by Steve Adubato, PhD

At the beginning of this decade, the Campbell Soup Company was called a “beleaguered old brand.” Its sales were down, employees were not producing, and the company was losing some of its most talented performers.

But according to a Forbes profile last year, Campbell Soup Company’s brand has turned around dramatically. Employees are more engaged and involved, sales are dramatically up and a whole new group of leaders and managers have been brought in to set the tone and follow through on performance.

The biggest reason for this impressive brand turnaround is the fact that Campbell got a new President and CEO in 2001. His name is Doug Conant. As with many organizations, it is leadership from the top that sets the tone for how a company will communicate and engage its employees and ultimately lead what is commonly referred to as a “turnaround.”

But what did Doug Conant actually do to engage his people? Further, what do other top leaders do in this same regard? Consider the following tools that will help any professional engage and connect more effectively with their people:

--Physical surroundings communicate a lot. When Conant first got to Campbell’s headquarters in Camden, NJ, he was struck by the fact it was surrounded by barbed wire. To many, it resembled a prison. Immediately, the new President and CEO ordered the fences taken down. What Conant realized was that the physical surroundings that people work in can send a powerful message regarding how organizational leaders view the organization as well as how they communicate internally and externally. To engage employees, barriers must be broken down, be they barbed wires or departmental silos.

--Get a baseline of how engaged employees are, no matter how afraid you are of the results. The Gallup research organization came into Campbell’s in 2002 and found that 62 percent of the employees said they were not actively engaged in their jobs, and 12 percent said they were “actively disengaged.” Of course, no one wants to see those results. However, you can’t know where you’re going unless you have a sense of where you came from.

--Promote honest, open forums (as well as confidential communication vehicles) for employees to express their concerns as well as what recommendations they have for improving things. One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is to avoid holding such forums for fear of what negative things might be said publicly. But here’s the catch. People are saying these things anyway. Why not get them out in the open so you can do something about it? Organizations that stonewall or try to ignore that employees are disengaged pay a heavy price.

--Once this valuable employee feedback is received, make sure you do something about it. Focus on action because all the talk in the world about engaging employees won’t matter if the reality doesn’t match the rhetoric.

--Send personal notes. Doug Conant sent approximately 20 thank you notes to employees every day. These notes were sent to people at every level of the organization. The word got out that the CEO himself was engaged, which, in turn, raised expectations for employees. Remember, no one cares what you have to say until they know how much you actually CARE.

--Measure and celebrate your success. In 2009 Gallup came back and surveyed Campbell Soup Company’s employees. They found that 68 percent of them said they were “actively engaged” while only 3 percent said they were “actively disengaged.” That’s astonishing and the folks at Campbell’s made sure the best performing employees were publicly recognized. They did this consistently and along with the other tools of employee engagement, these communication and leadership efforts have paid big dividends.