When American business executive Douglas Conant took over as the president and CEO of Campbell's Soup, in 2001, he was faced with a formidable task. "The company's stock was falling steeply," writes Roger Dean Duncan in a profile for Fast Company. "Of all the major food companies in the world, Campbell's was the rock-bottom performer. Conant's challenge was to lead the company back to greatness."
To many, the assignment seemed near impossible. Conant himself described the company culture as "toxic." According to Duncan, employees were discouraged, management was dysfunctional, and trust was practically nonexistent.
Yet, somehow, Conant achieved the impossible. In less than a decade, the company had completed a remarkable turnaround and was outperforming the S&P 500. Sales and earnings rose. Employee engagement went from among the worst in the Fortune 500 to one of the best, as the company won multiple awards.
So, how did he do it?
For example, shortly after taking over, Conant began a signature practice: he put a pedometer on his belt, strapped on his walking shoes, and interacted meaningfully with as many employees as possible. "His goal was to log 10,000 steps a day," relates Duncan. "These brief encounters had multiple benefits. They helped him stay informed with the goings-on throughout the company. They enabled him to connect personally with people at every level. They enabled people to put a human face on the company's strategy and direction."
The new CEO also handwrote up to twenty notes a day to employees celebrating their achievements. "Most cultures don't do a good job of celebrating contributions," says Conant. "So I developed the practice of writing notes to our employees. Over 10 years, it amounted to more than 30,000 notes, and we had only 20,000 employees. Wherever I'd go in the world, in employee cubicles you'd find my handwritten notes posted on their bulletin boards."
Douglas Conant didn't turn around Campbell's fortunes by chance. He focused on building relationships and changing its culture--one step (and thank-you note) at a time.
So, how can you begin turning around a toxic culture?
In my new book, EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence, I explain how to take a page out of Conant's playbook.
It all starts with practicing the following behaviors:
1. Get down and dirty.
Think about your favorite boss. Did you care about where they went to school, what degree they had, or even what they accomplished before you knew them? All of this was irrelevant to your relationship.
But what about the hour they took to listen to your problem, and the steps they took to help? How about their readiness to roll up their sleeves, get down in the trenches, and do whatever needed to be done?
Actions like these inspire trust.
2. Show some love.
People nowadays are worn down and underappreciated. These two factors are a breeding ground for toxic behavior--because when people don't feel valued, they lose their desire to try.
What's the antidote? Sincere and specific commendation.
Train yourself to look for the good in others. When you see something you like, tell the person right away. Set aside time to handwrite thank-you cards. Tell your people what you appreciate, and why.
Everyone deserves commendation for something. By learning to identify, recognize, and praise those talents, you bring out the best in them.
3. Set the example.
Let's say you ask me how to get somewhere you've never been before. I could outline step-by-step directions, draw you a map, even provide details about landmarks to look out for.
Or I could say: "That's not too far out of my way. Why don't you just follow me?"
Nice-sounding value statements, rules, and processes will only get a company so far. If you truly want to affect your culture, work hard to show others your values and priorities, and they'll naturally follow.
4. Humble yourself.
Being humble doesn't mean you lack self-confidence or that you never stand up for yourself. Rather, it involves recognizing that you don't know everything--and being ready to learn from others.
For example, if you're younger or less experienced than colleagues or clients, acknowledge that and keep it in mind. If you demonstrate a willingness to learn, you will display humility and naturally earn respect. In contrast, if you're older or more experienced, show respect by not quickly dismissing new ideas or techniques. Instead, dignify those you work with by asking for their opinions and perspectives--and actually paying attention when they speak.
Humility also means being willing to apologize.
"I'm sorry" can be the two most difficult words to say, but also the most powerful. When you're willing to admit your mistakes, you make a big statement about how you view yourself in relation to others. This naturally draws others closer to you, building trust and loyalty.
5. Be constructive.
After you've done these other four things--and only then--can you begin to share critical feedback.
This is vital because many people find it difficult to hear that they need to improve on something. But if you don't share that feedback, they'll never grow.
If you make sure to gain their trust first--and deliver your feedback with emotional intelligence--they'll no longer interpret your critical feedback as a threat. Instead they'll see it as an effort to help, to make them better.
Remember, it all starts at the top.
If you hold a leadership position, whether you're the CEO, middle manager, or team lead, never underestimate the power of your influence. Every time you get down and dirty, every word of commendation or thank-you note you give, every time you set the example, every mistake you admit, and every piece of constructive advice you give will contribute to building deep and trusting relationships.
And help you turn toxic into thriving.