Leadership Q&A – With Doug Conant


Doug Conant, co-founder of ConantLeadership (a mission-driven community of leaders and learners who are championing leadership that works in the 21st century) and former CEO and President of the Campbell Soup Company

What challenge do you think most leaders struggle with?

The primary leadership challenge of the 21st century is finding a way to deliver sustainable high performance in the midst of unprecedented change. Modern life has become hectic and fiercely complex. There are relentless requests from meetings, emails, text messages; there are questions to answer, problems to solve, fires to put out.  Leaders, and the people under their stewardship, increasingly feel awash in demands and often feel there is little time to get “real work” done between interruptions. These are overwhelming times.

One of the most powerful lessons I have learned in my over forty years of leadership experience – and the lesson at the heart of the book I co-authored with Mette Norgaard, TouchPoints is that the countless interruptions that present themselves in the course of a typical day are not keeping us from our leadership work, they are our leadership work. When we pivot towards an approach that “leans in” to these interruptions, our opportunities to lead meaningfully moment-to-moment multiply dramatically. Each interaction, planned or unplanned, enables us to personally exercise our leadership: to set expectations, bring clarity to an issue, or infuse a problem with energy and insight. If we choose to view these moments not as distractions from our work, but as the work, then we can begin to lead more effectively in each and every moment.

What drives you?

I am driven by my goal of leaving a legacy of leadership contribution and my desire to be helpful, but I am chiefly inspired by the purpose of my work, which I arrived on after much reflection. My purpose is: to help build world-class organizations that defy the critics and thrive in the face of adversity. It is worth mentioning how essential it is for leaders to anchor their work in a clear and compelling sense of purpose. While many leaders know what they want to get from a leadership position, very few are mindfully aware of what they hope to give. The best leaders know why they want to lead and what they intend to contribute – and that guides their everyday behavior.

Who do you think is the best leader of the 21st Century?

There are many leaders who have inspired me immeasurably on my leadership journey; it would be difficult to choose only one to celebrate. That said, looking back in history, two leaders who approached their leadership challenges with remarkable aplomb are Teddy Roosevelt and Mother Teresa. Some of the many 21st century leaders who deserve recognition for their extraordinary leadership message are Indra Nooyi and Tim Cook.

What book is on your nightstand?

Three books that I have on my nightstand at present are: A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future by fellow Northwestern University graduate, Daniel Pink; Are You Fully Charged: The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life by Tom Rath; and a newly released book entitled Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family by Bob Chapman and Raj Sisodia (who is also the co-author of the well-known book, Conscious Capitalism).

What’s the most important thing you tell your students about being great leaders?

You can’t win in the marketplace until you win in the workplace. Leadership is all about the people. Answering the persistent call of leadership – which is to deliver high performance in an enduring way – requires leaders who consciously work to win with integrity and to engage their employees with a performance mindset. Because there are a variety of best practices that leaders can employ to bring about superior outcomes, it’s a challenge to isolate one leadership lesson as being the most important.  In fact, there are several tenets that are equally important and they have the most impact when applied together. A few to consider are:

  • Above all else, leaders must inspire trust. To build trust a leader must exhibit unmistakable competence, character, and performance.
  • Leadership is a performance art; to become great (or even good) at it requires the same careful and disciplined practice that one would apply to mastering an instrument or a sport. Leaders should study the words and actions of people who have walked a mile in their leadership shoes and commit to working on their craft in a purposeful way.
  • An abundant leadership mindset is most helpful. Many leaders think they have to choose one rigid approach – they’ll either be tough as nails, or go with a “catch more flies with honey” demeanor. An enduring truth of leadership is that leaders can, and must be, both. To make an impact, one must be tough-minded on standards and tender-hearted with people.
  • Finally, an important thing I mention to anyone who will listen is that all leadership models are wrong, but some are useful. They are “wrong” in the sense that they are not informed by the particular aspirations, experiences, or competencies of the individual. However, by studying other leadership models, one can arrive at an approach that works for their unique personality, goals, context, and purpose. And that is important and worthy work.

About Doug Conant

Douglas R. Conant is a New York Times bestselling author and keynote speaker with over 40 years of leadership experience at world-class global companies. In 2011, he founded ConantLeadership – a mission-driven community of leaders and learners who are championing leadership that works in the 21st century.

Doug also serves as Chairman of the Kellogg Executive Leadership Institute (KELI) at Northwestern University, Chairman of CECP (formerly the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy), and Chairman of Avon Products.

From 2001 to 2011, Doug served as CEO and President of the Campbell Soup Company. Doug’s mission to achieve superior employee engagement was a crucial contributor to the company’s exemplary performance — and to his development of a uniquely effective leadership model that advanced stakeholder value (now the ConantLeadership model).

Among his many accolades, Doug was named a Top Thought Leader in Trust for 2014 and 2015, a Top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and a Top 30 Leadership Professional for 2015 by Global Gurus. Doug earned his BA from Northwestern University and his MBA from the J.L. Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.