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

 
 

The Thought Leader Interview: Douglas Conant

S+B: Do you think of corporate social responsibility as a capability?
CONANT:
Yes, and it’s a necessity. Companies are challenged by the public sector, by activist groups, and by consumers themselves. The best defense is a good offense, so you’d better shape your agenda and move it forward in a visible and committed way. Starting in 2007 at Campbell, we began measuring our efforts to help build a better world and reporting on it in the annual report. We also sought to improve our corporate citizenship as measured by the Ethisphere Institute, which publishes a list of the 100 best corporate citizens in the United States. After we were included on that list, we became more recognized as a high-integrity company. This, in turn, did wonders for our employee engagement, and that had a positive impact on our performance in the marketplace.

We put our arms around the city of Camden, N.J., where Campbell was founded. Camden is one of the poorest, most dangerous cities in the United States. It had nearly 40 murders in 2010, in a population of only 75,000. Most of the 23,000 kids in the public school system are obese but still hungry. The food they get is not conducive to a good, well-balanced diet. We launched a 10-year program to revitalize the city, starting with nutritional training in the schools. Campbell’s employees are involved; they’re promoting exercise and helping to attract quality supermarkets and other food sources to the center of the city.

S+B: How did you come to write TouchPoints?
CONANT:
At the leadership course I taught, after a serene off-site session, the key program facilitator, Mette Norgaard, asked me, “How can you go back to all the buzz in your office — the phone, the people stopping by, the interruptions?”

“I don’t view them as interruptions,” I said. “They’re opportunities to help advance things. So I look forward to them.”

We started talking about the “interruption age,” as she called it — the fact that every four minutes, on average, a worker is likely to have his or her concentration broken by an encounter with someone else. But I was sincere; I liked those moments, because I actually had people coming to me, ready to engage on business issues. What a great time to deal with them in a quality way, as opposed to when I sought people out and they were not ready to talk. Mette and I came up with the “touchpoints” idea: that every contact is a chance to make a powerful leadership connection. The more we tested the idea with people, the more we found it resonated. So we wrote the book.

We developed a structure for managing those moments: Listen, frame, and advance. It takes some work ahead of time because you have to reflect on the kind of leader you want to be, what you aspire to do with your life, and how you’ll handle it when you’re interrupted next time. If you’re just buffeted by people, you tend to lose balance. But if you develop some perspective first, it’s amazing how powerful you can be in those moments. That’s how people make themselves into leaders.

It’s also how you bring strategies to life. As Campbell CEO, I sent 10 to 20 handwritten notes out a day. For example, I might have said, “I saw you did good work here. You got this line up and running on time.” Or maybe I said, “You helped us get into this test market ahead of schedule.” I avoided gratuitous compliments and focused on the business priorities; I had a part-time assistant who collected reports about what was going on in the company. Over my 10-year tenure, I wrote 30,000 notes. It got to the point where I felt something was missing if I didn’t have a chance to do it; I blocked out half an hour a day just to write the notes. I also deliberately wandered around the buildings, asking people about how things were going. It created a platform for candor: “Well, it’s not going very well.” Then I could ask, “Really? Is there something you need?”

 
 
 
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