The Main Ingredient of Change


When I became Campbell’s CEO, in 2011, our soup sales in the U.S. were down and our innovation pipeline was virtually dry. More concerning, our people seemed content to rest on our past success. How could we get a 145-year-old company to embrace change?

We started by pointing to the seismic shifts going on around us. We thoroughly assessed the new consumer demographics and behaviors, global economic realignment, and digital revolution profoundly changing the food industry. We studied the evolution of packaged fresh foods in response to health and wellness trends and the expansion of e-commerce and other channels beyond grocery. We stressed that we needed to build on our past to create the future but that we now had a dual mandate: to strengthen our core business with existing consumers while also expanding into faster-growing spaces to attract new consumers.

Then we surveyed our top 300 leaders to discover what might keep us from delivering on that strategy. Two key ingredients, they told us, were missing at Campbell. The first was effective decision making—many felt there was too much emphasis on reaching consensus. (We have since updated our Leadership Model, replacing “Drive organizational consensus” with “Drive decision making.”) The second was the harder problem: We lacked courage.

So we set out to remake our “play it safe” culture and empower our people to think bigger and act more boldly. We made “courage” one of our core values and built a new performance management system that encourages employees to take responsible risks and set ambitious goals. People now own the outcomes they deliver, and we reward those whose contributions have an exceptional impact.

We set out to remake our “play it safe” culture and empower our people to think bigger and act more boldly.

Cultural values have to be modeled at the top to take hold, so we revamped our leadership team with courage in mind. Virtually everyone on the team is either new to his or her role or new to Campbell since I became CEO.

Of course, I had to resolve to personally model the courage we wanted to see in the organization. I got that chance when we had the opportunity to acquire Bolthouse Farms, a leader in fresh beverages and juices, salad dressings, and fresh carrots. At $1.5 billion, the acquisition was the largest in our history. Naturally there was some skepticism. (“Fresh carrots, Denise? Really?”) Sticking to my convictions about packaged fresh foods (already a $12 billion category) allowed us to make that consumer-driven, on-trend acquisition, and another: Plum Organics, in the fast-growing organic baby food segment. We also acquired Kelsen Group to expand our snacks business globally, starting with China and Hong Kong.

You have to live your company’s values as a leader and applaud others when they follow suit. I knew that courage was taking hold at Campbell when, last October, I watched our international leaders forge ahead on a decision that, in the past, we would have debated endlessly. Making the decision to divest our European simple meals business to CVC Capital Partners wasn’t easy. Europe had become an important market for us, and the business, with national brands in Belgium, France, Germany, and Sweden, brought in annual sales of more than $500 million. But our leaders boldly chose to focus our resources on building our global brands, especially in developing markets in Asia and Latin America.

Certainly, we are still on our journey, but we are less afraid to fail. With newfound courage, we’re reshaping Campbell’s business and culture for future growth.

A version of this article appeared in the September 2014 issue of Harvard Business Review.


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