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Campbell Soup needs a rule-breaker CEO

After Denise Morrison’s exit, the embattled food brand should take one crucial lesson from former CEO Doug Conant’s playbook in its search for a new leader.

Campbell Soup needs a rule-breaker CEO
[Photo: Flickr user Antonio Campoy]

After seven years as CEO and 15 years total with Campbell Soup Company, Denise Morrison retired abruptly last month on the heels of a disappointing quarterly financial report. During her tenure Morrison shifted the company’s portfolio to target consumers interested in fresher, healthier foods and worked to reduce artificial colors and flavorings in Campbell’s products. But her efforts didn’t have the effect that the company’s board was looking for, and Campbell is now in the process of naming a successor.

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Who should replace Morrison? That question should take us back to the late 1990s, when the venerable canned soup company was in real trouble. Price hikes led to falling sales and a plummeting share price. Management cut costs, slashed advertising spending, and laid off about 400 employees, but the downward spiral continued, and employee morale tanked.

In 2001, Campbell hired a new president and CEO to deal with this dire situation, Doug Conant. Other Campbell executives believed he needed to invest in the company’s product portfolio and marketing to improve customer satisfaction, while also trying to keep costs under control. But Conant broke the rules, all in the service of engaging frontline workers.

When he arrived at corporate headquarters in Camden, New Jersey, Conant recalled when I interviewed him for my latest book, he found parking lots surrounded by barbed wire, walls badly in need of paint, and dirty carpets. Some employees compared their work environment to a prison. Though other Campbell executives had held off on fixing these “cosmetic” problems, Conant’s first order of business was to spend money on improvements that would benefit the company’s employees, not its customers: He had the barbed wire removed, new carpets put in, and the walls repainted.

Conant’s unorthodox investments in the workplace gained employees’ respect. As he intuited, when people are motivated, they feel less stressed, think more creatively, and stick around longer. As a result, they work harder and perform better, and the organization wins in the marketplace. These gains aren’t achieved by pursuing business as usual: bold CEOs like Conant recognize when they need to break the rules to make progress.

The changes to Campbell’s headquarters were just the beginning for Conant. As the fresh paint and carpets went in, rather than huddling in his office with other higher-ups to plot market strategy, Conant got moving–literally. With a pedometer on his belt and a pair of walking shoes on his feet, he crossed production plants at the company’s New Jersey headquarters and in Europe and Asia. Each day, Conant set a goal of logging 10,000 steps and having meaningful interactions with as many frontline employees as he could, asking them question after question to understand how he could improve their work experiences. The powerful tend to dominate conversations. But as Conant surmised, and as my own research has confirmed, when we ask questions, others like and respect us more.

Conant also started another tradition: sending out personalized notes, up to 20 per day, thanking employees for their successes and specific contributions. He devoted about an hour each day to handwriting these thank-you notes to employees at all levels of the company. Conant estimates that he wrote about 30,000 notes in his 10 years as CEO, many of which recipients proudly hung above their desks. My research has also found that receiving an expression of gratitude can be highly motivating, too: We work harder and persist longer in the face of challenges when we know that our efforts are appreciated.

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It’s common for new CEOs of struggling companies to impose layoffs, but here again, Conant broke the rules. Yes, he made cuts, but not in the usual areas. During his first three years, he pushed out over 300 of the company’s top 350 leaders, people he felt weren’t aligned with his vision for the company. About 150 people were promoted from within to replace them, in addition to high-performance leaders from other companies.

Leaders can often turn around organizations by breaking the rules, but rules need to be broken with care. Conant’s rule-breaking all centered on engaging employees, and rightly so. Wall Street analysts and investors alike gave Conant credit for Campbell’s turnaround. Between 2001 and 2011, the firm’s total sales and revenue grew about 24%, while the revenues of other Standard & Poor’s 500 companies declined almost 10% on average.

Conant became a model for inspiring employees and releasing their talents by assuring that work energized and absorbed them. By breaking rules that stood in the way of employee performance, he ensured that they’d work harder and that the company would make significant strides. In light of Conant’s successes, it’s no surprise that changing some of the goods Campbell puts on grocery-store shelves hasn’t cut it. What the company needs now is another rebel leader who can step in and think more boldly–about the employee experience first and foremost.


Francesca Gino is Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School and the author, most recently, of Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Denise Morrison retired from Campbell, rather than resigned.

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