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CEOs Must Find Their Courage

Insights from Campbell Soup's former leader

Douglas Conant was hired as CEO of Campbell Soup Company when the company was struggling to meet stakeholder expectations. Within a few short years, he led the company to deliver superior financial performance, world-class employee engagement, and become a recognized leader in corporate social responsibility. In the following excerpt from his book, The Blueprint: 6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights (Wiley, March 2020), Conant, founder of ConantLeadership, shares his take on why, for CEOs, courage is “the mother skill.” You can also hear Doug Conant speak live at the CEO Talent Summit, Sept. 24-25.

“Without courage we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.” —Dr. Maya Angelou, American poet and civil rights activist

In the early 1990s, anyone looking at my life from the outside would say things were going well. I had a good job as director of strategy at Kraft. I was working for a man I admired, the president of Kraft, Jim Kilts. I was doing a solid job and being recognized for my work. Things could have continued that way for a while and it would have been just fine. Overall, I was happy. But I began to feel a nagging “itch,” a desire to contribute in a more substantial way. It started small and grew stronger. In my role at Kraft, I was advising the people who were running the show. But I felt I was ready to contribute in bigger ways, to be the person conducting the human orchestra of a large team. I realized I enjoyed managing talent and connecting with associates and wanted to engage with more people than the sparse two or three we had on our lean strategy team.

Eventually, the itch became impossible to ignore, right as an intriguing opportunity emerged; I was being recruited to become a general manager at Nabisco. Becoming a general manager would allow me to use my talents in a fresh way while pushing me to grow my leadership capacity even further – exactly what I wanted. The job also offered an appealing challenge, the reinvention of Nabisco after the world’s largest leveraged buyout in history, which I found exhilarating. I knew I would have to tell Jim I was leaving the company. The choice was not easy. It would require me to have a difficult conversation with somebody I respected.

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