Ask "How Can I Help?" and Other Tips to Lead Positive
Lead Positive profile: Doug Conant, founder and CEO of ConantLeadership (Part 1)
Posted Jul 17, 2014
In this Lead Positive leader profile, Doug Conant of ConantLeadership tells the spellbinding story of how the worst and best things that happened to him occurred on the same day. Learn how Neil MacKenna, his outplacement counselor, made a lasting impact on him by uttering the simple phrase, “How can I help?”
Then keep reading to find out why this New York Times bestselling author, former CEO of Campbell Soup Company, and now Founder & CEO of ConantLeadership, Chairman of Avon Products and Chairman of The Kellogg Executive Leadership Institute, believes that “the action is in the interaction.”
Blogger's Note: This is part one of Doug Conant’s Lead Positive profile. Click here for part two in which Doug discusses how he makes his introvert nature work for him and learned the value of a strong work ethic.
What are the signature moments in your life that shaped and strengthened your leadership assets?
1. Be prepared for any eventuality
I have two that relate to my business life and two that are more personal. The first two happened on the same day. It was a beautiful spring day on the North Shore of Boston. I was director of marketing for the Parker Brothers toy and game company, which was owned at the time by General Mills. I had a great job working on toys and games, and we were the most popular family on our block in Marblehead, Massachusetts.
I was driving into work and as I got to the reception desk, the receptionist said, "Doug, Larry would like to see you in his office." Larry was the acting senior vice-president of marketing. He told me, "Doug, your job has been eliminated. I'd like you to be out of the office by noon." Ten years of my career with that company were over in a snap.
I went home to my wife, my two small children, and my one very large mortgage feeling every bit the victim. I'll never forget the feeling I had–I’m reliving it even as I tell the story right now. I had been pouring my life into this company for 10 years. I’d kept my head down, did my work, and trusted everything would work out. Well, it didn't.
And so I learned that there are no guarantees in the corporate world and that you need to be prepared for any eventuality. I learned how awkward it can be when you have to make tough calls on personnel decisions. I knew I would have to make tough calls someday, and I swore I would never make the same mistakes that were made when I was let go.
So that was one event. Here’s how it connects to the second event.
2.“How can I help?”
At the end of that day I had a call from the senior vice-president of human resources at the company. He said, "Well, Doug, Larry felt so uncomfortable about asking you to leave he didn't tell you about the support we've provided for you. I'd really like you to call this outplacement counselor, Neil MacKenna."
I didn’t say it, but I was so upset I initially thought to myself, "There's no way I'm going to call this guy." After about two more hours, though, I realized I better call him. I need a job. And so I called Neil MacKenna, and he ended up becoming a great friend and mentor. Every time you called him he would answer, "Neil MacKenna. How can I help?" He was there for whoever was on the other end of that phone. There was no other motive.
In one day I had probably the worst corporate experience of my lifetime, getting fired, and also what turned out to be one of the best experiences,being unconditionally supported. It totally shifted the paradigm of leadership for me and started me out on my own journey through the world of "How can I help?"
3. Set the table for the next generation
The other two signature experiences relate to family. The first was the births of my three children. All of a sudden, this notion of subsequent generations following in my footsteps became real. Again, it wasn't all about me or my career journey. They had a powerful influence on my life–being at their births and realizing that it was important to be setting the table for them as well as pursuing a life together with my wife. I have a lot of responsibility here not just to my wife, but also to my children and to the next generation. So I have carried that with me.
4. “I’m right here”
The last story is: I nearly died. I was in a near-fatal car accident on July 2, 2009. My wife was helping my daughter move into her apartment in Washington, DC, right after college, and I was heading back to our New Jersey home. My driver–I was in the backseat of a Lincoln Navigator SUV–drove into the back of a stopped dumptruck. We were going about 80 miles an hour.
Miraculously, the airbags deployed, and the driver was eventually able to walk away. Meanwhile, I had life-threatening injuries. I was in the ICU for quite a while outside of Trenton, New Jersey. I woke up in the ICU very, very disoriented and with all these tubes and things coming out all over the place–not too much pain, though, because I was so heavily medicated. Sitting right next to me holding my hand was my wife, and she only said three words. I only heard two, but she says she said three, and my wife is always right (plus I was on drugs). So she was there holding my hand and she said, "I’m right here. I'm right here."
She grounded me in a moment when I really, really needed to be grounded and was really, really disoriented. That moment for me was meaningful beyond measure, just between the two of us. My wife said just the right thing at just the right time in just the right way. It brought the idea of "How can I help?" to life.
Everybody I’ve worked with has been in their own version of a car accident. They've slogged through 200 emails, 30 text messages, things have gone wrong at home, at school or at work, and all they need is somebody sitting right next to them to say, "I'm right here." The people with whom I work, I want them to know "I'm right here."
My wife brought this idea to life for me under the most dire circumstances. I learned that from her: The importance of being fully present in the moment and being right there 100 percent for the other person. We can get caught up in life, in trying to do too much and not being fully present. So I work hard at being more fully present and being able to say when I'm working with somebody that, "I'm right here. How can I help?"
And so, these four moments: "Your job has been eliminated," "How can I help?" the birth of our three beautiful children, and then my wife saying to me "I'm right here." These are moments that are deeply imprinted and have helped shape my philosophy of how I want to walk in the world and the way I want to lead.
They spent the better part of five years putting me back together again after the accident. If I wasn't forced to be bedridden as much as I was for three years, I don't know if I would've made as much sense out of all this, but I was, and I did reflect on what it meant, and I did swear that if I was ever able to get up out of bed and start to fully function again, I was going to go with my boots on and I was going to be there in a meaningful way. I was going to ask, "How can I help?" and I was going to show up and I was going to say "I'm right here" every chance I had. And that's what I endeavor to do now.
I grew up in an era in business where the language was, "It's not personal; it's just business." And that's just bulls--t. It's intensely personal! Nothing extraordinary has ever been accomplished without personal commitment and without really devoting yourself and becoming one with what you're trying to do. This is all about being personal. On my website I have my baker's dozen of life lessons on the corporate journey. They're short videos–each about two minutes long–and one of them is "Make it personal." I believe it's essential for making progress.
Who has had the biggest influence on you and why?
The person I credit most is Neil MacKenna, my outplacement counselor who unconditionally supported me, who taught me the importance of bringing a "How can I help?" mentality to everything I do. When I went through the outplacement process he made me write down my family history and all that I learned from it. Handwritten. It was painful, but it was very helpful.
He said, "Look at all this amazing stuff you've got in your heritage, all this stuff to build on." And then he had me shape my vision for myself going forward. He encouraged me to really look at the world as being full of opportunity, which at the time I had a great deal of difficulty doing. I was still stuck in my period of feeling rejected.
He said, "I want you to be vigilant and you're going to conduct the best job search in the history of outplacement." He and I worked together and we decided that one of the ways I was going to do that was that everybody I talked to or met on my job search was going to get a handwritten thank you note.
I would meet a receptionist, get that receptionist's name, and he or she would get a note from me within 24 hours saying, "Thank you for your time. I appreciate your help." The same went for the receptionist for the executive I would be seeing. Everybody I met received a handwritten note from me mailed within 24 hours of my visit to them.
Neil told me, "You're going to be amazed at how the world is there to help you. As long as you honor their time they will honor you as you try and move forward." And wouldn't you know that everybody out there was willing to be helpful! I became aware of a sea of people who were going to be helpful to me as long as I honored their situation. It was a huge paradigm shift for me–one I discuss in more detail in a blog on my website. And I have never again had a victim’s mentality. I see an ocean of opportunity. I see people everywhere who are inclined to be helpful as long as you honor them and their situation.
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.