The key to producing the results that matter most to your organization? An engaged workforce.
Sarah Green: Welcome to The Idea from Harvard Business Review. I’m Sarah Green. I’m here today with Doug Conant, who just stepped down as CEO of the Campbell Soup Company. Doug, thanks so much for coming in.
Doug Conant: Happy to be here.
Sarah Green: So you have a great story at Campbell’s when you were there, about turning around the employee engagement of that company. Tell us what happened there.
Doug Conant: Well, we were, at the time—this is back in 2001—a very toxic culture where a lot of people had been let go. And we had a very low trust environment. When I first started, it was for every two people we had actively engaged in our company, we had one person who was looking for a job.
So fundamentally, we had 14,000 working and 6,000 people looking for jobs. And since I’ve been there, and since our team has really tackled this issue, we now have 17 people wildly engaged for every one person who’s not. And those are world-class levels.
So it’s been a wonderful story. I think it’s foundational for a high-performance company; you cannot expect to perform at a high level unless people are personally engaged. And they’re not going to be personally engaged unless they genuinely believe that you are personally engaged in trying to make their lives better.
Sarah Green: You have written on HBR.org about, I think, part of that, which is “declaring yourself.” What do you mean by that? And how does that impact engagement?
Doug Conant: I think we have to realize that people are not mind readers. They don’t know exactly what you’re thinking. I think you have to tell them. And sometimes we take that for granted, because we know so clearly what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it. But people are not mind readers. You have to tell them. And by declaring yourself and saying, OK, we’re gonna emphasize employee engagement. We’re committed to making this a place where you’re personally attracted to working—by declaring that, you also hold yourself accountable to it.
And so when you declare yourself, you raise the accountability and raise the expectations. That’s half of it. The other half is, you have to deliver.
So you’ve got to be very careful, because once you declare yourself, you have to deliver against that agenda.
Sarah Green: I want to also ask you about another specific part of this, which is a handwritten note. Because that’s something that you’ve become known for. What’s the power of that?
Doug Conant: Well, to frame the idea, I have a practice of writing 10 to 20 notes a day to employees in our company celebrating their successes. You see, in my line of work, I’ve been trained to find the busted number in the spreadsheet, and find all the things that are going wrong. And the entire culture is built to find things that are going wrong and fix them. My observation is that most cultures really don’t celebrate contributions of real significance like they can be celebrated.
So I developed this practice of writing notes to our employees all around the world. And over the course of the ten years, when we added them all up, it was over 30,000 notes. And we only have 20,000 employees. And what’s cool is, wherever I would go in the world—whether it’s Shanghai, or Lubeck, Germany, or Paris, France, or Mexico City—in employee cubicles you would find my handwritten notes posted on their bulletin boards, kind of celebrating their contributions.
Now there are a couple of things that are important to know. One is, they were not gratuitous notes. They related to something specifically these people had done that had enhanced our company. Two is, they were handwritten, because I believe it’s important that you make it personal.
*Make it personal
To me an email is OK, but it’s insufficient. If I have the time, if I make the time to write the note, it’s something that people will treasure. You know. Unfortunately, in my first 25 years of my career, I think I got about two notes. And I saved both of them.
But I saw the power in it as I got started at Campbell. And it was a way for me to emphasize the strategies we were on and how important engagement was, to let people know I was paying attention. And it sent a lot of positive signals to the organization. I’m glad I did it
Sarah Green: One final question for you. I know a lot of executives talk about management by walking around. You actually put on a pedometer. And what did you get from that exercise?
Doug Conant: Well, we were emphasizing, years ago, this notion of people getting 10,000 steps in in a day. And we were encouraging people to find ways to get exercise and be healthy. And my schedule is just insane. But the one thing I could do—inevitably, in the middle of the day, a half hour would free up. And so I would put my pedometer on and I put walking shoes on, so people would know I was doing my walk. And I would just start walking all over the building. Every day it would be a different half hour, or an hour, or maybe at the end of the day.
But I was getting my 10,000 steps in. And I also had a chance to connect with people and celebrate some of their contributions and, once again, let them know I was paying attention, that I was all in. And I believe it sent a lot of positive signals. And I loved it. And I also got 10,000 steps in a day. And I’m fitter for it. So it was a win, win, win, all the way around.
Sarah Green: Well, Doug, I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface, but that’s unfortunately all the time we have. Thanks again for coming in.
Doug Conant: Thank you very much.