabisco Foods Company and the Campbell Soup Company. On this episode Doug discusses why you can’t win in the marketplace if you haven’t won in the workplace, his first 100 days as CEO of Campbell Soup, adjusting to shifting consumer preferences, how to know when you have the right people and the wrong people, and so much more.

Here are a few highlights from the conversation:

I needed to do some inside work to say, “Well, what do I want to stand for here? And how do I want to make this work so that I can not only contribute and perform, but I can do it in a way where I can look at myself in the mirror every day.” And nobody can do that work for you. And I’ll tell you, reading the books about all these great leaders on how they did it has nothing to do with you. So, I did my homework and I lifted my game.

As a shy, introverted, oldest child, I was going through and I was walking inside my parents’ story for me, my teacher’s story for me, my coach’s story for me, my boss’s story for me, my organization’s story. I was walking inside everybody else’s story. And I sort of began to realize when I lost my job in my early 30s, like, this isn’t working. I need to figure out what my story is.

And they had been through several years of poor performance, a lot of layoffs, no trust, over promising under delivering churn at the top investigations by regulators, you name it, it was happening. So, I got there and I said, “Here we go. New day, we’re going to value you. We’re going to trust you’re going to value us. And it’s going to take a while. It’s going to take us three years to get to a place where we can really lift our heads up.”

The key to making hard decisions at the top, you have to be in the black with your emotional bank account with the culture. As a leader, you have to build that bank account, you have to be making deposits every day into that account to build trust and to build credibility with the people that work there, knowing that there are days where you’re going to make some giant withdrawal, because you’re going to screw up because you will. It’s just too complicated.

As a leader, you’ve got to live in three time zones simultaneously, the past, the present and the future. Everything you do has got to honor the past, deliver in the present, set the table for a more prosperous future. And as you think that way, that’s why trust building becomes mission critical.

I believe models can be incredibly useful. You create a mental model for how you want to show up as a leader. And then, as you do that, you build practices into your life that bring that model to life in a very tangible way. So, it’s not just talk and leadership mumbo jumbo, it’s here’s how I show up.

I started getting up an hour earlier. And gathering myself I’d sit up in my garden in New Jersey at the time, where I lived for most of this time, 25 years of my work, and would have a cup of coffee as the sun came up and reflect on what was expected that day and gather myself a bit before all hell broke loose. And then I would go inside shower, shave and shine. And I remember putting on my suits every day. And it was like I was putting on my armor and I was getting ready to go into battle.

Somebody called me because I was the note guy then. And I said, “He’s only doing one note a week?” And my point was, he’s got so much great stuff going there, and I bet they still do that there’s plenty of room to celebrate contributions of significance there and don’t hold yourself back, just let it flow. Because in my experience, the more you celebrate contributions of significance, the more contributions of significance you get.

And so much more. 


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