Many people think that being a leader, especially one as successful and inspiring as Doug Conant, is incompatible with being an introvert. Not true. In part two of this Lead Positive Profile Doug discusses how he makes his introvert nature work for him.
Doug Conant is the Founder and CEO of ConantLeadership. He is also a New York Times bestselling author, the former CEO of Campbell Soup Company, Chairman of Avon Products and Chairman of The Kellogg Executive Leadership Institute. Read on to learn his methods for breaking the ice and the positive way he has learned to deal with harsh criticism.
This is part two of Doug Conant’s Lead Positive profile. Click here to read part one of the interview in which he discusses the life-changing experiences that shaped his philosophy of how he wants to walk in the world and how he wants to lead.
What have you said to yourself that could have held you back on your leadership journey? How did you silence that negative voice?
I’m an introvert and I’ve done a fair amount of work in the introvert space with Susan Cain (Ed. note: Cain is author of the bestseller The Power of Introverts) and others. When I lost my job, my outplacement counselor, Neil, said, “Doug, you’re going to be the world’s worst interviewee. You’re going to be horrible.”
When I asked why, he said, “Because you’re such an introvert. You’re not going to speak until spoken to. You’re not inclined to take charge when you meet someone. And by the way, you only have two minutes during an interview to take charge. It’s the first two minutes and then the interviewer takes charge of the interview. You have two minutes to make your case. And you have to be ready.”
He was right. I never was a good interviewee but Neil sensitized me to the fact that I needed to communicate my thoughts in a thoughtful and constructive way. He called it the concept of integrity-laden role play.
He said, “Doug, you are misleading people when they meet you, because you’re not telling them who you really are. You’re a professional athlete who is a ferocious competitor, who wants to win, and wants to do it in an honorable way. Nobody is ever going to have any idea that this is the case with you because you’re so damned polite. They have to see the fire that burns within you.”
I’ve carried that thought with me since the early days of losing my job. It was awkward for me to talk about myself but I started what I call “declaring myself.” The first hour of the first day I meet with someone I tell them everything about me—things I believe in, the way I work—in an incredibly explicit way, I declare myself to my bosses, my people I work with, and the people that work for me. I actually write it down. I go through it with people and then I invite them to come back and talk to me, take an hour with me on whatever they want to talk about.
My experience in the corporate world is you do this dance with new people for a couple of months. Both parties wonder, “What does he or she really want? How can I make this work?” That is why I take all the mystery out of it. I share with you on the first hour of the first day anything you could possibly want to know about me. And then I’m available to you to talk about anything you could possibly want to share with me. And then we get focused on moving forward together in a constructive way.
It clears the deck of all the dance. I’ve found it to be incredibly helpful. It’s particularly helpful to introverts like me, because it gives me a structured way to connect with people. I was almost afraid to tell people I was introverted. So I sort of came out of the closet on my introversion. I tell people when I meet them, “I’m an introvert.”
If you seeing me standing off at an event by myself your tendency might be to say, “Well, there’s a CEO. He’s being aloof.” But the real reason is I’m shy and I don’t know people. So I encourage people to come up to me and ask, “Doug, are you being shy and reserved again?” And I’ll say yes, and then we’ll start talking.
Just opening that up was so freeing for me as I got into jobs where I needed to be more public and more available to people. And so it went from just acknowledging my introversion to declaring myself in a proactive way.
Has anybody ever said anything to you that held you back? How did you overcome their criticism?
When I had my first performance review I hadn’t done well. It was my first time in an office environment. I was at General Mills. My immediate boss was going to become Chairman & CEO of General Mills 20 year later, but neither one of us knew that at the time. He gave me a critical review, but fair.
He said, “Doug, you know, this is new to you. I think we’re going to work through this, but you’re not doing well enough yet.” And I took that in stride. I took it well and he delivered it well. But his boss said it differently (most corporate reviews your boss’s boss has to sign the review and offer a comment). On my first performance review, my boss’s boss wrote:
“You should be looking for another job.”
This is where being a competitive athlete was helpful. I took the challenge and I redoubled my efforts. I worked my tail off. And it probably took me twice as long to do everything that was required of me, but I did it. And it turned out to be a galvanizing force in my life. It confirmed for me what I knew already: A lot of moving forward is applying oneself and hard work—bringing a work ethic that is second to none to what you do. The challenge was galvanizing to me. I knew I needed to do better and I did.
If you could have dinner with any great leader, either dead or alive, who would it be and why?
Teddy Roosevelt: He was the man in the arena. I delight in the people who are in the arena and who are living it every day. His famous quote is, “Whose faces are marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strive valiantly.” In all my reading, that notion has inspired me more than anything else.
The other people who come to mind who were also in the arena are from India: Mother Teresa and Gandhi. They jumped in with both feet and led a life of purpose and meaning. Servant leaders. Sitting at a dinner table with people as different as Teddy Roosevelt, Mother Teresa, and Gandhi, who were all in their own way in the arena—I would happily delight in that conversation.
Douglas R. Conant is a New York Times bestselling author and keynote speaker with over 35 years of leadership experience at world-class global companies. In 2011, he founded ConantLeadership, a growing community of people dedicated to improving the quality of leadership in the 21st century. Doug also serves as Chairman of Avon Products and Chairman of the Kellogg Executive Leadership Institute (KELI) at Northwestern University. Follow Doug on Twitter @dougconant.
Dr. Kathy Cramer has written seven best-selling books including Change The Way You See Everything, which started the ABT Global Movement. Her latest book, Lead Positive shows leaders how to increase their effectiveness through her revolutionary yet refreshing simple mindset management process, Asset-Based Thinking. Download her Speaker Kit here.