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Getting To 17 People Engaged To 1 Person Who is Not – Campbell Soup Co

February 22, 2017 - By Doug Conant, former president and CEO of Campbell Soup Co, told Harvard Business Review about the company's turnaround in employee engagement.

In 2001 the company had a toxic culture, according to Conant, with many people having been “let go”.   It had a very low trust environment.

“When I first started for every two people we had employed in the company, one person was looking for a job. So in effect there were 14,000 people working and 6,000 people looking for jobs.

“Since I’ve been there, we now have 17 people engaged for every one person who is not. That is that world-class levels …

“I think it’s foundational for a high performing company. You cannot expect to perform at a high level unless people are personally engaged. And they are not going to be personally engaged unless they genuinely believe that you are personally engaged in trying to make their lives better.

“People are not mind-readers. They don’t know exactly what you are thinking. I think you have to tell them. And sometimes we take that for granted because we know so clearly what we are doing and why we are doing it … by declaring yourself and saying you are going to emphasise employee engagement and be committed to making this a place where you are personally attracted to working; by declaring that you also hold yourself accountable to that, you raise the accountability and you raise the expectations.

“That’s half of it. The other half is that you have to deliver. So you have to be very careful – once you declare yourself you have to deliver against that agenda …

“I have a practice of writing 10 to 20 (handwritten) notes a day to employees in our company, celebrating their successes. You see in my line of work I’m trying to find the busted number in a spreadsheet and find all the things that are going wrong. Our entire culture is to find things that are going wrong and fix them.

“Most cultures don’t celebrate contributions of real significance … so I developed this practice of writing to our employees all around the world. And over the course of the 10 years, it was over 30,000 notes. And we only have 20,000 employees …

“Wherever you went in the world, you would find my handwritten notes posted on their bulletin boards celebrating their contribution.

“There are a couple of things that are important to know. One is that they were not gratuitous notes; they were related to something specifically these people had done which had enhanced our company. Two is they were handwritten because I believe it is important that you make it personal. To me, an email is okay but it’s insufficient. If I make the time to write the note, it’s something that people will treasure.

“Unfortunately in the first 25 years of my career I got two notes, and I’ve saved both of them. But I saw the power in it as I got started at Campbell and it was a way for me to emphasise the strategies that we were on and how important engagement was, to let people know I was paying attention. It sent a lot of positive signals to the organisation. I’m glad I did it.”

On another subject, a lot of managers talk about managing by walking around. But at Campbell, Conant used a pedometer. “We were emphasising years ago this notion of people getting 10,000 steps a day, encouraging people to get exercise and be healthy. My schedule is just insane but the one thing I could do … inevitably in the middle of a day a half hour would free up so I would put a pedometer and walking shoes on so that people would know I was doing my walk and I would just start walking all over the building. Every day would be a different half hour, or an hour maybe at the end of the day. I was getting my 10,000 steps in but I also had a chance to connect with people, celebrate some of their contributions – and once again let them know that I was paying attention … I believe it sent a lot of positive signals and I loved it and I was fitter for it. It was a win-win all round.”

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