Five Questions with Innovator Douglas Conant of ConantLeadership
Douglas Conant is an internationally renowned business leader, New York Times bestselling author, and social media influencer with over 40 years of experience at world-class global companies. For the past 20 years, he has honed his leadership craft at the most senior levels – first as President of the Nabisco Foods Company, then as CEO of Campbell Soup Company, and finally as Chairman of Avon Products. In 2011, he founded ConantLeadership: a mission-driven company championing leadership that works in the 21st century.
The National Organization on Disability (NOD) recently sat down with Doug to find out what drives his passion for leadership, the future of talent, and why companies should embrace people with disabilities in the workplace.
1. In your prior role as CEO of Campbell Soup Company, you’re largely credited for helping to turn the company around. What was the most difficult part of revitalizing the culture of a 119-year-old global brand?
When I got to Campbell I found a very dispirited group of people. I recognized early on that getting them engaged in the transformation process in an earnest way was job one. So in the first hour, the first day I was there I said, “We can’t expect to win in the marketplace until we’re winning in the workplace… That means employee engagement is job one.” We appointed our first ever chief inclusion officer and gave her a prominent place at the table. We started to create our first employee resource groups and embarked on a complete transformation effort around diversity and inclusion. The organization responded well to all of these efforts and went on to have one of the best employee engagement levels in the Fortune 500. By 2010, the Gallup Employee Engagement Index showed that for every 17 engaged employees, only one was disengaged, a ratio that exceeded Gallup’s “world-class” benchmark of 12:1.
Transforming a company is a heavy lift, and it’s done by people. You have to capture the hearts, minds, and spirit of an organization and get everyone enrolled in the process of transformation.
2. In 2011 you founded ConantLeadership, a company dedicated to providing leaders with high-impact tools and programs, such as ConantLeadership Boot Camp, to help them succeed. What ignited your passion for leadership?
When I retired in 2011, I founded ConantLeadership. I can’t reach everyone, but I can influence how leaders lead. And they can lead with a more abundant mentality, which is about creating highly engaged situations where all people can thrive.
We’re promoting inspired leadership that can make a difference in the 21st century—around getting people engaged, creating opportunities for more people. My own personal time is devoted to NOD, to Catalyst, and to several other diversity and inclusion efforts, as we try to raise the tide for all ships, not just some of the ships. It’s very fulfilling work for me, but it’s natural too. It’s a natural evolution of my engagement philosophy and my diversity and inclusion philosophy.
I was once asked, “Do you want your daughter to be going into the kind of world that you came into? Doesn’t she deserve better?” And I had never thought about it on a personal level. I always thought of it as the right thing to do. By making it personal it motivated me to kick it another gear. I have been trying to do that for the last decade.
3. Companies including PwC, EY, REI, and others have shown that employees with disabilities contribute to bottom-line performance. How can CEOs help to remove the barriers that people with disabilities face when it comes to employment?
There’s all kinds of evidence that embracing diversity and inclusion can improve bottom-line performance. I think it has to be smartly led, in a top down way, just like other diversity and inclusion efforts. The people in the organization need to know it’s on the agenda, at the top of the house. There needs to be some tangible examples of where that is happening.
CEOs can be vigilantly challenging the organization to find people with disabilities who can contribute at the highest levels in their company. When I created the first ever diversity and inclusion head at Campbell, it sent the signal to the whole organization that things were going to change. If I was still a CEO, I would be looking for an opportunity to create room for people with disabilities who can contribute at senior levels.
Secondly, if you are leading an organization, measurement is critical. That’s why tools like NOD’s Disability Employment Tracker™ are so critical. You can’t manage it, if you can’t measure it. When I emphasized employee engagement, we wanted to measure it. When we emphasize diversity and inclusion, we have ways of measuring it. We track representation in various jobs, but we also track other things that are important—making sure you had a diverse slate of candidates for every job you interviewed for and things like that. So measurement is critical.
4. You joined the NOD board of directors in 2011. What drew you to this issue?
I joined in 2011 at the recommendation of some folks who knew the founding board members, who thought I could contribute, given my passion for the subject and personal and professional commitment to it. It’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever been a part of.
Personally, I was blessed to be a healthy, vital person, and then I had a near-fatal car accident in 2009 that was life-changing. For the first time, I viscerally understood what it was like to have to think about getting the work done in a different way. I empathized with people with disabilities in a way that you can only empathize with them when you have a disability yourself. I gained a deeper level of understanding and empathy for the challenges people with disabilities face. I think that was probably the most important lesson I learned from that experience. I look at the world completely differently now as a result of that. Every day, every interaction, I notice the people who have to find a different way to do it. I just see the world differently today.
5. What excites you about the future of work and talent?
I believe people want to live in an abundant world where anybody can do anything, and they feel as though it’s possible—it’s the American dream. Bringing that dream to life in a very diverse and inclusive way, I can’t think of a more worthwhile place to devote your effort. I’m seeing successes every day. Whether it’s at JPMorgan Chase or in the distribution centers at Lowe’s or Toys“R”Us. There’s so much good work being done, and I’ve got to believe it’s going to get better in the days ahead. William Browning said: “Grow old along with me for the best it yet to be.” I would take the old out. I would say “grow along with me, the best is yet to be.” I really believe it. I see disability inclusion and diverse hiring practices maturing. I see it gaining strength, and I’m proud to be a part of it.