Doug Conant on “What Losing My Job Taught Me About Leading”

ConantHere is an excerpt from an article written by Douglas R. Conant for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.

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It was the spring of 1984. I remember the day as if it were yesterday. It was a beautiful morning on Boston’s North Shore and I could smell the sea air as I drove to my job as the Director of Marketing for The Parker Brothers Toy and Game Company. When I arrived, I was greeted by the Acting Vice President of Marketing and asked to step into his office. Our company had recently changed ownership and things had been a little chaotic, but I still felt good about my ability to contribute. But once I was in the Vice President’s office, I learned that my position had been eliminated — and that I needed to pack up my belongings and leave the building immediately. In other words, I was fired. Ten years of my career was over in a snap. I was devastated and I was bitter. I went home to my wife, my two very small children, and my one very large mortgage… feeling every bit the victim.

Fortunately, the new owners had set me up with a fabulous outplacement person, Neil MacKenna. Neil was a wonderful, crusty New Englander who didn’t tolerate a “victim” mentality for a minute. With Neil’s guidance, losing my job became a valuable learning experience about what leadership should be. For some, these thoughts may constitute a “blinding glimpse of the obvious.” But I have found them extraordinarily powerful in their simplicity.

First, I learned the power of connecting with people by being fully present — in every moment. Neil’s first words to me were “How can I help?” During every one of our meetings, he listened so intently and earnestly. He wasn’t trying to guide the conversation and he was not at all judgmental. His interest clearly came from a genuine desire to understand and to help. Neil was fully present in every moment, in a sincere and earnest way.

Too many leaders are so caught up in the momentum of work that they lose sight of the opportunity to connect with people. I discovered that the more fully present I was with other people, the more fully present they were with me, and the more productive our relationship became over time.

This is easier said than done (it takes a lot of mindfulness to keep your mind from wandering, or your gaze from flicking to your watch or your phone) but it’s essential to honoring people — another lesson I learned from Neil.

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To read the complete article, please click here.

Douglas R. Conant is the former CEO and President of the Campbell Soup Company. He is Founder and CEO of ConantLeadership and co-author, with Mette Norgaard, of TouchPoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments (Jossey-Bass, May 2011). He’s on Twitter @DougConant. To check out his other HBR articles, please click here.

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