Former Campbell Soup c.e.o. tackles leadership issues

by Dan Malovany
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AVENTURA, FLA. — The biggest leadership challenge companies face today involves building high-performance teams in a high-demand world. To succeed in such an environment and create a world-class operation, business leaders need to “get the right people on the bus” by being tough-minded on standards and tender-hearted with people, Douglas Conant, former chief executive officer of Campbell Soup Co. and founder and c.e.o. of Conant Leadership, told the American Bakers Association during its annual convention, April 21-24.

When he took over the helm at Campbell Soup in 2001, the then-troubled Camden, N.J.-based company had lost its focus, he said. To rebuild the business over a decade, Mr. Conant said the company shed noncore businesses, replaced 300 of 350 top managers and built the “Campbell success model” for winning in the workplace, the marketplace, the community and with integrity.

Mr. Conant noted the information age has become the “interruption age,” and business leaders must transform daily interruptions into opportunities by interacting and engaging employees through what he called “touch points,” which is the focus of a book he recently co-authored.

During his tenure at Campbell, Mr. Conant became renowned for sending notes to employees acknowledging their accomplishments. He would set aside about one hour each day to write 10 to 20 handwritten notes, or a total of 30,000 of them by the time he retired from the company in 2011. The goal, he said, was to create powerful leadership connections by taking advantage of the smallest of moments.

Reflecting on the issue of “touch points,” Mr. Conant noted that Margaret Rudkin, founder of Campbell Soup’s Pepperidge Farm business, constantly challenged her staff to think about “what’s next” to build the company. During her 26 years in charge of the cookie, cracker and snack operation, Pepperidge Farm’s sales grew 53% on an annual basis. Since purchasing Pepperidge Farm in 1961, the business has grown more than 40-fold, Mr. Conant said.
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