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TD Magazine Article

Long View: Doug Conant

An interview with Doug Conant, Founder, Conant Leadership


Tue Jul 08 2014

Long View: Doug Conant-87d03fd88a3f42160a464935ce7bfb50738176e4957fbd7837c2e555b4f54324

Founder, Conant Leadership

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Doug Conant is chairman of Avon Products, founder of Conant Leadership, and chairman of the Kellogg Executive Leadership Institute at Northwestern University.

He is co-author, along with Mette Norgaard, of TouchPoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments. Formerly, Conant served as president, CEO, and director of Campbell Soup.

What's the most important trait of a leader?

I think leaders have to have three traits. They have to be a person of great character, and in that spirit they have to do what they say they're going to do.

When I was starting my marriage and my family, my wife was an actress. Because actors and actresses basically work nights and weekends (when people can go watch them), I was taking care of the kids at home. Although they thought I was a person of great character, they also knew I couldn't cook. As much as they knew I'd do what I would say I was going to do, I had to also be competent; I had to know what I was doing. I think that's another key trait of a leader.


If you were to boil that down, it would be the ability to inspire trust. But it's a combination of character and competence. If the organization doesn't trust you, you're toast.

How can leaders ensure that they're coming across as tender-hearted with people yet tough-minded with respect to standards of performance?

People think, "Well, I'm either going to be tough or I'm going to be nice." And the answer, I believe, is you can do both. First, if you're running an enterprise, you have to meet or exceed the standards of performance that are expected from the enterprise. Otherwise, you don't have the opportunity to lead.

On the other hand, unless you work by yourself, you're dependent on other people for their heads and hearts being in the game. Fundamentally, I just don't believe they're going to care about your agenda as a leader unless you show that you care about their agenda as a person. There's no evidence that I've ever seen that anyone has successfully built an enduring business proposition any other way.

Can you give our readers an example?


One of the examples I give is when I was a first-year graduate student at Kellogg. I was working for the Northwestern University Athletic Department and had two other jobs, and I was trying to get my MBA full time. I went flying into my class in the first quarter one day and I was a little late; my professor was Ram Charan. Ram was asking questions in a very challenging way and he said, "Mr. Conant, what do you think about that?" And I just said, "I'm unprepared."

At the end of the class, as I was trying to slink out of the room, he looked at me and said, "Mr. Conant, you can do better. I know you can do better." He said it in just the right way at just the right time, and I carry that with me today: You can do better. It's four words that took about two seconds, and it's had a profound influence on the way I think about everything I tackle.

I share examples like that with the audience and I challenge them—"Now, close your eyes and think about somebody who, along the same lines, said just the right thing in just the right way, and it influences how you walk in the world today." And they do, and it's typically a teacher, a mentor, a mom, a dad.

We've made leadership sound like it's this unapproachable thing and we think of Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi and Churchill and Jack Welch or whomever. But in those moments, when you're in the thick of things and these people say just the right thing that you carry with you today—those were leadership moments.

Did those people have high standards for you? Everyone in the audience says, "Well, absolutely." And did they care about you?" "Yes. Absolutely, they cared about me." I said, "I rest my case."

The challenge for us is to be more like those people with the people with whom we live and work. We parent our children that way when we're at our best. We have high standards and we deliver those messages in a caring way. It's a foreign conversation for many people, but it's not a foreign concept.

You write about viewing interruptions in our workday not as obstacles but as opportunities. Can you provide guidance in doing so?

You're getting 200-400 interactions \[emails, text messages, and phone calls\] in a day and it's going to get worse, and your answer is to push all these things away so you can do your work?

I've got news for you: That's a flawed proposition. Whether you like it or not, you don't have a choice. You have to find a way to make these moments work for you. It's a paradigm shift that must be made. And when you make it, your effectiveness goes up and it's a much more fulfilling world.

Now, it's not necessarily easy. You have to work at it. Out of your 200-400 little interactions during the day, if you manage five profoundly better than you did yesterday, you are already changing your profile.

You have to do a little better today than you did yesterday. In that spirit, you just have to think of Ram Charan and say, "I can do better."

What advice do you have for emerging leaders?

First of all, I challenge them to bring four words and one mentality to all of their interactions as they recognize that "It's not about me. It's about everybody I work with." The four words are "How can I help?"

You focus on helping others and they will ultimately find ways to help you. That's the lens through which all work should be conducted. How can I help move the enterprise forward? How can I help this person get to the goal line because the deadline is today?

The second thing is that I challenge them to develop their own leadership philosophy around what works for them.

I go through these phases, "Well, I want to be like Teddy Roosevelt." And I went through my Mother Teresa phase. But none of those things stuck with me. And they didn't because those ways of walking in the world aren't tethered to my personal experience and my own personal aspirations. You've got to find a way to connect your experience and your aspirations to a leadership model that is effective.

And it will always change. I don't know anybody yet who had this epiphany, "Now, I'm here. I'm the leader I want to be." You mature, you evolve, you see new things, you learn new things, thank goodness.

What has been the greatest lesson you've learned from walking around, chatting with employees between meetings?

It was hard for me to go out and walk around because I'm an introvert. In fact, the primary vehicle I used to connect with people is writing handwritten thank-you notes that I can do from my office or my home. You can be reflective. You can say just the right thing and put the note in the mail and you can touch someone in a meaningful way. Walking around, on the other hand, is like, "Oh my God, I've got to talk to these people and I don't know what they're going to ask."

I developed a process during National Heart Health Month. We had a corporate program of getting your 10,000 steps in every day, which provided an avenue for me to start walking around.

Working with my assistant, I developed this practice of looking for the free time on my calendar every day. I was wearing my pedometer, I had my walking shoes on, and people quickly found out that I was out to get my 10,000 steps in. It wasn't that I was being unfriendly if I didn't stop and talk too long because I had to get my steps in—that was good for an introvert.

Over time, people started to approach me, "How are you getting your steps in today?" Before I knew it, I was in relationship with a lot of people in our company because I was walking all over the plants and sales facilities. Wherever I was, I'd go for a walk. I discovered that a lot of my anxiety was unfounded.

And so my barriers started to come down. People started being more comfortable seeing me. When I talked to them, they found that I put my pants on one leg at a time like everyone else. We started to develop a level of candor. Combine this with thank-you notes and a lot of other things I did, we got to a point where we could do what Jim Collins advocates every organization does, and that is confront the brutal facts.

So, I think it ultimately led to improved candor, higher trust, and it informed our performance profile.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for leaders today?

The challenge for leaders today is to be in touch in a personal way. We have to have good strategies; we have to focus on executing those strategies well. But ultimately, we've got to make it personal. And in that spirit, we also have to inspire trust, which goes back to the key traits of leaders. You've got to be a person of good character, you've got to have high competence, and people have to know it. They only know it if you're making this journey personal for them.

What do you enjoy doing outside of your professional life?

I try to bring the "How can I help?" mentality to everything I do. I have five areas in my life that I pay attention to. My work is part of that, both the business and the people, but beyond that, it's my family, my faith, my community. And I have to take care of my own personal well-being.

If I'm not hitting on those five cylinders in a meaningful, regular way, I know that I'm sort of doomed to derail somewhere along the line. I say in my retirement I am doing more of what I like to do and less of the administrative stuff, and I'm connecting more with my family in a wonderful way.

I'm reading and writing. I'm learning all about social media with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. So I'm learning a whole new language here, and it's great.

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