The workplace engagement results were back. The consultant had conducted thousands of these surveys.

“Our employees had the lowest levels of trust he had ever seen,” Doug Conant recalls. “He said that our culture was ‘swamp water.'” 

Doug had recently been hired as the Senior Vice President of Marketing at the Nabisco Biscuit Company, then a $5.5 billion operation. Three years earlier, the firm had done a leveraged buyout (LBO) and had been the subject of a bestselling book and HBO mini-series Barbarians at the Gate.

“It was the most dysfunctional environment I’d ever gone into,” Doug remembers. “Everyone felt like a victim, and the mindset seemed to be that the ends justified the means.”

Last week, we looked at the powerful impact of blocking off time first thing in the morning to set an intention for the coming day. This week we will further explore the power of reflection as outlined by Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin in their terrific book Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude.

Doug knew he had a severe challenge on his hands. Fortunately, he had developed an approach to life which he calls “first principles.” Doug believed “leaders who are well anchored in what they believe are going to be more effective. . . Leaders need to work on personal leadership as well as organizational leadership. Leadership is an inside-out process. You need to be fortified within before you lead the people around you.”

The key to this mindset is regularly blocking off time to focus on what’s most important.  

“Every morning, for thirty minutes, I sit in the garden or in a comfortable chair with a cup of coffee, reflecting,” says Doug. “I think about five things: my family, my work, my community, my faith, and my personal well-being. I think about how I’m doing with each of these five things and get reconnected with my values and my different roles in life. It’s a wonderful way of keeping me centered on what I truly believe.”

Next, every three of four months, Doug does a deeper dive: “It’s usually when I’m traveling, on a plane or train coming home. I’ll go through each of these five things, and get reconnected with my values and my different roles in life. It’s a wonderful way of keeping me centered on what I truly believe.”

Then, once a year, Doug gives himself the “gift of time” and spends a few days revising his “Personal Mission Statement.” He reflects on what he’s achieved in the prior year and what he wants to accomplish in the upcoming year.

Doug has stuck with his process of daily, seasonal, and annual reflection for more than two decades. “It makes me more authentic with other people and more effective because my thinking is pretty fresh on what matters most to me,” he shares. “Introspection helps ensure that my decisions are aligned with my principles. It’s life-changing. And the only person equipped to have this conversation with yourself is you.”

Doug emphasizes that as leaders, we must reflect on first principles before adversity strikes: “The time for introspection is before you need it,” Doug recalls. “As a leader, you need to have a rudder in the water for the storms of life. You’ll have smooth sailing at times, but you know the storms will come.”

He refused to conform to a prevailing workplace culture he found upon joining Nabisco: “One of my core beliefs is that we can’t expect an [associate] to value the organization until we’ve tangibly shown that the organization values the [associate].” 

So what did Doug do?  

He took steps to recognize associates who had demonstrated initiative in improving the company’s culture. “I didn’t get a lot of encouragement at first. Skeptics said my approach was ‘soft’ or ‘lovey-dovey.'” But Doug held firm, disregarded his critics, and moved forward with his plan. 

“A year later, he commissioned another survey of employee attitudes,” write Raymond and Michael. “This is unbelievable,” the same consultant told Doug. “You’ve gone from swamp water to Perrier!”

Doug later became the Campbell Soup Company CEO and is widely admired for his focus on integrity and results. “I never could have gotten through that leadership challenge if I hadn’t been anchored by my process of reflection,” Doug reflects. “Shakespeare said, ‘To thine own self be true.’ But you can’t be true to yourself if you don’t know yourself in a deeper way. And you can’t know yourself without introspection.”


Reflection: What interests me about Doug’s “first principles” philosophy? What are my first principles?

Action: Journal about my answers to the questions above.

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