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Published: August 28, 2012
 / Autumn 2012 / Issue 68

 
 

The Thought Leader Interview: Douglas Conant

The coauthor of TouchPoints and former CEO of Campbell Soup Company explains how executives build their company’s capabilities by connecting with people more effectively.

Campbell Soup Company has long been an iconic enterprise. Founded in 1869 in Camden, N.J., its basic logo and can design have not changed since 1898. Andy Warhol’s paintings of those cans, which began as an irreverent comment on their emblematic nature, are themselves half a century old. The company’s recent business history is also iconic, at least in the way it evokes the overall drama of the consumer products industry.

Like many other food companies, Campbell diversified its product lines to gain scale during the 1980s and early 1990s. Then, in the mid-1990s, its financial performance began to decline. It adopted a more coherent strategy in the 2000s, seeking global growth with a sharply reduced portfolio focused on three brand families: Campbell’s soup, V8 beverages, and Pepperidge Farm baked goods. Finally, in recent years, as is becoming common in the food business, it has had to meet two seemingly contradictory imperatives in its product line — the promotion of health and wellness, and a high level of appeal to customers craving comfort food.

Want to Change Your Culture? Run!

Douglas Conant speaks with Booz & Company senior partner Jon Katzenbach about connecting with people more effectively by putting on a pair of running shoes.

Making these shifts takes a fair amount of sophistication — in technology and process, and in leadership and human management. Instead of trying to gain those capabilities through acquisition, Douglas Conant, CEO of Campbell from 2001 to 2011, sought to build them from within. Conant was hired as a turnaround artist after senior executive stints at General Mills, Kraft, and Nabisco, but his approach focused on investing in people, including paying deliberate attention to his own leadership style.

Jon Katzenbach, who writes regularly on organizational culture in this magazine, regards Conant as one of the few leaders who understand not just the importance of personal impact, but how to deploy it in practice. That’s the subject of Conant’s book TouchPoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments (Jossey-Bass, 2011), coauthored with executive coach Mette Norgaard. The book describes how to reframe interactions with people — even annoying interactions, like interruptions — as opportunities to raise the quality of a leader’s connection with people, and thus to further the purpose of the enterprise. (Conant’s successor as CEO, Denise Morrison, was formerly the executive champion of the company’s signature wellness initiative.)

We sought Doug Conant out because the Campbell story and the anecdotes in TouchPoints have particular relevance for one of our own ongoing inquiries: How can companies build the capabilities they need to distinguish themselves? The interview was conducted at the offices of Conant’s Philadelphia-based not-for-profit group DRC LLC, which is dedicated to raising the quality and impact of leadership among senior executives.

S+B: What are you trying to accomplish now, in your writing and your work with companies?
CONANT:
My goal is to contribute to the conversation about leadership, from a practitioner’s point of view. For the first time, there are five “generations” of people in the workplace, with an unprecedented diversity of backgrounds and perspectives across the globe. Executives have to manage people connected through handhelds and broadband. Traditional hierarchical management structures that evolve at a glacial pace are being stress-tested in profound ways, and it’s taxing leaders.

But the real issue is community. I recently asked someone at a social media company to name one of the big management problems they have to deal with. “Well, so-and-so down the hall is not doing what he’s supposed to do.” OK, you think the world’s never dealt with that before?

Nonprofits and for-profit companies might look different on the surface, but they have the same challenge: trying to create high-performance communities that will make an impact on the world. And they both break down the same way: They fall short on bringing strategic thinking to life amid the day-to-day work of the enterprise.

 
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