Doug Conant, the former CEO of Campbell Soup, tells a very personal story in his latest book on leadership.
After facing an unexpected layoff and consulting with an outplacement counselor, he discovered that the man he projected in his business life, was not in fact the man he actually was.
And in order to achieve his goals, he would need to incorporate his personal experiences into his leadership ambitions.
His revelation holds true for those wondering how to lead in the time of COVID-19. “Your life story is your leadership story,” explains Conant, who is currently the founder of Conant Leadership. “In fact, I was just on an online conference with 200 leaders and shared that message. Each person is unique and brings different values to the table, so every leader is going to react to a situation like this very differently.”
Leaders need to closely examine “how they were raised and who influenced them” in order to understand and own their personal leadership style. In his latest book, “The Blueprint: 6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights”, he lays out a system that he perfected after 40 years in leadership positions, including President of Nabisco Foods and Chairman of Avon Products. “With a foundation in place, when leaders run into a crisis such as this pandemic, they can deal with it in a way that works for them and their company.”
Conant offers his own leadership experience as proof. "I’ve found that the leaders who succeed have a steady and secure foundation,” he writes in his book. “That foundation tethers them to their beliefs and values; keeps them connected to their unique personality, characteristics and temperament, and allows them to put their skill set to work in the most productive way.”
When figuring out what steps to take during any difficult situation companies must identify all their stakeholders and honor them,” says Conant. For example, right now many leaders are having to downsize their enterprises.“This is very difficult, “ says Conant. “The challenge is that you have to let people go in an extraordinary way. Honor them with as time as you can give them and coach them on how to find their next job.”
On this point, Conant is quite passionate. “When I see companies that are doing the expedient thing that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny and it’s not the best that they can do, I say shame on them.”
To help leaders achieve their best, Conant offers six steps:
You have to set the intention to do better and envision what success looks like to you in order to reach higher. It is in this step that you will articulate your leadership purpose.
You will reflect on your experiences to uncover your leadership beliefs and to dig deep into what makes you, you. In this step, you will uncover the life lessons that anchor your leadership and develop a deeper understanding of your unique personality, motivations, temperament, and skill set.
In this step you will study to fill in all the cracks from your dig, laying the groundwork with all the learnings and insight from the world that exists beyond your own personal experiences.
Using design thinking you conceive your plan for the exact leadership model you envision derived from your leadership purpose and beliefs.
You’ll learn the important differences between repetition and deliberate practice. You will create a stable of behaviors that will help you more precisely bring to life the leadership you designed.
You will continually learn from what you did right and what you could have done better, reinforcing the strength of your foundation in perpetuity. You will learn why the best leaders must “grow or die” and you will develop a simple improvement plan.
Conant offers a number of exercises that can move these six steps into a blueprint. One particular section is not typical to business books but again is based on his experience. When he was laid off it was not done in a particularly kind manner. “While a leader needs to be tough-minded on standards, they should tender-hearted on employees,” says Conant. His favorite quote on this topic comes from Conan O’Brien. “Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.”
To enable amazing things to happen, Conant offers this advice.
1) Leaders need to take responsibility for their own leadership development.
You can’t look to colleges, universities, or companies to help you lift your leadership profiles. People need to invest in developing leadership philosophies that speak to them in a unique way which enables them to adapt that to the success of their organization.
2 ) Forget perfection.
Develop a personal style and take action. Endeavor to do a little better today than yesterday. We can’t go through massive change quickly.
3) Bring your leadership style with you to work on Monday.
Once you start to nail down your philosophy, it’s just a philosophy until you bring it to life. Be inventive on ways to bring your own personal style into the office on Monday morning. Let your organization know that you want to be better and you are here to help. It’s about how you show up.
At the end of the day, Conant’s message is that leaders who want to reach their highest potential have to base their actions on their personality. “There is only one you,” he writes. “I don’t want you to lead like anyone else on this planet. My hope is that you finally learn to lead like yourself. There isn’t another soul alive who can replicate your exact blueprint. Cherish that knowledge. Your contribution is special.”