When Doug Conant arrived at Campbell's Soup to begin his 10 plus years as CEO, he found trouble around every corner. He immediately called in The Gallup Organization to do a study to measure how engaged his employees were. The findings were dismal. In fact, Gallup had never had a Fortune 500 company score so low on engagements scores. There was clearly a lot of work for Mr. Conant to do.
In just a few short years a remarkable change had taken place. Campbell's engagement scores were among the highest and the financial results were also off the charts. His methods to achieve this minor miracle were not learned from a textbook, or suggested by high powered consultants. The idea of simply walking around the plant and having planned conversations with everyone, came from who he was - a respectful and humble leader who was willing to listen and act on what he heard. He chronicled the journey and what he learned along the way in the bestselling book, Touchpoints.
What did Doug do that was special? Can it be learned?
Doug told us what he did. He walked around the plant and had conversations with everyone. But, there was something special about those conversations. He connected with everyone. He created a special relationship with them. He approached them with humility and showed his concern and empathy for them. He demonstrated that he respected them and their thinking capability. He created a trusting and safe environment for them.
Over the last three years, I have noticed something interesting about leaders who have participated in a program I offer through the Lean Enterprise Institute called Transformation Leadership. The format of the program has the participants experience a day in the life of a company in a specific role. This gives them the opportunity to examine their own behaviors and interactions of each other. Each participant selects a role in this company ranging from the CEO to plant managers. Not surprisingly, if the CEO successfully connects with the other participants at the start of the experience, the engagement is higher and they become better at solving the company's basic business problems.
At the last workshop, I observed how Marie, a COO of a major hospital, introduced herself to the other participants. She was humble, and had an enjoyable personality, and she was genuinely interested in others. I noticed that she immediately connected with all the other participants. In the simulation she played the part of the CEO. Compared to many other workshops, this group had a greater feeling of duty and trust based on their interaction with Marie. This is the same thing that Doug Conant did with the people at Campbell's.
In his groundbreaking book, Emotional Intelligence, author, Daniel Goleman writes that human beings actually have two brains; one that thinks and one that feels. Transformational leaders, like Doug and Marie, have, as a result of their life's journey, developed that part of the brain that deals with the feelings of others. They connect through the feeling part of the brain.
Our brains continuously process our feelings and emotions in the background so that we can quickly determine if someone is a friend or foe. This brain substructure is called the mammalian brain and is essential for survival. Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a Neuroscientist, had a chance to learn firsthand how this part of the brain works. On December 10, 1996, she experienced a stroke that shut down her left brain hemisphere, leaving her unable to function in a normal way. She lost her ability to talk and was partially paralyzed. As a result, the remaining functioning part of the brain worked harder and Jill was able to see the inner workings that processed feelings. When she was in the hospital, her brain could tell her the difference between which nurses were there to just do their job and those that actually cared for her recovery. She watched herself reject those who didn't care and become close to those who did care. Amazingly, she could not control her responses to them. She discovered that her behavior was driven by this normally unconscious part of her brain.
The background process of assessing friend or foe is active in all of us. We tend to ignore these feelings but they influence our behaviors of making connections with others. Because Doug Conant cared about the people in his organization, they responded favorably. Leaders need to recognize that their responsibility is to help their people build capabilities so they can survive and thrive. Leaders need to show they care about their people. Through this simple process of changing habits, it is possible to build skills to 1) become more aware of the feeling part of the brain, and 2) demonstrate how you as a leader care about the development of your people. Learning how to develop these skills is needed to become a true transformational leader.
Habits are deeply embedded and hard to change
How we connect with others is a habit. As Dr. Taylor learned, we interact with others without conscious thought and we are driven automatically from the feeling part of the. Because of our culture, education, and organizational expectations as leaders, we have the habit of overusing our thinking brain and underusing our feeling brain. We need to develop new habits to access the feeling brain so that we can make more meaningful connections with other people.
Forming and especially changing habits require us to be mindful and focused in analyzing our behavior. We have to reflect on our behavior and decide to enact change. We have to practice regularly and continue to reflect on our performance. Reflection and practice are essential for any real and impactful change.
So, if you're willing to change and grow, here are some ways to do so:
Awareness - Become aware that making respectful connections is critical to creating a successful transformation. You need to care about the development of your employees. You should ask questions about how they are thinking. You need to create a trusting environment within which they work and thrive. They will know if you are faking it - through the feeling part of their brain.
Attention - Select a problem area and think more deeply about the problem, why it exists and who should be involved. Go through a mental exercise. Plan how to engage the people and practice how you can ask questions. Ask yourself what you know and do not know about the problem. Then think about how you might ask others those same questions.
Action - Next, run the actual experiment. The practice area needs to be safe for your people. Be transparent and tell them what you are doing and why. Start small. Go through the questioning as you mentally prepare for this experiment. Capture the collective thinking. Decide together on new experiments and write down actions and responsibilities. Make the timeframe short, preferably within one week.
Reflection - After you and your team have done experiments, facilitate a reflection of the efforts. What worked, what didn't work, what did you learn? Ask what we now know and don't know about the situation. Create a new plan with actions. Repeat this cycle of learning regularly with your team.
The benefit of modeling the behaviors
The old admonition to do as I say and not as I do does not work well when you are in a leadership role. Employees mimic their leaders' behaviors, often unconsciously. These behaviors, over time, grow and become engrained in the culture of the company. Many (if not most) leaders try to affect change as if they are not a part of the system. They try to make others change, but fail to reflect on how their leadership behavior is influencing the culture.
If you model making these trusting and respectful connections with your people, you will create an environment of trust which will enable your organization to "come alive".