Meet Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell Soup Company

Meet Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell Soup Company

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Keeping employees happy and engaged while advancing a company is a delicate balancing act. Go too easy and the work doesn’t get done; go too hard on them and they check out. Right?

Not according to Doug Conant, the former Campbell Soup Company CEO who unlocked the secrets of having both an engaged workforce and a thriving organization. When Doug took the helm at Campbell’s in 2001, sales were in decline. It was ranked at the bottom among the top 20 food corporations. Plus, Campbell’s leadership team clearly hadn’t been drinking their V8. In just a few years’ time, Doug was able to boost both morale and the company’s bottom line. 

The secret sauce is a combination of authenticity, servant leadership, and a tough-minded, tender-hearted management style. Doug thinks authenticity can be summed up with the phrase “what you see is what you get, and what you hear is what I believe.” He spent much of his career trying to please other people without being true to himself but found greater success after battling his own introversion.

Doug and host Jan Griffiths have an enlightening, candid conversation about leading from the head and the heart — and how that combination drives success and workplace satisfaction. 

Themes discussed in the episode:

  • Showing up with authenticity
  • How leadership can be both demanding and compassionate
  • Improving employee engagement
  • Servant leadership as a two-way street
  • Why introverts can be leaders, too

Featured Guest: Doug Conant

🥣  What he does: Doug is the founder and CEO of Conant Leadership, giving companies the tools to level up their leadership by leading from the heart. With an extensive C-suite background in roles at Nabisco Foods Company, Campbell Soup Company, and Avon Products, he is a celebrated New York Times best-selling author, speaker, and innovator in the field of leadership. 

💡 On Gravitas: “[Gravitas is] authenticity. You declare a commitment to something and that’s how you show up, to a point where it’s just unquestionable. You have to be living and breathing it. It has to be the essence of how you show up every day.”

Episode Highlights

Timestamped inflection points from the show

[01:45] Doug’s professional journey: Doug boasts an impressive resume with senior roles at Nabisco Foods, Campbell’s, and Avon. He now is a keynote speaker and author on leadership. 

[05:46] What’s your story?: Doug gives an overview of his background. 

[07:57] The authentic zone: This principle is that “what you see is what you get, and what you hear is what I believe.” From there, it’s important to leverage your own talents to elevate the company or team.

[10:03] Tough mind, tender heart: Doug says you have to be tough on standards while also being tender-hearted with people. 

[11:35] The three-year path: When you’re recruited into a leadership role, it’s likely because the person before you failed. You’re typically given about three years to prove results. 

[12:42] The people on the bus: Doug references Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great,” saying that when he started at Campbell’s, they didn’t have the right people “on the bus.” This led to Doug replacing 300 of the top 350 leaders at the company. 

[14:07] Skyrocketing employee engagement: By making such critical cuts to the management at Campbell’s, Doug showed the non-management employees that he had their backs. Employee engagement metrics went from four-to-one engagement to 77 to one, where 12 to one is a marker of an exceptional organization. 

[18:17] Dealing with fear: When a new leader steps in, some employees fear change or not “making the cut.” Doug deals with this by being clear about expectations and standards. 

[22:25] Weakness as a strength: Coming from a traditional, militaristic model of business, Doug worried people would think of him as weak. However, he was up-front in his interview process on how he intended to lead.

[26:36] Courage is key: Many people aren’t aware of their convictions, but it’s important to explore them and have the courage to stick to your convictions. 

[27:26] Leading from your experience: Everyone’s leadership style is different because we all have different experiences. Chances are, you’ll be more successful being yourself than trying to fit in a mold. 

[32:10] The covenant of hard work: Doug is a proponent of servant leadership, with leaders performing as well for employees as they do for their own leaders. He also encourages forgetting perfection, as you only have to be as good as your competitor. 

[33:39] Dealing with toxic high performers: Clear expectations and continuous feedback can help to check bad attitudes in the workplace.

[38:03] TSR (Total Stakeholder Returns): The traditional measure is Total Shareholder Returns, but Doug prefers to think of it as Total Stakeholder Returns. 

[40:58] On gravitas: Doug’s answer to this is simple: What you see is what you get. 

[42:24] The power of introversion: Doug outlines both the downsides of being an introvert and the benefits introverts bring to the table.

[46:43] Advice for 25-year-old Doug: Doug follows the advice of Conan O’Brien: “Work hard, be kind and amazing things will happen.”