How an “Abundance Mentality” and a CEO’s Fierce Resolve Kickstarted CSR at Campbell Soup

In his tenure as president and CEO of the Campbell Soup Company, Doug Conant first helped steer the company to financial stability, and then set the stage for aggressive sustainability goals.

Douglas R. Conant, former CEO, Campbell Soup Company

During Doug Conant’s ten years as president and CEO of the Campbell Soup Company (he retired last fall), Conant helped refocus the company. In the first half of his tenure, his goal, he says, was to bring the company from being “a poor performing company to being a competitive company to being a good company.” Once that was achieved, about five years in, “we said, ‘we can do better,’ and we started to explore how we could bring what I call our DNA, our natural inclination to corporate social responsibility, to a new level, and kick it up a notch.”

The notion of corporate social responsibility and sustainability has been part of the fabric of the Campbell Soup Company since its inception. The company partners with “fifth generation family farms, to help sustainably advance their agricultural efforts in ways that have been environment friendly as it was understood at the time, for decades,” Conant says. “Most food companies have a ‘reap what you sow” kind of mentality,” and the farmers in the supply chain have their own concerns about making sure their land will be useful in the long term.

In 2006, Campbell Soup began studying what sustainability commitments would mean for the business. In 2008, it recruited a specialist to head up the efforts. And in 2010, Conant set out some “big, hairy, audacious goals” to pursue — like cutting the company’s environmental footprint in half by 2020.

In a Q&A with MIT Sloan Management Review‘s Nina Kruschwitz, Conant talks about his long-time practice of writing 10 to 20 personal notes a day to employees, the power that comes from the “fierce resolve” of the CEO and the “abundance mentality” that allows companies like Campbell Soup to embrace what business author Jim Collins called “the genius of the ‘and’ instead of the tyranny of the ‘or.’”

You say that thinking about sustainability has naturally been part of the Campbell Soup Company’s DNA. But actively pursuing an organized effort takes considerable executive commitment, right?

Yes. In today’s environment, with people getting pushed and pulled in so many different directions, if you really want to get traction with a CSR or sustainability effort, you have to lead from in front. The CEO has to make it a priority.

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2 Comments On: How an “Abundance Mentality” and a CEO’s Fierce Resolve Kickstarted CSR at Campbell Soup

  • Diana Rivenburgh | August 14, 2012

    This is a great case study in building a sustainable organization from turnaround to becoming competitive to trying to save the world. The lessons embedded in Campbell Soup’s journey and Doug Conant’s efforts tell a story of transformation through leadership, culture change, engagement, guts and good old fashioned respect.

  • Scott Gemmill | August 16, 2012

    This piece is a road map for developing a better, more thoughtful organization. So many take-away messages. The hand written letters to employees is a great example of something to start today. Why not extend this to include some key partners and stakeholders…

    Genuine thought leadership and doing stuff for the right reasons. More please.

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