Conant: What Derails Most CEOs Is the ‘Soft Stuff’

Douglas Conant samples some of the Campbell's reduced sodium soups during an in house tasting in 2006. Photograph by Mel Evans/AP Photo

When Douglas Conant became chief executive in 2001, Campbell Soup was in trouble. Over the next decade, Conant reinvigorated both the corporate culture and the company’s iconic soups. Now the former CEO and author of Touchpoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments is getting ready for a new role: As head of the new Kellogg Executive Leadership Institute at Northwestern University’s management school, he’ll help prepare executives for the challenges of leadership in the 21st century.

Conant, 62, spoke with Bloomberg Businessweek about the changing set of demands on CEOs, women in leadership roles, and the return of A.G. Lafley to Proctor & Gamble. What follows is an edited version of the conversation.

What are the ways that leadership today is different from 20 years ago?

A lot of the principles associated with leading a large organization are unchanged since the advent of the study of leadership. What’s changed is the environment in which people are being challenged to lead. There are two overwhelming forces that are touching everything we deal with now. The first one is the explosion of information. The speed at which business is being conducted is exponentially faster than ever before in the history of enterprise.

The other explosive change is the advent of diversity. You have gender diversity, ethnic diversity, geographic diversity, diversity of lifestyle, and probably the most profound one is the diversity of generations. We have four to five generations working right now. Those two things coming together create enormous stress. Leaders have to deal with that.

What are the most important skills today’s leaders need to cultivate?

They have to recognize that this is a tougher leadership challenge than ever before. You have to be a well-rounded leader. You can’t fly by the seat of your pants anymore. You have to be incredibly tough-minded about standards of performance, but you also have to be incredibly tenderhearted with the people you’re working with. They have to feel like you have their back. If they feel like a victim of your leadership, they’ll go elsewhere.

The second principle is that the soft stuff is the hard stuff. Most people that derail as leaders in the corporate world, it’s not because they couldn’t do the math and calculate return on investment properly. The issues are communication and understanding. All of what typically would’ve been called the “soft stuff.” You have to be authentic. You have to be dialed into the soft stuff. Your EQ {Emotional Quotient] has to keep up with your IQ.

Your successor, Denise Morrison, is one of the few women in that role. Why are so few women in leadership positions?

The reality is that there are too few. My daughter deserves the same kinds of opportunities that any young man deserves. Part of it is a pipeline issue, but that’s a cop-out. That’s a small part of it. The other part is that things change slowly. They change as boards become more enlightened, as CEOs become more enlightened, as the search committees become more enlightened. We just need to challenge ourselves to do better. I think the world is slow to change, and it isn’t acceptable.

What do you think of A.G. Lafley’s return to Proctor & Gamble?

I hope it works. [Former CEO] Bob McDonald was dealing with a challenging situation. Clearly they [the board] didn’t feel they had someone within the organization that had the capacity to lead, and A.G. was available. It’s great for P&G, but this is a challenging time. It sounds to me like A.G. was the best available option, and I give the board credit for working through it in such a thoughtful way. Bob has moved on in a way where he feels good about what he did to position the company for better days, and he’s very supportive of A.G. coming back in and leading.

Many of the best and brightest coming out of school today want to join a startup rather than a large organization. Will established companies increasingly face a talent drought?

At Campbell, we could get all the talent we needed, and we were an old soup company in Camden, N.J., which has the highest crime rate in the country. Companies just need enlightened leadership and need to make an extraordinary commitment to the people who work at those companies. This is very doable. But you have to create a culture that attracts people, and you have to have an employee value proposition: “We’re going to do extraordinary things because we have the resources, and you can be a part of it, and we will honor you along the way.” There are tradeoffs, but for every one person that goes off to a good startup, there are 10 that are floundering.

What aren’t CEOs worrying enough about?

As a CEO you get sucked into dealing with all the tasks of being a CEO. There’s a big meeting, a big discussion, and you get into all the big issues, which is your job. But what CEOs often lose sight of is that it’s all about the people who work for you. For every 1,000 decisions, 999 were being made when I was not in the room. By the time I would hear the important ones, they had been reframed so they sounded like the perfect thing to do. I was totally dependent on the people who worked in our organization.

We focused on getting the right people on the bus, and I think that’s the challenge for CEOs. If you have people who are high-performing working for you, it’s so easy to do your job. Otherwise, you can’t even agree on the time of the meeting or who will bring the coffee.

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