I'm right here. How can I help?
When Doug Conant woke up after a serious accident, his wife's words of support had a powerful effect. Sometimes, it's not about fixing someone's problem, but about being present during difficult moments, however big or small.
Join JP for the latest Positive Leadership podcast episode, where he speaks to the former president and CEO of Campbell Soup Company and founder of ConantLeadership about his incredible leadership journey.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Hello, and welcome to another edition of Positive Leadership, the podcast that helps you grow as an individual, a leader, and ultimately, as a global citizen.
DOUG CONANT: My purpose as a leader is to help leaders find joy, fulfilment, and impact while they build high-trust, high-performance teams that honour people, defy the critics, and thrive in the face of adversity. I’ve been walking that talk and living into that purpose for 40 years. I find it remarkably fulfilling. And just to see people have these moments where they’ve gone a step further than they might have gone is just so fulfilling to me.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: My guest, Doug Conant, has shown enormous resilience in his personal and professional life, which propelled him forward on his leadership journey. Former President and CEO of the Campbell Soup Company, today, he draws on his incredible resume and wealth of experience to help aspiring executives hone and master the art of leadership. It is in his book, The Blueprint, he sets out his manifesto and practical manual for leaders, which put trust and honouring people right at the very centre. It was such an incredible joy to speak to him, and I got so much out of the conversation about how to deal with tough times, importance of stepping out of your comfort zone and building strong networks and how to nurture those relationships that will support you all along the way. There’s lots of clear, practical advice that I know you will find useful. So, stay with us.
It’s a real pleasure to have you on the podcast, Doug, a warm welcome.
DOUG CONANT: Well, thank you very much. I wish I could take you around with me and have you introduce me wherever I go. Thank you very much. I’m very excited to be here.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I’d like to start by asking you about your upbringing. You grew up in the suburbs of Chicago with three younger brothers and a competitive drive as a tennis player. You describe yourself as an introvert growing up, and I think you even had to pay your Northwestern College by becoming the tennis coach assistant. So can you tell us a bit more about those formative years and how those experiences have shaped you?
DOUG CONANT: I am the oldest of four boys. My father was traveling much, so my mother basically had to raise four very rowdy boys, which was not easy. As the oldest, I was sort of in charge of the next two oldest while she was taking care of the baby. Early on, I realized how difficult it was to be a leader. I mean, very early on. If you think about it, and I’ll speak about my family today, I have three children, my wife and I have three children. And to get all five of us, just five of us, to agree on anything in a particular direction is a miracle. Then you start dealing with thousands of people who you don’t know nearly as well as the people in your own family unit, and you see what a challenge it is to lead when people have their own perspectives and their own minds. I discovered that very early on. Tennis was an outlet for me. As an introvert, you’re uncomfortable with people, and I certainly was, but I discovered I could hit a tennis ball against a wall for a long time and it did exactly what I wanted it to do, and I didn’t have to talk to anyone. I find it was excellent preparation for life in terms of learning that pressure was a privilege, a Billy Jean King quote, and learning to perform under pressure when you’re the only one out there on the court. And everyone’s watching, and you have to own the performance. You have to own it.
And you quickly learn that if you want to own the performance on the court, you have to own the preparation before you go on the court. I became relatively proficient at it. I was one of the best players in the Midwest United States. That earned me a scholarship to Northwestern University where I played. That paid for my education. And then I had the opportunity to work for the tennis coach right after I graduated and get my graduate school paid for. I had a great education and tennis facilitated a lot of that, both just financially but also in terms of my learned experience.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: When you had to step up as a coach assistant, I guess you had to combat your timidity and being introverted, to start taking initiative with others, maybe giving advice, maybe leading. Was it a stretch for you?
DOUG CONANT: Oh yeah, yes it was. I can still remember at around the same time I was taking a public speaking course at Kellogg the first year. And I got up for my first speech and I couldn’t talk.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: You couldn’t talk at all?
DOUG CONANT: I couldn’t talk. It was embarrassing. I had the whole class there and I froze. That was where I started. I’m obviously more comfortable speaking now, but it’s taken me also 50... it’s taken me 50 years to work my way into it. I would say that I did learn something, though. I learned that if I had a deep abiding knowledge of a subject, I had the courage to speak up. And I knew tennis. There’s this wonderful Maya Angelou quote about courage. She says, “Courage is the most important trait. Without courage, you can’t practice anything else with consistency.” So I’m big on having courage, but it’s hard to have the courage of your convictions if you don’t know what your convictions are. That was something I learned as a coach, that I needed to really know the content and the people in order to have the courage, being an introvert, to have the courage to step into the arena and speak.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I’m an introvert myself as well; I used to be very, very shy. A bit like you, my journey has been about first of all getting basically some knowledge, deep knowledge about a topic. I think basically content, matter expertise, then being able to build convictions based on that and confidence. And then being able to exercise some courage because of that stronger base. So I’m with you 100%, and it feels familiar to me as well in terms of the experience. So let’s build on that dialogue, Doug, because early on in your career when you were a bit older, you were 32, basically you were fired from your job at Parker Brothers toys and games. It was a big shock, a difficult experience in many ways because you had young children and a mortgage to pay. Can you take me back to that day and describe what happened and explain how it was a crucible moment for you?
DOUG CONANT: Well, you know, we all have these crucible moments. This was certainly one of mine. On one hand, you wouldn’t wish these moments on anyone. On the other hand, it was probably the most important learning experience I had in my career. I went into the office one day feeling just fine. The receptionist said, “Can you go up to see the Senior Vice President, he needs to meet with you first thing?” I went up to see him. I was Director of Marketing. And I had a great job—we were selling toys and games! I was Director of Marketing; we had all this cool new stuff—Monopoly, all kinds of electronic games, music books. I was the most popular dad on the block when I would come home, they wanted to see what toy I’d brought home. I was living the life. And I go up there and he says, “Doug, your job’s been eliminated. You need to be out of here by noon.” And 10 years of my career was over in a snap. I went home to my wife, our two very small children, and my very large mortgage feeling quite the victim. They called me later that day to tell me my benefits, and after the first time I swore at the head of HR and hung up on him, I called him back, realizing I really need to get a job.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Some help, yeah.
DOUG CONANT: He connected me with an outplacement counsellor. This outplacement counsellor was a real gift to me. I called him late that day. He said, “Can you see me right now?” I said, “But it’s five o’clock. I’d love to make an appointment. Very thoughtful of you to invite me over to come to your office at the dinner hour.” It’s about a half hour away. He said, “No, you come over right now and we’re going to talk this thing through.”
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: So Doug drove over to see the outplacement counsellor, a guy called Neil McKenna. And he ended up staying for three hours.
DOUG CONANT: And he was there for me, and he was there for me completely. I discovered how important it is when people go through these crucible moments to be aware that they’re going through difficulty and to be there for them completely. I started to turn that corner that night.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Weeks later, Neil made Doug handwrite his life story, reflected on all the experiences that had influenced the path he had chosen. It was something Doug had never considered doing, but for Doug it was life-changing, and it set him off on a new path.
DOUG CONANT: He said, “Doug, you’re presenting yourself as an introvert and you’re only answering the questions that are asked. You’re not animated at all. You’re just telling me what you think I want to hear. I’m not seeing the real Doug Conant.” And he said, “I think you need to get in touch with the real Doug Conant. I want you to write your life story. And I want everything, and I want it handwritten because I want you to think about what you’re writing.”
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Every single word. Yeah. How did you do that? By the way, Doug, I’m curious. Is it something that you had to just by yourself? At the time you are not using ChatGPT to help you write your own story.
DOUG CONANT: There was nothing.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: It was nothing, but did you talk to yourself, to your wife, to your friends? Just you.
DOUG CONANT: You know, I think it was important that I was my journey. I think I had to travel back and recall and pull out all the important things that I had learned in my childhood. And I discovered that my family had come to this country in very challenging times and had persevered and had found ways to make their way through five generations of citizenship here. They had grit. They had determination. They had creativity in terms of how they found ways to navigate life. My family, half of them had come from the Irish Potato Famine in Ireland, the other half from England and were escaping religious persecution. When I was done, I turned it into him. In two weeks, I had written 50 pages, both sides. I turned it into him, and he read it. And then he said, “Doug, this is very interesting to me. We’re helping to prepare you to interview for jobs, and I see that Doug Conant. And then I read this amazing Doug Conant, who is a world-class tennis player, who’s passionate, whose family has come from nothing to pioneer life in the United States. These are two different people. You need to be one. You need to bring your whole self to work, and people need to see it, feel it, and hear it. Because you have the power to make a real difference.” That was what that experience started me on my journey, and it changed my life.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: The value of writing your life story is something that often comes up in conversation with guests. It allows us to see events in our lives and ourselves from a new perspective, giving us a deeper understanding, an appreciation for who we are and the life choices we’ve made. And Doug was open to hearing that advice from Neil because he felt that Neil knew him in a way that no one else did. Neil remained a mentor for Doug until he passed away in 1996.
You know, last September I had on this podcast I think a friend of course, Bill George, former Harvard business professor and best-selling author of Finding Your True North. And he is someone who also places, as you know, a great deal of value in writing your life story as something that helps you to find and envision your intentions, your purpose. In the book, and you just mentioned that, Doug, you talked about your own values, which you said underpinned the whole process. And you mentioned how surprised people are when you ask them to do it themselves, and that they discover that they have many, let’s say, unconscious values that they had been holding or hiding in some cases, but they had not fully realized. So can you talk about how it can be a way of getting to know your internal world in a deeper sense and a way of building resilience. Because in many ways the way you did and you wrote down those words and then activate the new Doug, which is something else, is actually embodying the words you’ve been writing, is like a big, big, transformation. How is that happening?
DOUG CONANT: Well, I’ve done this work with thousands of people now. In my experience, our life story sort of gets put in the parking lot because we are trying to grow into the person that Microsoft wants us to be, or in my case that General Mills wanted me to be, or Kraft Foods, or RJR Nabisco, or Campbell Soup, or AVON Products. In all those places, they are telling you how they want you to be. And as you’re being acculturated into those cultures, you start to lose sight of who you want to be because you’re trying to meet the needs of the organization, right. And we find that if we have people write their life story, it’s the first step in The Blueprint, and the second step is then reflect in the lessons from that story, those first two steps you can envision a future that’s helping you become the best version of yourself you can be. It’s almost impossible to do that if you don’t mine your life story first. Because all of this what been called primary greatness is in you already. We just have to find it. We don’t actually have to find it; you have to find it.
And you have to go into your life story. I have found there are ways with prompts and guidance to mine your life story in a manageable way without having to handwrite 50 pages, although, if you have time, that’s very worthwhile. To go into that parking lot and find where you actually parked the car in that very full parking lot and find the things that matter most, I think it’s essential for you to become whole as a leader.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I 100% agree with you, Doug, and I’m sure you know this very famous quote, “Watch your thoughts before they become your words. Watch your words before they become your habits. Watch your habits before they become your destiny.” To me, what is the most challenging thing is actually, after you verbalize through the words your story of your life, how do you translate that into your habits and into your destiny?
DOUG CONANT: That can be done. That can be done. We are really good planners. We can have a plan for our software, we can have a plan for our rollout, we can have a plan to get into new tech. We can build a plan, man. We are really good planners. And then I’ll talk to someone, and I’ll say, “What’s your plan for your career?” What? You’ve got to be kidding me. That should be job one. I’m telling you; most leaders are leading by the seat of their pants. They have no plan. You can’t just go from “Here’s the leader I want to be, with purpose,” and go to, “Okay, what habits am I going to have?” I think you’re skipping a few steps. My believe is you envision your future, which is reflecting and then figuring out how you want to show up. You study the world around you as you would if you were doing a situation assessment for a business challenge. You build a plan. And then you say, “Okay, the next step is how am I going to bring this plan to life with intention?” And that becomes the practices and the behaviours. And then, in the spirit of continuous improvement, any leader would tell you, you say, “Okay, how did that go? How can I do better?” And you go back to the beginning, and you revisit it.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Iterate.
DOUG CONANT: But the gap here is that I find leaders don’t have a plan. They’re lost in the desert. And it’s like, shame on you, you have so much capacity. This is your one life. Come on, let’s lean into this. Let’s make a plan that actually grows out of who you are and who you hope to become in a way that serves your enterprise. And there are ways to do this, but we’ve got to do it with intention. We cannot just do it by the seat of our pants.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I’m just thinking to some story, and I think it applies beyond the professional life itself, I think, Doug, it applies to our whole life as one life, transcending professional, personal, and social life together. Ideally, you want to bring that altogether in one plan as opposed to many plans, I guess.
DOUG CONANT: David Brooks, the New York Times social commentator has his book, The Second Mountain. He talks about building your resume and writing your eulogy, and how those things come together as one. And that’s what we’re talking about. When you pass away, people are not going to talk about your career accomplishments. They’re going to talk about your life contributions and how you’ve affected those around you. I think we do need to bring it together as one, but I also believe we can. It will never be elegantly perfect because as Jim Collins used to say, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” But it can be good and getting better all the time in the spirit of continuous improvement.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I love it. So let’s come back as well to your own life story developments. You moved from the refrigerator division of Kraft, you take over Nabisco Biscuits, moving from marketing to sales, eventually president of Nabisco, before being back to Kraft, which acquired Nabisco, it’s an incredibly business story as well. And then you were approached to become the CEO of Campbell Soup Company. That must have felt like an enormous step at the time. So tell me about those early days as you, again, joined the company to become the CEO, and the challenge you faced to reset Campbell, because I think it was a full reset you had to do.
DOUG CONANT: First of all, I was at Kraft for seven years. After I was fired, it took me a year because I was a terrible interview, but I got a job with Kraft, and I had it for seven years. And once I got into Kraft and I didn’t have to interview anymore, I did pretty well, and I became Head of Corporate Strategy at Kraft. And the CEO, a fellow by the name of Jim Kilts, fantastic CEO, loved me being in strategy, but I hungered to be, you know the drill, I hungered to be leading the business and helping lift the company to greater heights. And I had a team of three to five people trying to chart strategy, which was interesting but insufficient. I did it for three years. And then I was recruited into RJR Nabisco, right after Barbarians at the gate, the largest LBO in history to this day in the consumer products industry, a $25-billion LBO, in 1989. And I went in there, and that was like the Wild West. While I was there, I got a general manager job. I just took the job because I was fascinated by the challenge of going into what I would call the shark tank in New York City after I was working for a Midwestern Chicago-based food company.
I went to the shark tank, I took the smallest division they had as a general manager, and I was loving it. And before I knew it, they said, “We’d like to move you to marketing in the biscuit division.” And I said, “I don’t want to do that. I want to be a general manager.” This felt like a bait and switch. They said, “We need you to go there.” So I went, and we had a great run. We went from horrible performance to the best performance in the history of the company in terms of revenue, growth, and earnings growth, in an LBO environment in two years. Then they said, “Well, you did good there. Now we want you to move to sales.” And I said, “Do I have a choice? I’m riding the wave here. We finally got this right.” And the CEO said, “Yes, you have a choice.” And I said, “We’ll I don’t want to go.”
The next day, I get a phone call from Rita, who was the CEO’s executive assistant. And I said, “Rita, what is this call about?” She said, “Well, John would like to see you.” And I said, “Rita, do I have a choice today?” She said, “No, yesterday, you had a choice. Today, you’re going to take the job.” So, I went in. And I had declined the job when he first offered it to me. I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me. I am not a salesman. I’m an introvert and I can’t play golf. Why in the world do you want me talking to customers?” He said, “Well, we need some thought leadership here as well as some interpersonal leadership, and we think you’re the guy for the job.” So the second time I said I’d love to do it because I knew I didn’t have a choice. And that led me to be becoming President of Nabisco Foods. We transformed the sales organization. Then we were acquired by Kraft, the company I had left, at which point I said, “I can’t go back. It’s like going back to a high school reunion. I could not go back to high school again. I need to be moving forward.” So I was recruited to be CEO of Campbell. Campbell at the time was headquartered in the poorest, most dangerous city in the United States, a little place called Camden, New Jersey—75,000 people, 70 murders a year in a town of 75,000 people. The world headquarters was surrounded by razor wire and had guard posts, ostensibly to make you feel safe, but you felt like you were going to work in a minimum-security prison. They had lost half their market value in one year. They had downsized dramatically, and we were uncompetitive. We did the work to discover, of the top 21 food companies in the world, we were the poorest performing one and headquartered in the poorest, most dangerous city in the United States. And people were saying, “Why did you take this job?” Then we did a Gallup survey, which said not only is your performance terrible, but your employee engagement is the worst in the Fortune 500.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: The bottom, okay.
DOUG CONANT: At the bottom. Number 500 out of 500.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: When Doug started at Campbell, the culture was toxic and morale was low. Sales for its largest product line, condensed soups, had declined amid intense competition, and the company was rumoured to close to takeover from a rival. So Doug set himself a mission to take the company’s bad performance and lift it to extraordinary. He did it by keeping employee engagement front and centre. The first thing he did was to listen to the employees, to get their feedback on what was not working. And he made changes that earned their trust. Trusting people and honouring them is at the core of Doug’s leadership framework. And listening to him reminds me of a great conversation I had recently with Stephen M. R. Covey on the podcast about his book on being a trust and inspire leader. Stephen talks about three key steps: modelling who we are, trusting how we lead, and inspiring based on a connection to our why.
There are some really strong correlations between what Stephen and Doug are talking about, and I really recommend you to listen to Stephen’s episode if you have not already. But there is something very special and specific in the way that Doug honours people. For decades now, he’s been writing notes to people, people who he might not see otherwise, to say thank you.
DOUG CONANT: It wasn’t just wishing them happy birthday or something, but they had done something good for our company, and I wanted to acknowledge it and let them know I was paying attention and that it was appreciated. I find that all of our organizations are great critical thinking machines. We’re built to find what’s wrong and fix it. But even in the most broken companies I’ve been in, two of which were an old economy canned soup company and the world’s largest LBO, even in those companies, eight out of ten things were being done right. But nobody was talking about those things. So I needed to bring balance. So I started writing 10 to 20 notes a day to employees, six days a week. I had a process where I was in a car two and a half hours going to work every day, I would write 10 to 20 notes to people, short notes on specific subjects. And they would go out that day based on information I had learned the prior day. So it was on time, handwritten, personal.
When I retired, I was asked how many notes I had written. I had no idea. So we did the math, and it turned out at least, just to Campbell employees, I’d written 30,000 notes. And we only had 20,000 employees. So wherever you would go in the world in the 38 countries, you would see one of my notes taped up in a cubicle say, “thank you for helping out on this project” or “overdelivering the quarter on sales and earnings” or whatever it was. And you think people noticed over time? You think all my direct reports said, “Do you expect us to write notes?” I said, “No, but I do expect you to celebrate contributions of significance. This is more than just problem solving. This is company building. And we’ve got to build a culture that celebrates what’s working while we deal with all the stuff that’s not working.”
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: It’s no mystery the way you basically came with Campbell Soup from the bottom of the pack in terms of employee engagement to the very top in a few years. Because you basically did it, you meant it, one employee at a time, which is quite amazing, actually, in terms of the intention and the practice you built into the company. I found some interesting similarities in the way you reshaped Campbell culture and the way we evolved our culture in Microsoft back in 2014 when Satya Nadella and all of us transformed our company into a cloud and AI-first organization with a new mission to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. So can you elaborate on the culture framework you’ve designed, and more importantly, the way you made it real with your people. Because I think it takes more than a slide and some words on a slide to shape or create or reinvigorate the culture, and particularly, getting all of your employees again to engage, to be motivated, and to bring their best version of themselves. What did it take?
DOUG CONANT: It was a heavy lift. To put it in perspective, our performance, we were also, in addition to all the other things, we were being investigated by the US government, multiple agencies, for financial malfeasance while we were dealing with everything else. My foundational belief is you can’t ask associates to care about the enterprise until you first demonstrate that you care about them and their agenda. They’ve got to come first. And then you earn credibility and respect, and they start to lean in to the proposition of the enterprise. And in my opinion what you did at Microsoft is you reaffirmed the value of every person. You honoured them in a way that was noticeable. That’s what I tried to do at Campbell, and I had a lot of practices that did that. But it was really about placing a premium on honouring people, on demonstrating that we cared about two things, people and performance, and then that we brought it to life in tangible ways, tangible actions.
When Jim Collins did his Good to Great work, he identified two characteristics of his Level 5 leaders. They really spoke to me as an introvert; I think they’d speak to you too. The two characteristics of enduring successful companies were humility and fierce resolve. With all humility, we said we’re in this together, we’re going to have to lift ourselves up, and we are going to see this through. We’ll have realistic expectations, but we’ll be relentless. The first three years we said we’re going to go from being uncompetitive every day to being competitive on a good day. And it will take us three years in a highly developed consumer good category, food, that is very competitive. We were in 38 countries. It was complex. And so, we had realistic expectations, and then we had fierce resolve.
The other thing we said was every leader has to demonstrate that they have the capacity to inspire trust. Trust building was job one, not a nice to have; it was a must have. And we told all the leaders, particularly the top 350, that if you aren’t building trust in your organization, we’re going to measure it through Gallup. You are at risk.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Whatever is your performance, right?
DOUG CONANT: Yeah. And the first year, I’m not even going to look at. That’s going to be your baseline. The second year, I’m going to look at it, and we’re going to talk about it, every one of the 350. In the third year, we’re going to act on the learning. And if you can’t inspire the trust of the organization and deliver the performance... there were six expectations... five expectations—one, two, three, four, five, six—six expectations, the first one was to inspire trust. If you can’t get with the program, we’ve going to find leaders that will. We’ll move you into an individual contributor mode or something else, but in three years, we’ve got to transform this culture. And that means we’ve going to transform the leadership of this culture. I don’t think people expected me to last three years. I did. And we did transform the culture in those three years, but I think as you know, ultimately, we turned over 300 of our top 350 leaders. I don’t know... think of Microsoft, three years, 300 of the top 350 left the organization.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Gigantic. Yeah.
DOUG CONANT: But on the other hand, I felt like a fiddler on the roof. There is no other hand. We have to make these changes, or we won’t survive. So we did and survived, and then we thrived.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Love the way you built that foundation of trust by honouring people, Doug. We’ll come back to that because I think it’s at the nucleus of your philosophy. You and I were having a quick discussion the other day, Doug, on this very fast-changing world that we used to VUCA—volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous. And you shared with me, “Hey, Jean-Philippe, JP, this has changed. This is now BANI. It’s about brittle, anxious, nonlinear, and incomprehensible.” Can. You share with our listeners, of course the context of BANI is quite interesting, but the way you’ve been shaping those three easy steps to become the best version of yourself, to become a leader. Because you made it super easy, like 1, 2, 3. You started to talk about the one. I’d love you to elaborate on the 2 and the 3 as well.
DOUG CONANT: Sure. Well, first of all, every generation seems to need to have a new word for what the generation is going through. This new word that I encountered in the last month or so, BANI, it speaks to me. I’m in an office today in Washington, DC, and the average age here is probably under 30. They have never seen anything like this world. You and I have seen more. We have experience. What I have learned is that of BANI—brittle, anxious, nonlinear, incomprehensible—A is the big word now. Anxiety is at an all-time high for generations of workers who have never faced this kind of chaos. The volume of what’s coming at them is greater, the speed at which it’s coming at them is greater, and the architecture that is supporting them is crumbling. I used to be able to go, when I started... Of course I’m old, you’re young, you’re younger anyway. You’re not that young.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: No, I’m not that young. No, no.
DOUG CONANT: When I started, I used to be able to go to my manager and say, “How do I do this? I’m not sure.” Now, you can’t go ask your manager. Your manager doesn’t know. They have 20 direct reports and they’re coordinating and aligning and motivating, but they’re not doing. The anxiety is at an all-time high. And so what we say is, “If you want to find your way through this, you’ve really got to get your rudder in the water because I guarantee you, the seas will get choppier.” What kind of leader do you want to be? That’s the first thing. And it grows out of your leadership story and your reflection, and a little bit on studying leaders around you who you can learn from. And then building a plan for how you want to move forward to become more effective. And then implementing some simple practices. I draw a lot of learning from James Clear and his book Atomic Habits. There’s a lot of writing on this. The key to this change process-
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Atomic Habits, yeah.
DOUG CONANT: It has to nest perfectly in your cockamamie life. We all have diets that we’re going to implement right after the holidays. And we do them with great rigor for one month and then we can’t sustain them. What we try and do with this is keep it remarkably simple. Figure out your purpose, figure out how you want to show up, and then find tiny habits or practices that can start to bring that version of yourself to life with the people with whom you live and work.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Love it. Love those very smart advice, Doug, particularly these days. I’d like to shift gears and talk about the importance of support networks in helping us overcome adversity. I really like the idea of building up strong relationships, keeping regular contact, repaying favours, feeding mutual benefit relationships in good and bad times as well. So have you got some tips on how to start and maintain meaningful relationships, especially as you’ll be able to relate to, if you are naturally more introverted. That’s not necessarily an obvious step.
DOUG CONANT: This is important, and you know this. They say leadership is lonely at the top. I find it was lonely at every level. But what I discovered was that it didn’t have to be. I was making a choice; I wasn’t talking to anybody about it. And I discovered there were plenty of people who were interested in helping me as long as I respected them and honoured them and didn’t ask too much of them. When I lost my job, I was challenged by my outplacement counsellor, Neil McKenna, to build a network of people who could give me ideas and advice on my job search. Believe it or not, I was 33, I’m now 72, some of those same people are in my network today.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Still today? Wow.
DOUG CONANT: Still today. And we’ve all grown together. I could call them and help them, or they could call me, and I would help. I think you want to build that relationship. And then you’ve got to, with intention, and it’s not the intention that gets something from it, it’s all about having the intention to give something to it. It’s all about... I find the more I give the more I get. In this network idea, build a network where you think you can be adding value, where you’re always looking to add value. And then what I find is people are looking to add value to me. It’s about giving, not getting. And I have found if I can get a reference from someone, if I contact someone, you give me the name of someone and I send them an email, and I say, “JP suggested we talk. I’d love to get your ideas and advice on something,” they’ll take a call. And then if I’m clear about what I’m asking they’ll give me five to ten minutes. And I’ll try and create some value for them, and then we’ll see where it goes. And most often, those relationships will stick.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: The value of those personal connections, of having a good support network, is key to building resilience and makes stress easier to manage. And it’s fascinating to see how Doug’s done it, honouring people, listening, writing those personal notes. It takes discipline and time to build a good support network. And my advice is, if you are just starting on this, do it now, when you are fine, before you need it. Think of five people you would love to have in your network and how you can connect with them. Never be afraid to reach out. Just bear in mind you should be looking to build a network where you think you can be adding value. It’s about giving, not getting.
In 2009, Doug, you were returning home from work at Campbell’s when you were involved in a near-fatal car crash. Doctors spent 18 hours putting you all back together, your wife stayed with you until you woke up from surgery, and you talked in the past about how she said three words that have made a huge impact on you and your leadership model. What were those words?
DOUG CONANT: I was 59 years old. It was July 2, 2009. I was in the ICU, they’d got my wife to the trauma centre where I was being kept, and she would not leave my side. And she was right there. I woke up, and she was holding my hand. She was the first person I saw, the first person I touched, that I was cognizant. And she said three words to me. She said, “I’m right here.” And she was there for me right when I needed her, right when I needed her. And that was another crucible moment in my life. What I tell people is metaphorically the people we work with every day are in a car accident. Something has gone wrong. And what I coach leaders to do is... you don’t have to solve it, but what you do have to do is say, “I’m right here. How can I help? I’m right here. What happened.” And that will open the door to a relationship that will grow and prosper. You just have to be fully present in those crucible moments, and we all have them in large scale or small scale every day. We tend to get so caught up in our own moments that we’re not paying attention to the moments around us. And the mark of a great leader is to be tuned in to the world around you and not preoccupied with the world inside.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Wonderful and so powerful, such strong words. Let me ask you the very last question. I recently had Sir Ronald Cohen on the podcast, and he had a sudden epiphany moment on his 60th birthday, and he decided to leave his job as a venture capitalist and do something that he considered to be more important, more impactful, more purposeful. He realized that giving back was one of his core values. Doug, what do you feel called to do? What are your dreams? How do you want to make the world a better place? What inspires you? And what are you working towards?
DOUG CONANT: I am doing what I was called to do, and I was doing it when I was serving these companies. I was helping people realize their full potential. I can’t imagine anything more fulfilling at this point. We keep track of the people that have worked either directly for me or one level down that I have worked with. We keep track of how many CEOs there are. We have nearly 60 now. Those 60 people, in my opinion, are better off for having known me. I have had some influence on their journey, and I see the influence they’re having on the journeys of their companies around the world. That’s where I can add value because I know what it’s like to be in the arena, just like you do. I’m not opining on it from some academic chair somewhere. I’ve been there, done that. You’ve been there, done that. And I can help. I can help them find their footing. I’m not trying to tell them how to live their lives, but I can help them find their footing in a way that’ll lift their enterprise up. And I love doing it. I can’t imagine anything better.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: What a wonderful conclusion, Doug. “I’m right here. How can I help,” to me, that’s probably one of the best quotes I would have in my Positive Leadership Podcast from a wonderful positive leader. Thank you so much for this amazing moment we spent, Doug, and I wish you the very best in accomplishing your purpose one day at a time.
DOUG CONANT: Thank you, and I look forward to the next time our paths cross. I love the work that’s going on within your company now, and I am cheering you all on from the sidelines.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Thanks so much, Doug. Thank you.
You’ve been listening to the Positive Leadership Podcast. We’ve got over 50 episodes now available, inspiring conversations with leaders from the world of politics, sport, as well as business, psychology, and coaching. Check them out, and head over to my LinkedIn page to subscribe to my monthly newsletter, Positive Leadership & You, which is packed with top tips on how to grow as an individual, a leader, and ultimately as a global citizen. If you have enjoyed today’s episode, don’t forget to share it. I’m Jean-Philippe Courtois, JP, thanks for listening. Goodbye.