By Doug Conant
Have you ever set a concrete goal and worked tirelessly towards reaching it, only to realize you haven’t quite hit your target? If so, you’re not alone. In their new book, Leadership Vertigo, Tanveer Naseer and S. Max Brown explore the elusive space between leaders’ best intentions and their actual actions. Many leaders have an aspirational mission that drives their work but fall short when it comes to actually reaching their goals in a sustainable way. Or worse, they may delude themselves that things are on track only to be faced with the sobering reality that they are missing the mark. In their book, Naseer and Brown endeavor to help leaders entrenched in this counterproductive “leadership vertigo.” By identifying 4 key “pillars” of success, the book helps leaders mired in adversity to recalibrate and achieve enduring success. When they approached me to talk about their first “pillar”, Community, I was happy to share my experiences as CEO of Campbell Soup Company, and to help answer this trenchant leadership question: What steps can we take to foster a community of people working zealously and thoughtfully towards common goals?
In my experience, to activate and engage the passions of an entire group of people – you must transform the group into a highly-functioning community of individuals who want to be their best, who feel exceptionally valued, and who celebrate one another’s successes. To build this kind of community, the change must begin with you modeling the necessary behaviors. Gandhi was right — you have to be the change you want to see in the world. Here I share three “musts” for leaders who hope to build exceptional communities of people. As you read through these three tips I’ve gleaned from my leadership journey, it’s important to remember this essential leadership truth:
It is unrealistic to expect extraordinary effort and performance without creating an environment in which people feel extraordinarily valued.
1. Give Thanks. My practice of writing over 30,000 thank you notes during my tenure as CEO of Campbell Soup Company is somewhat well known. But this important ritual of giving thanks began way back when I was working to find a new job in the Spring of 1984 – after being suddenly fired from my job as the Director of Marketing for the Parker Brothers Toy & Game Company. I was devastated — I had two small children and one very large mortgage and I felt every bit the victim. I’ve written a lotabout the many lessons I learned from this experience but one of the most crucial was the community-building power of honoring others. I learned this from one of the most influential people in my leadership journey – an inspiring outplacement person assigned to me after I was fired, named Neil MacKenna. Neil was a spirited, crusty New Englander who wouldn’t let me inhabit the role of the victim for a second. With Neil’s guidance, I learned that in business, as in life, we can’t make it alone.
You see, early in my career, I was shy and reserved. Diligent, hard-working, driven to succeed, yes – but I kept my head down and did my work quietly. I isolated myself. As a result, I was sadly disconnected to the business world when I lost my job, and lacked the skills to build a network. Neil honed in on this and began equipping me with the tools to build a community.
Applying Neil’s advice, I got the name of every single person with whom I interacted, from the head of the company to the receptionist. Even after I secured my next job, I kept in touch with all the people I’d met along the way, maintaining thoughtful relationships, and vigilantly trying to be helpful in return. Through this practice of connecting with people, honoring them, and thanking them for their contributions, I found myself with an ever-growing group of people who genuinely wanted to help me, and who knew I would do the same for them. Over the years, I’m happy to say I’ve had the opportunity to repay their kindness many times. And, I’ve developed a life-long habit of giving thanks which has helped me immensely in building productive communities of people as a leader in the corporate world. The harder you work to make people feel valued, the harder they will work for the enterprise. And, when you thank people for meeting or exceeding agreed upon goals, you are also reinforcing the high standards of your organization in a thoughtful way. Meaningful gratitude is at the heart of any effectively thriving community!
2. Treat “Interruptions” as Community Building Opportunities. The modern workplace is demanding. Between relentless meetings, emails, text messages, questions to answer, problems to solve, fires to put out – it can begin to feel like you are drowning in an immeasurably vast sea of responsibilities. Sometimes it seems this exasperating litany of interruptions is preventing you from getting any “real work” done.
But one of the most powerful and enduring lessons I have learned in my over thirty five years of leadership is that these thousands of little interruptions aren’t keeping you from the work, they are the work. You can build a lasting community, one moment at a time, by showing up for your stakeholders in an authentic way when they need you. To reframe these moments in an empowering way, I call them “TouchPoints.” By adopting this approach to “interruptions” you can dramatically increase your ability to lead effectively, clarify strategy, build trust, and forge meaningful relationships. All you have to do is remember that each interaction, or TouchPoint, is rife with the potential to become the high point or the low point in someone’s day. If you choose with purpose to see these moments not as distractions from your work, but as the work, then you can begin to lead more thoughtfully in each and every moment. So, the next time someone “interrupts” you, remember that this is your chance to infuse your burgeoning community with renewed energy. And, it’s your chance to genuinely offer your help. This sends the message that you have their backs, that you value their time as much as you value your own, and that you are ready and willing to roll up your sleeves and help them fight the good fight for your community.
3. Lead With Integrity. This third most crucial tool for building thriving work communities cannot be overstated. As the leader, you must do what you say you are going to do. And do it well. How can people trust a leader who says one thing but does another? They can’t. And they won’t. More importantly, how can you expect your stakeholders to work tenaciously towards meeting their commitments if you don’t do the same? Remember, communities are built on relationships. Relationships are built on trust. If they can’t trust you, they won’t work alongside you to build a better world in the workplace and beyond. So, on your leadership journey, remember that you’re either going to become known as someone who does what they say they’re going to do or someone who does not. When you commit to “walking the talk” in an integrity laden way, you grow your credibility and create a profound reservoir of trust and belief in your ability.
My experience leading people has taught me that employees want to do meaningful work in a place where they can have an extraordinary and palpable sense of community, a place that has high standards, a place that cares deeply about them on an individual level, and a place where they can learn and grow. It is absolutely in our power as leaders to create communities that accomplish these mandates. By valuing people with our sincere thanks, embracing interruptions as opportunities, and leading with integrity we can begin to build thriving groups of people who will work their hardest to help solve the world’s problems and grow the success of organizations. Indeed, committing to fostering these types of communities is the only way forward in a very dynamic and challenging world.
This piece by Doug Conant originally appeared as a guest post on Tanveer Naseer’s blog as part of a month-long series celebrating the release of Naseer’s first leadership book, Leadership Vertigo (available in stores September 25th, and available for pre-order here). Tanveer Naseer is an award winning leadership writer and keynote speaker – learn more about his work here or connect with him on twitter at @TanveerNaseer. Doug Conant is founder of Conant Leadership and former CEO of Campbell Soup Company. He is also on the board of directors at the Center for Higher Ambition Leadership.