Being an effective leader isn’t always about being a tough leader—there’s a distinction. What distinguishes an effective leader from a tough leader is knowing when to be tough, and when to be a kind ear, a sensitive ear, for the people who work with you. Doug Conant has been a high-ranking executive at multiple world-class global companies, and is the founder of Conant Leadership. Doug sits down with John Livesay to discuss what makes an effective leader, and how to bring out those qualities in every leader. Feel like you’ve hit a wall in terms of the way you’re leading people? Let Doug help you navigate through the process the best way you can.
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The Blueprint – Lift Your Leadership To New Heights With Doug Conant
Our guest is Doug Conant. He’s an internationally renowned business leader, the New York Times best-selling author, a keynote speaker, and a social media influencer with over 40 years of leadership experience at world-class global companies. For many years of his leadership journey, he’s honed his leadership craft at the most senior levels. First as President of Nabisco Food Company, then as CEO of Campbell Soup Company, and finally, as Chairman of Avon Products. In 2011, he founded ConantLeadership, a mission-driven community of leaders and learners who are championing leadership that works in the 21st century. Doug, welcome to the show.
It’s great to be here.
We have a lot of friends in common and share a publicist. You have this new wonderful book that I’m excited to have an early galley of called The Blueprint: 6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights. We’re going to do a deep dive, I’m sure people are going to want to get a copy of that. Before that, I would love to take us back to your own story of origin. Did you always know as a young person that you wanted to become a big leader in all these companies? You can go back as far as you want, childhood, high school or college, whatever you think that sparked the fire that became Doug Conant.
I grew up in a small town outside of Chicago, in the distant suburbs of Chicago. No, I did not have any grand plan. It turned out, I was an introverted kid. Surprisingly, I’m still a bit introverted. I took to the game of playing tennis where I could hit the ball against the wall by myself and not talk to anyone. I loved doing that for hours and hours. Ultimately, I became a good tennis player. I attended Northwestern University on a tennis scholarship that paid for my education. I stayed on to help coach at Northwestern and went straight through to graduate school. I got my MBA at Kellogg in 1975. I then went into the world of business.
A story about that, my advisor at the Kellogg’s school was the father of the marketing book of the twentieth century, Philip Kotler. He wrote Introduction to Marketing and he talked about the five Ps. He was the marketing godfather of a whole generation of leaders. I don’t know if you remember the scene from The Graduate with Dustin Hoffman, where he’s at a pool. He’s just graduated college and these older men are putting their arms around him and asking him what he’s going to do. This one fellow comes up, puts his arm around him and says, “I’ve got one word for you, plastics.” Dustin Hoffman looked at him rather quizzically and never went into the world of plastics. That scene always stuck with me.Get Rid Of Your Mask Click To Tweet
Not knowing which way was up in my life at the time, I’m with professor Kotler. He metaphorically puts his arm around me and says, “Doug, I have two words for you, brand management.” That was the hot button in the last quarter of the last century. I followed his advice and I went into brand management. I was recruited up to General Mills, which was one of the three companies that were leading the way in terms of the practice of brand management. It’s a marketing discipline. It’s a way of marketing your brand to consumers through the consumer’s eyes, not through the manufacturer’s eyes. I went and did that.
I had my first performance review there, five months into my job. My boss wrote up my evaluation and his boss had to write one line that said I read the report and signed it. My boss’s boss one line was, “You should be looking for another job,” and then he signed his name. Meanwhile, I had moved up to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I did not know a soul, from Chicago. I’m thinking, “My life is exploding and I haven’t even started it yet.” I persevered through that and that was healthy for me because I had a challenge and I rose through the challenge.
I went through there and ultimately transferred out to Boston, which was another risky move. They were the world’s largest toy manufacturer at the time, General Mills, and they owned Parker Brothers. I went out to work for Parker Brothers Choice and Games. I had a great run for three years. They spun the company off, one day, I went into work, the receptionist said, “Doug, the senior vice president would like to see you.” I went up to his office and he said, “Doug, your position has been eliminated. You need to be out of here by noon today.” Nine years of my career with General Mills was over in a snap. I went home to my wife, my two small children, and my one large mortgage, feeling every bit of the victim. That was the illustrious start to my career. I’ve been told that I should look for another job, and ultimately I was being fired.
That alone, there’s so much to unpack and then we want to continue this story. I also grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. I grew up in Elk Grove Village outside of O’Hare Airport and we used to wave at the planes. I used to swim competitively and that is also an individual sport for the most part. You’re in the water by yourself, you might be part of the team but were doing your thing. Do you think you learned any leadership lessons subconsciously hitting that tennis ball over and over against the wall? Whether it be discipline or focus, any takeaways from that, now looking back?
I wrote a blog on life lessons learned from the game of tennis. I had a baker’s dozen life lessons and absolutely, I did learn a lot. First of all, I got more in touch with myself, which is essential for every leader. I learned how to compete, how to perform under pressure. Also, through tennis and in teaching tennis, I learned how to engage with people who were hungry to get some help. Tennis was foundational to the start of my life in business. Competitive sports help that, you have to move beyond it. It proved to be a great foundation. When I was working, I would see people, when we were starting our careers, wilting under the pressure because they were so anxious. I was more comfortable. I was still an introvert, not quite comfortable, but I was good enough to be able to hold my own under pressure. In the fullness of time, I became comfortable.
I talk about that all the time, people get butterflies in their stomach especially when they have to present in front of their peers. I tell people that the goal is not to get rid of the butterflies but to get them to fly in formation. You talked about the five Ps, one of them is not plastic, just for the readers. It’s price, packaging, promotion, and all that good stuff. You said something about your lessons learned at General Mills, which is important no matter what the industry is. That is, “Market through the consumer’s eyes and not the manufacturer’s eyes.” That I saw happening in the computer industry, in the dot-com boom. They would make some hardware then assume that somebody was going to figure out how to use it. If you start from the consumer’s perspective, that’s valuable. What was happening that made that boss write, “You should look for another job?” Was that a shock or did you anticipate that?
I came off the tennis tour. I had taken three months off. My first day of work at General Mills, I had a khaki suit, a yellow shirt, a big wide tie. I had something that most of your followers wouldn’t know, brown Earth shoes on. I had an afro, a full man shoe, and a tan line from where my headband had been. I went to work at a place where everybody was wearing white shirts and blue pinstripe suits. It was a rude awakening and I had never worked in an office before. I had a slow start and I worked hard. I was bright enough to do it, but I had to get acculturated. The first three months were tough, the next few months, I started to hit stride. My boss saw that, but his boss didn’t see beyond first impressions. His boss was not particularly sensitive to my situation. He didn’t care. He got my attention.
The other thing you and I share is I had a career at Condé Nast and got laid off after years back in 2008. You were at GM. I actually did a whole TEDx Talk on being a lifeguard of your own life. This concept of resilience, how do we bounce back when we get our identity so tied up with our career? I’m fascinated to let you continue the story of you coming home, you have this big mortgage and children to support. You’ve got to lick your wounds and not stay a victim.
What we covered triggers one more thought around looking at the world through the eyes of the consumer. That’s also how I believe you have to lead. Looking through the eyes of the people you’re leading. You have a clear sense of direction, and you have a sense of purpose. You have a philosophy about leadership, but you do have to look through the eyes of the people you’re leading because leaders need followers. You need to be viewing the world through the eyes of your followers so that you can adjust your leadership accordingly. The consumer marketing perspective has helped me with a leadership perspective. In terms of when I lost my job, the best thing that happened to me is that they sent me to an outplacement counselor that afternoon.
I called him and he answered the phone. “My name is Neil McKenna. How can I help?” Neil McKenna became a mentor in my life. That one day had the lowest moment in my career when I was fired, and one of the highlights of my career was meeting Neil McKenna on the same day. I’m old, this is before caller ID or cellphone. When I called Neil, every time he answered the phone, he would say, “Hello, this is Neil McKenna. How can I help?” You could have been the plumber and he would be saying that. What he did by just saying that is, it welcomed you in. He created a platform for conversation where he was listening to where you were coming from. I went over there and he guided me through an outplacement process which was difficult for an introvert.
He led me through a process that strongly influences the thinking in our book The Blueprint. He helped me get in touch with the real me. I was struggling just like most of us, there was the work me and me beyond work. They were two different people. I posted a small little piece from Warren Buffett on LinkedIn and Twitter. Basically, I said, “Get rid of the mask.” You need to be one with who you are personally and professionally. It needs to be one. I believe that and Neil helped me get to a place where I could show up authentically and also continue to grow and contribute in an increasing way, because authenticity alone, I find is not enough.
You need to know what you’re doing too. You need to keep growing into your leadership. You’re getting a little better tomorrow than you are today. With Neil’s help, I found that when you marry this notion of authenticity with the concept of growth, you can lift your leadership to new heights in a very practical way. That strongly influenced the book. The only other thing I’m just touching on Neil McKenna. Since I worked with Neil, I have brought a how I can help mentality to every day I go to work. Every time I’m at home, I’m at church it’s, how can I help? That’s the lens that I choose to look through life at, and it’s been life-changing for me.
In the introduction to The Blueprint book, you talk about the raw materials of change that are already within you. You quote Arthur Ashe, of course, the famous American tennis player, “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.” The irony for me reading that, Doug, was that I quote, Arthur Ashe in my keynotes about confidence. He is also known to say, “The key to success is confidence, and the key to confidence is preparation.” We both admire him and use his philosophy in different ways. Yours is about leadership. Mine is about selling. When I opened your book, and I saw that quote, I thought, “I am so excited to read this and so excited to interview you.” When you click with certain people, you don’t always know why. When you have all these signals, and that was one question I wanted to ask you. Did you notice similarities between Nabisco, Campbell Soup and Avon, that those skillsets that you could apply across all those different companies of what it takes in addition to this authenticity, and the power of can I help mindset?
First of all, Arthur Ashe, I was on his foundation, and I worked with his wife. He’s a member of what I call my entourage, people I carry with me, who even though they may not be with us, they are with me in spirit. Arthur is one of those people because he achieved excellence in my sport, but he also transcended that sport with his civility and his desire to be a social change agent. He showed that all things are possible. I strongly believe that as well. You can’t go wrong if you walk in Arthur Ashe’s shoes if only for a moment in time. The key I found, in terms of across all of my work experiences and we talked about three companies, but every day is a new adventure. With a new meeting, a new group, a new stakeholder, and different boards I was on. I found that the key to having an impact was being tuned in to the here and now with a clear sense of where we were trying to go long-term.
I’ve written about this need to be a leadership time traveler. We actually have to perform. To be effective leaders, we’ve got to be brilliant in three time zones at the same time. We have to remember and honor the past. We have to perform in the present in such a way that we don’t compromise the future. Every effective leader has got to be thinking three time zones, across everything they do. I thought Arthur did that, he was effective in the present, but he saw a need to do things better in the future. He championed that while saying, “The present isn’t good enough, but it’s where we are, and we can make it better tomorrow.” He kept putting one foot in front of the other in an inspiring way. That was true at Nabisco, at Campbell Soup Company, and at Avon.
The other thing I would say, which will connect to the book, you’ve got to be incredibly connected to who you are. Stuff is coming at you seventeen ways from Sunday. We all feel as if we’re trying to get a sip of water from the fire hydrant of life every day. Think of a fire hydrant cap coming off, and this water is just washing over you. That’s life in nowadays world. You don’t have time to think about, “How am I supposed to respond to this with my professional self?” You don’t have time to play the game. In my opinion, you have to be incredibly in tune with who you are. You have to be able to respond to these challenges authentically. Most people, I have found, are not in touch with who they are. They’re not in touch with their many gifts, they haven’t done the self-exploration required to be able to show up on demand in a way that’s highly authentic.Be A Leader That Time Travels Click To Tweet
What I have found is one of the first steps to becoming a better leader is to envision where you want to go but then to reflect deeply on your life experiences and harvest those to show, “How do I want to walk in the world? What cues from my past have influenced me in my life?” I’ve talked about two of them. I’ve talked about Neil McKenna, and how can I help. We just talked about Arthur Ashe and do what you can with where you are. I carry those lessons with me personally. They resonate with me being who I am. It makes it much easier to show up with people because I know where I’m coming from. I’ve spent the time reflecting and getting in touch with the leader I want to be as opposed to trying to be the leader I think I’m supposed to be every minute of the day.
You have a boot camp every quarter on leadership where you talk about being authentic, which we’ve covered, as well as this integrated approach that lets you lead. You have something called the ConantLeadership Flywheel. Can you touch on that? Give us a little sample of what people would get if they took the boot camp and this Flywheel?
What’s cool about boot camp and the flywheel is tangential to that conversation, but I’ll connect it. With the boot camp, it takes about nine hours of pre-work to do this, you’ve got to invest time because I’m only with them for two days. We have a lot to cover. They do nine hours of pre-work reflecting on their past and drawing out highlights, trying to get in touch with their life story. They come and work with me. We try and pick that life story apart to a point where they can draw conclusions about, “Here’s the leader I would like to be based on all the positive life experiences I’ve had.” The grandfather listened to me when nobody else would. The outplacement counselor who said, “How can I help?” The good boss who said, “I’ve got your back.”
We harvest those lessons and we help them create their own leadership model. I believe in this concept of authenticity so powerfully that each one of us has our leadership philosophy, our own leadership model. In two days, we help them harvest all these learning, do a little studying and create their own leadership model. The one on the ConantLeadership Flywheel happens to be my model. It doesn’t work for a lot of people, but it works for me and that’s all that matters. I can go into any situation, looking at the world through that lens, which is my lens, diagnose any situation and come up with, “Here’s how I want to approach it.” In my case, I have eight components, three are at the heart of my model and that’ll be captured in The Blueprint. It’s not up on the website yet.
I have three core components. The first one is, honor people. The second ring is, inspire trust. The third ring is, clarify a higher purpose. Every time I go into an engagement anywhere, I’m focused on honoring people, building trust, and being clear about why I’m there. I then have five pieces that operate around those three rings. One starts by creating direction, getting organizational alignment, building vitality, executing with excellence, and producing extraordinary results. I can go into any leadership challenge, diagnose a situation, figure out where it fits on my model, and come up with a way to approach the challenge.
It gives people a roadmap, especially if they recently got promoted or they’re leading a different group of people than they’ve ever led before. Having this flywheel allows them to say, “What do I need to dial in here to respond to this new challenge?”
Yeah, but they don’t design their flywheel. I have a flywheel. I had a fellow who worked with me, who had a son who could do a Rubik’s Cube in under two minutes. He decided that his model was going to be a Rubik’s Cube, he was trying to solve a puzzle with every challenge. That cube has six sides and those six sides were the six things that he thought about when he was trying to lead. That’s how he managed it in a way that spoke to him in a special way. All my students have to send me a video of them presenting their model. They have to be able to present their model in two minutes so they can demonstrate that they’re fluent with it and get to the high points of it.
He sent me his video and in the lower part of the screen, he had his son doing the Rubik’s Cube. It was a bit distracting but it communicated clearly. Everybody has their own way of looking at this. I’ve had people who are gardeners. I’ve had some women who are gifted. Gifted gardeners who think about preparing the earth, trying to take care of the garden, pruning it back, making sure all the elements are coming in so the plants can flourish, taking care of the roots before they can get the fruits. Those models speak to them in a deep and personal way. The way we construct their models, they leverage all their life learnings so that those learnings support the language they’re using to talk about. All of a sudden, they have a story, and they have a metaphor for leadership that’s uniquely theirs.
One of my former boss, Nina Lawrence, she was a publisher at Condé Nast. She’s an avid gardener and is constantly posting pictures of getting the last fresh flowers of the season. She lives up in Connecticut. All of that, I had never thought of before, in terms of tending the team she managed and getting the most out of all of us like she got the most out of her garden. It’s fascinating to hear you mention that analogy.
It’s incredibly powerful in a busy world where you’re always on and you have to be able to respond in a way you can feel good about on-demand. The other piece of this is, it’s great that I have my leadership model, but that’s not good enough. The people I work with need to know where I’m coming from. They’re not mind readers. The reason I have these people do these two-minute videos is, we encourage them to find a way to share their philosophy with the people with whom they live and work. Everybody who works with me knows that I’m all about honoring people and inspiring trust because I’ve told them. You cannot assume they’re going to know. Most of us, as leaders, are assumptive.
We forget that these people have busier lives than we do. They’re not sitting waiting on the edge of their seat to read our minds, to know where we’re coming from as leaders. It’s our obligation to create clarity in the relationship and to tell them. I also have our folks invite the people they work with to tell them how they think. It’s not a one-way street. It’s a two-way street. All of a sudden, we have this higher understanding of where we’re each coming from, with more clarity around our leadership, we become more effective, more efficient. We’re able to act with integrity with everything we do because we’re doing what we said we’d do.
You talked about bringing courage down to earth in The Blueprint book. Using courage that we have to lead with integrity, authenticity, and a tough mind on standards, and yet with a tender heart towards people. My question is, how does someone toggle between the tough mind on standards and still being tender-hearted towards people?
I grew up a big Chicago Bears fan. I grew up in Glencoe. When I was growing up, George Halas was the coach of the Chicago Bears and Vince Lombardi was the coach of the Green Bay Packers. The predominant mindset was you’ve got to be tough. It wasn’t okay to be tender at all, I was never comfortable with that. I found I always connected better with people and was more effective when I was sensitive to where they were coming from. It just didn’t make any sense to be tough and intimidating all the time, especially knowing that I’d be polluting that relationship when I wasn’t in the room. I started this language about being tough-minded on standards and tender-hearted with people years ago. I found that the key to this whole thing is having what Stephen Covey, one of my mentors would say is an abundance mentality.
To be a leader, you do have to be tough-minded on standards and you need to be tender-hearted with people so they’ll engage in the journey with you. It’s not either/or, it’s both. Jim Collins, another friend used to say, “Doug, you’ve got to embrace the genius of the end, and you’ve got to reject the tyranny of the or.” I’m listening to this and it makes so much sense to me. As a leader, you don’t have a choice, you have to maintain high standards. I would also assert that if you want to be a leader that has an enduring impact with an organization, you don’t have a choice, you also have to be sensitive to the needs of people. I’ve spent a whole career doing both. It’s hard sometimes, but it’s what’s demanded.
You also talked about in the book, The Blueprint, the anatomy of leadership competence. There are three cues of competence. There’s intellectual, IQ, we all are familiar with that, and taking the test. Then there’s the big buzzword that’s been around for a while, emotional intelligence, which is all of this importance with your ability to show empathy and not just react. The one you talk about is FQ, which I’m less familiar with, which is functional intelligence. I would love you to describe it a little bit. If you wouldn’t mind, the second part of my question is, how did the IQ, EQ and FQ all work together?
First of all, if we go back to tough-minded on standards and tender-hearted with people, the IQ piece has to do with assessing a situation and looking at the cold, hard facts and processing information quickly and clearly, thinking through an issue. The emotional intelligence requires thoughtfulness but also feeling your way through the issue. That’s more of the tender-hearted with the people side of the equation. The third piece that we’re talking about, FQ, is something that I made up. I call it the functional quotient. You also have to know what you’re doing with your discipline.
If you wanted to be brilliant at a podcast, you have to have good IQ because you’ve got to process a lot of stuff quickly. You have to have good EQ because you have to connect with whoever you’re interviewing and your audience. You have to have good FQ, you have to know how to run a fine podcast. You need to know the discipline of a podcast. I was put in a sales role once, which was hilarious because I was an introvert and couldn’t play golf. I didn’t know the sales discipline well, but I had good IQ. I could think through things.
I had good EQ, I could feel my way through things. That’s enough initially, I have found to be able to go into any situation. Ultimately, if you’re in charge of discipline, whatever discipline it is, you have to be a student of that discipline in order to reach full proficiency. I found that FQ is essential if you want to start to contribute fully to whatever discipline you’re working in. It’s not good enough just to be a generalist, to be smart and to be feeling. You need to know what you’re talking about too, unlike our friends in Congress these days.
There are many ways people can interact with you. If you go to ConantLeadership.com, you can find the book, The Blueprint, so people can buy the book. They can also explore on the website whether the boot camp is something for their team. You’re a keynote speaker, you’re the only former Fortune 500 CEO who has a New York Times best-selling book, a Top 50 Leadership Innovator, and a Top 100 Leadership Speaker. As if that’s not enough, you’re also the Top 100 Most Influential Authors in the world. A lot of companies are bringing you in to talk to them on a variety of topics. The one that I resonate with is championing engagement to win in the workplace, that the soft stuff is the hard stuff. Doug, is there anything, one last thought you want to leave us with on any one or all three of those areas?
In nowadays world, I’ve been doing this a long time and it’s an old buzzword now, but the key to success is to create a high-engagement culture. I have found, if as a leader you get engaged in the lives of the people with whom you work, they will become engaged in the agenda of the enterprise. Quite frankly, it doesn’t work any other way. If you want them fully engaged, they’ve got to know you have their back and they’ve got to know you’re paying attention and that you care, but that you also have high standards. It’s not just, let’s hold hands and sing Kumbaya. They want to know they’re associated with an enterprise that has high standards, that performs but cares about its people, too. You can do that.Inspire Trust In Order To Lead Click To Tweet
The key to success is to become well-anchored as a leader in who you want to be and how you want to show up. Commit to bringing more authenticity to the workplace, and commit to growing in your ability to contribute, and then contributing in ways that help the enterprise move forward. That is a winning proposition. I would say, each one of us, as individuals, owes it to ourselves and the people with whom we work, to be the best version of ourselves we can be. These people are counting on us. I treat this whole leadership conversation and leadership in total as a craft. We are walking on sacred ground, we are affecting people’s lives every day. We owe it to them to be the best version of ourselves. Everything in The Blueprint is leading us to a place where we can become the best versions of ourselves.
I’ll close on one last thought related to it is, what’s different about The Blueprint and my philosophy is, it’s anchored in the real world. I’m not someone who talks about leadership but has never led anything. It’s written by someone who’s been there and done that for over 40 years. Started out at the lowest level you could at an organization and worked his way up through a variety of trying circumstances. What I brought to it is a degree of pragmatism that the change process we talked about is actually designed to fit in the middle of your cockamamie life without changing a thing.
If you think about all the people that go on diets after the holidays, “I’m going to get my diet under control, and I’m going to lose twenty pounds.” About one month into it, they say, “I can’t sustain this, it doesn’t fit into my life.” We’ve taken that into account. This is the first process I know that has taken into account the crazy life we lead and is designed to help you become a leader in a way that fits in the middle of your cockamamie life. That’s what I’m most proud of. It’s a practitioner’s eye towards the evolution of you as a leader.
If you want to get unstuck and get a blueprint book that’s going to show you how to be the best version of yourself, this is a book for you. Thanks again, Doug.
Good luck to you.
- The Blueprint: 6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights
- Boot camp – ConantLeadership
- Introduction to Marketing
- Blog – 13 Life Lessons from the Game of Tennis
- ConantLeadership Flywheel
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