S+B: Why is that?
CONANT: It begins with the aspirational nature of their strategies. Everywhere I’ve worked — at General Mills, Kraft, Nabisco, and Campbell — we have always talked about being the world’s best: the world’s best cookie company, snack company, and so on. People naturally aspire to be part of something bigger than they are, to not just draw a paycheck but find meaning in their work. Jon Katzenbach made that point in his book [Why Pride Matters More than Money: The Power of the World’s Greatest Motivational Force (Crown Business, 2003)].
I’ve been building aspirational strategies my whole life. At Campbell, one of my big moments came at the start of my third year, during our global leadership meeting. I realized that I had to raise our level of engagement and commitment, and I opened by saying, “Enough is enough. I hope all of you want to be part of this company going forward, but you have to lead in a way that’s going to build the world’s most extraordinary food company. If you don’t want to sign up for that, you shouldn’t be here.”
That spirited desire to do better resonates with employees. But over time, you run the risk of becoming too ambitious. Your reach exceeds your grasp. You create anxiety and stress in the system, and it compromises your ability to execute.
S+B: In other words, if your reach exceeds your grasp, you’ve got to improve your grasp.
CONANT: And vice versa. If your grasp exceeds your reach, you should be more ambitious. You need to search for that sweet spot where your company can grow and prosper and seek greatness, but in a well-executed way.
Ideally, you should find a job that lasts. My kids, who are 30, 28, and 25 years old, have heard all their lives that they live in a chaotic, entrepreneurial world, where they’ll probably work for seven or 10 companies during their career. I don’t think that’s their first choice…and it doesn’t have to be. They should be able to find a quality work experience in a company where they are appreciated, where they can learn and grow, and where there’s an enduring sense of contribution. I’ve worked for four companies during my career — about nine years each — and that worked out all right.
S+B: For those four companies, did their grasp exceed their reach or did their reach exceed their grasp?
CONANT: They were reasonably balanced, and their grasp exceeded their reach. That’s typical of the food industry. It’s a mature 150-year-old industry; its consumption grows with population, but individual people don’t appreciably eat more every year. So the businesses are managed in a conservative way. The brands and the competition don’t materially change from year to year.
S+B: And yet you were involved in turnarounds at every one of them. At Campbell, for instance, once you declared the goal of being extraordinary, you had to change the company to match.
CONANT: We followed Jim Collins’s hedgehog model from Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t [HarperBusiness, 2001]. Fundamentally, you choose to do only the things that you can do better than anyone else in the world, that you can make money at — that Collins says “drive your economic engine” — and that you can be passionate about. We set out to build that kind of business at Campbell, and the results are still playing out. We were coming from such a difficult starting point that it took 10 years to put the building blocks in place. We’ll see what happens in the next 10.