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Seeking Excellence
NOVEMBER 2013 · 
Keywords: leadership,career
A tale, told in books, sheds light on a business woman who's grown all the way to be CEO of a Fortune 500 firm.

This is a tale, told in books, of a businesswoman who found her way to becoming a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. She is Denise Morrison, an avid reader who is president and CEO of Campbell Soup Company, and she gave a lecture in the School of Management, Fudan University, on January 7, 2013, to share her stories in work and life.

Personal Leadership Theme: In search of excellence

“This is a model created much later as I reflected back on my career and said: ‘What is the key theme that I learned along the way?’” Morrison said. And she has discovered that leadership, integrated life and good health are just the key themes for her.

What has been amazing was that, she said, how strategic people are doing strategic plans for brands, strategic plans for companies but they don’t do strategic plans for themselves. “What about looking at your own journey as: where have I been? Where am I now? Where am I going? How might I get there? Who can help me?” she said. “If you think about these strategically, it would really change the way you govern your journey.”

In order to lead, one has to have a good sense of him/herself. Just take time to develop a personal mission. Finding mentors and sponsors is very important. “You can’t advance in the company or in the world without help. Help is not weakness but strength,” the CEO said.

She also emphasized the importance of giving back. “I think it is critical for leaders to give back to community, other people, and I’m here because I believe in sharing stories with younger people who maybe learn nuggets along the way.”

“If I have to say what my career journey has been all about, it is really the book In Search of Excellence. Because for me, it is never done, and you are continuously improving. There is always more learning. Education doesn’t stop at university, and it goes on in business and life. So my career journey has always been in search of excellence,” she said.



Childhood: Little Women

Morrison was brought up in what she describes as a “high-achieving” family with four girls. In 2007, the Wall Street Journal did an article on her family, Raising women to be leaders, because there are only 20 women CEOs in the Fortune 500 and “my sister is one of them”. “My parents, especially my father, always believed that the world is going to open up for women, and he was going to make sure that we would be prepared for that. He said that kids have too much time, too much money and no responsibility, so you are going to have no time, no money and a lot of responsibility.”

In her childhood, outing in her family was a trip to the library. “Can you imagine doing that with your children today?” Morrison said that her father taught her and three sisters a lot of reading and education. “He taught us the value of setting goals and high standards, achieving them, and adding a few more on the list.”

“I selected Little Women as my childhood story. It is a good way to describe that,” she said.

At the beginning of career: pioneer

In the beginning of her career, Morrison has Lewis and Clark on the Trail of Discovery. Lewis and Clark were pioneers in the United States. She also put Eyes on Tomorrow, which is the story of Procter & Gamble. She started her career with P&G right out of school. “I was the pioneer because I was the first woman hired in sales force. I found that through my career, I was the first to do a lot of things, so I got a pioneering spirit. That’s about blazing new trails and trying new things and, quite frankly, making mistakes and failing and getting out and brushing yourself and saying “I’m going out again!”

While in P&G, Morrison had her first child. In those days, nobody talked about work/life balance. “I don’t like the phase such as work/life balance, because balance comprises perfect equilibrium, and it is the balancing act and you want to come out in the end.” She described her approach as work/life integration. For her, that meant recognizing multiple roles and goals and picking her spots. She suggested trying to find synergy in what’s being done. “There are business disciplines that you can use at home, and home things that you can use in business.”

Such integration also meant delegating the tasks not the responsibilities, particularly in parenting. “Parenting is responsibility, but I really don’t care who did the laundry.” Recognizing those differences gave her more time to do important things and get those done. “For me, success is to have a successful family and also a successful career.”

Lessons learned at each point of career

Morrison joined PepsiCo after leaving P&G. “They were very entrepreneurial and it was go-go. But it was also very competitive.” She picked the book The other guy blinked, which was about the cola wars – Pepsi vs Coca. “Quite frankly, I learned about competition when I worked for Pepsi. It was visceral.”

A couple of years later, Morrison left Pepsi and went to Nestle, and she went from sales area into brand marketing, which is another pioneering move as she moved from one function to another. She managed through a very steep learning curve. During that time period, companies were reorganizing and re-engineering. Nestle was no different. “What I’ve learned is, when companies change, it also creates opportunities. So I was able to, in addition to being a brand business director, take some special assignments.” She worked in a coffee plant and a quality assurance laboratory.

“I really knew at this time that ultimately I want to run a company, so my philosophy was trying to work in different areas of the company and learn the business.” No worry about the titles, but about building the skills necessary when you achieve your final destination, she indicated.

While at Nestle, Morrison decided that it was time to put her plan down on paper. She catalogued each of these items: age, responsibility, key accomplishments, skill development, people management, scope of position. “So I can look at my career horizontally and get some insights in terms of what do I do next to build my skills and grow.”

Define who you want to be

She left Nestle because she was in a situation where the word “integration” came in. In Nestle, she was working as vice president of marketing and sales for the ice-cream business, when the company decided to move that business from California to Cleveland in Ohio. Her daughter was going to be senior in high school at that time. “I just couldn’t do it.”

She happened to meet Douglas Conant, who at that time was the president of Nabisco Foods. “After I explained my personal situation, he said: ‘What if you come to Nabisco and work in the west? When your daughter goes to college, I’ll transfer you to New Jersey. And you can come and work in New Jersey to run the sales force.’” That’s what she did. “So I chose Barbarians at the gate, because that’s the story of Nabisco.”

One of the things she did at Nabisco, working under Douglas’ leadership, was that she read the book The 7 habits of highly effective people. “It’s actually a game-changing book. It has a whole chapter where I had to write a Personal Mission statement. Seriously, that was a very good exercise.”

“I have a philosophy that if you don’t know who you are, you can’t lead others. So it is really important to be grounded on who you are in order to give to other people,” Morrison said.

She wrote down her mission as following: serve as a leader, live a balanced life and apply ethical principles to make a significant difference. “I chose every one of those words very carefully.”

She dimensionalized what it meant to be “serve as a leader”, and the top three are: leadership is service; inspire with vision, “can do” attitude. “I wasn’t allowed in my home just to say ‘I can’t’, and my parents would say ‘That’s not in the dictionary. How can you do it?’”

In terms of “a balanced life”, it’s not work/life balance, but what Morrison dubbed as three circles: spiritual, academic and physical. “I’ve found that when one of these circles gets out of balance, I’m not at my personal best. My self-esteem is higher when I’ve got those three things going in the right direction.”

It is important to have integrity and good ethics. “Because if you don’t, people won’t trust you and trust is the basis of leadership.” What has come up with “ethics” in Morrison’s list are: humility, take the high road, never lie, care for people, it is in giving that we receive.

As part of this mission, Morrison has created a list of Personal Core Values, which include leadership; honesty, integrity; unselfish; creative energy: think differently; contribution: achievement of results; bias towards action; calculated risk taking. “This is important because, when you pick a company to work for or any organization that you join, you want to make sure that your values line up. If your values don’t line up, you probably are not going to be happy and you probably won’t be your personal best,” Morrison said.

She put who moved my cheese? as the Kraft book, because when she was in Nabisco running the confections business, Kraft bought Nabisco. So she went on running the confections business for Kraft, and then the snacks business.

Seek out opportunities at every corner


After Nabisco and Kraft, Conant called again. He had gone to Campbell Soup Company as the CEO and he was involved in transformation. Morrison was doing well at Kraft and she liked it. “But what I observed was that it was a huge company. It was very big, and slow,” she said. “I remember the days in Nabisco when we were smaller, nimble and agile. I had a strong desire for that culture again, and that was what Conant was trying to create at Campbell. So I decided to join Campbell.”

Morrison put The World Is Flat, because “I joined Campbell as president of global sales and chief customer officer, which now gave me the global experience that I didn’t have. As I did my chart (of Critical Pathway – career), I need to fill the global gap, so that one filled the gap.”

She put Good To Great because, to this day, Campbell still aspires to be a great company. “We are a good company and we want to be a great company.”

She said she put Tire Wars Racing With Goodyear out there because she’d been on the board of Ballard Power Systems, which is a hydrogen fuel-cell company, and Goodyear was the first Fortune-500 company in which she went on the board of directors. “I’ve got a lot of great learning as the director on the board, because I understood then what the board directors actually did. I’m dealing with board directors now as CEO. I’ve sat on the other side of the table, so I really have a better understanding of what goes on with governance of a company.”

“The message here,” she said, “is not just about working in a company that you work for, but you have other leadership opportunities.”

Building relationships

Morrison said that relationship-building skill is worth “taking paws on”. She confessed that she’d learned it the hard way, because “I was so results-driven, so task-oriented that someone pointed it out to me and said: ‘Denise, you know what? You need to slow down and start building some relationships with people and having more influence.’”

“I used to think that networking was wasting time and fooling around, but networking is working. Networking is a very active and strategic way to build relationships.”

“What I’ve really learned is that your ability takes you so far but your relationships take you the rest of the way,” the CEO said. “You recognize that this engagement in building relationship actually builds results, because you will get ideas from people that you build relationships with.”

Find a mentor... and be one

She said she has many mentors in career and she mentors a lot of people. There is a difference between mentors and sponsors, as sponsors help open doors for you and mentors help you go through those doors and teach you, and then you can give that back to other people that you mentor along the way. “It is part of being in business today,” she added.

Give back: making profits by making differences

The top of the pyramid is giving back. Campbell has a “make a difference” week when its leadership team goes into schools and taught them how to make salsa. “We gave them a healthy lunch as we prepared cheese, tomato soup and goldfish for the children, and they thought it was four-start lunch. They loved it,” Morrison said.

“I’m very proud that Campbell is a company that really values corporate social responsibility. We do enormous work on our communities. We donate a lot of food to the less fortunate people. We spend a lot of time to give back. Because we think making a profit can happen with making a difference.”

To end up where you want to be

Morrison said her goal has been kept intact along the way, and it is to become a CEO. “It finally happened. I knew this from an early age.”

She remembered that she called her parents when she got the appointment: “Mom and dad, I did it. I achieve my goal – CEO of Campbell Soup Company. It’s such an honor!” There was a pause and my parents said: “Oh, Denise, that’s great!” And her father said: “What’s your next goal?” She answered: “To build a great company.”

(by FBK)

Denise Morrison
President and Chief Executive Officer of Campbell Soup Company.
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