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How Inimitable Leadership Can Save the Day

Last week, I was reading an article on Gallup about how President and CEO Douglas R. Conant’s plan to revitalize Campbell’s Soup included a decade-long effort to improve employee engagement.   To give you some background, Conent took over at Cambell’s about 9 years ago.  Things weren’t going well.  Campbell’s had one of the lowest engagement scores of any Fortune 500 ever.

The challenge with engagement is that it requires trust and inspiration.  It requires that people’s brains be “on.”  That’s impossible in a low-trust environment, because the majority of the energy is spent protecting oneself as opposed to innovating.   When leaders try to improve their engagement, it requires changing the corporate culture, which scares people.  It scares the jerks, because they can’t thrive in an environment that doesn’t reward their jerkiness.  It scares the underlings because if they come out of the woodwork, who’s to say that this change effort won’t fail like the other 75% of change efforts and then they’ll be exposed?

Changing corporate culture is a long term process, and Wallstreet doesn’t like to wait and see.  Conent’s success was staying in it long enough to change their minds.  And so, when the recession hit in 2008, Campbell’s had the right people in place and the right culture to adapt and innovate.

As it turns out, great leadership did save the day.  Nine years ago, Campbell’s Soup was uncompetitive every day.  Today, in a recession, they compete… well.

How they did it was to follow the Jim Collins model described in Good to Great.  Conent spent his first two and a half years getting the right people on the right seats on the bus.  (How’s that for commitment?)

Conents credits the engagement of everyone, top to bottom, as one of the main reasons why they’re doing well today and why engagement is even more important in a downturn:

“That’s why you need to be more engaged now. Now is the time to lift yourself up and take advantage of the strength you’ve created. Then get out there and do better than all these people who are saying, “Woe is me. It’s a tough world. What am I going to do?”

This recession provides a unique opportunity to seize the day, leverage the momentum we’re building both in the marketplace and the workplace, and do something really special. My mindset, and I would argue it’s the mindset of most of the people in this company, is that we devote more of our waking hours to our work than anything we do, oftentimes more than to our families. If we can’t make that work special — meaningful in some compelling way so that we get excited about doing something special — shame on us. Why are we devoting so much time to it? Just to earn a paycheck? That’s just not enough. For me and many others at Campbell, it’s about leaving a legacy.”

These are the kinds of workplaces I want to be a part of creating.  How about you?

Be Your Best You Today,

Carolann Jacobs

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