Doug Conant was the president and CEO of Campbell Soup Company from 2001 to 2011, reversing the firm’s precipitous decline in market value and employee engagement. Conant joined Campbell Soup after working at three of the world’s major food companies — General Mills, Kraf, and Nabisco. He is the co-author of the book, “ TouchPoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments ,” and a member of the Partnership for Public Service’s board of directors. Conant spoke with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post's Federal Coach blog and is the Partnership’s Vice President for Leadership and Innovation.
What can federal leaders do to hone their skills?
Leadership is a craft. You have to work at it. It follows a mastery model where you apprentice and then become a master. Jack Welch at GE would tell you he wasn’t as good a leader when he started as when he matured and went on to become the corporate executive of the 20th century.
In my experience, we all have had people who have demonstrated extraordinary leadership in moments with us — a teacher, a coach, a grandfather, a boss, a mentor — who have said just the right thing at just the right time in just the right way. Think about the leaders who had a profound impact on you. Then think about how you can increasingly become that kind of person for the people with whom you live and work.
You’ve written a book, “TouchPoints,” about small interactions that can have huge impact on employee engagement. How can federal leaders better engage their employees?
If you want people to be highly engaged, you have to lead from in front. Create a culture that people want to be a part of. When they see and feel that commitment, my experience is that they’ll come to it like a bee to honey. When I was CEO of Campbell, one of the most powerful tools I had was a thank-you note to people.
For example, we were putting in a solar field in Napoleon, Ohio, and I wrote a note to plant manager that said, “Hey, I saw you were ahead of schedule.” That’s sitting on his bulletin board. You need to find ways that authentically work for you. Notes work for me, but some people manage by walking around and some people do it through their staff.
What do you consider to be the essential qualities of an effective leader?
I believe there are three most essential ones: character, competence and chemistry. First of all, you have to be a person of good character. You have to do what you say you’re going to do and do it with great authenticity. You also have to be competent. When I had a young family, my wife was in theater and occasionally in the evenings I would have our kids at home. They generally thought of me as a father of good character, but they also knew I couldn’t cook. So no matter how good my character was, if I couldn’t put dinner on the table, they didn’t have a lot of confidence in my ability to lead in that moment.
I think of chemistry this way: It is the intersection of two sets of values — the values you have as an individual and the values of the culture in which you’re operating. I think about them in terms of what we used to do with Venn diagrams in grade school. You have two circles. One circle is your values and the other is the values of the enterprise. If those values are overlapping and there’s harmony across some of the core values, you can then have good chemistry with that organization and you can thrive. If not, my experience is that you won’t.
Competence is something you can do something about — you can become smarter and more experienced. What about character and chemistry?
You can cultivate all three of those attributes. I think competence is easier to tackle. If you’re doing training and development, you can be educated in a skill, develop experience and leverage it over time. Both character and chemistry require more reflective behavior. There’s opportunity for people to reflect on the type of character they want to bring to interactions and the type of values they want to live by that aren’t as well cultivated as they could be. You have to do it in a purposeful way.
Who are your leadership role models?
If I had to pick one person who had the most profound impact on me, it would be Steven Covey, the author of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” He helped me focus on things I could control and let go of things I couldn’t control. But then, I learn from my wife every day and from my children every day, too.
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