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Captain to CEO: Campbell Soup leader leans on military lessons

Mark Clouse has risen the ranks of the food industry over the last two decades, reaching the peak – becoming Campbell Soup (CPB) CEO in 2019 – during a time of crisis for the company. Clouse credits his time in the military, first at West Point followed by more than six years in the Army, for his leadership style and success in the business world.

At Campbell Soup headquarters in Camden, NJ, Clouse tells Yahoo Finance Executive Editor Brian Sozzi how he re-centered the historic brand, guided the company through the pandemic, and is now leading Campbell Soup into the future. Clouse leans on his leadership pillars: to set a clear vision, assemble a complementary team, and inspire and uplift employees.

“Instead of just being that constant force of execution and deliver, how do you create this feeling of empowerment?” Clouse says.

Clouse took over as the 14th CEO of Campbell Soup since the company was founded in 1869. One of his biggest moves since taking the reins, includes the acquisition of the popular pasta sauce brand, Rao’s, along with their parent company, Sovos Brands (SOVO).

Before taking the top job at Campbell Soup, Clouse served in leadership positions at Pinnacle Foods, now part of Conagra Brands (CAG), Mondelēz International (MDLZ), and The Kraft Heinz Company (KHC).

Lead This Way is a new series that features personal, in-depth interviews with the business leaders shaping our world today. In these one-on-one conversations, they reveal how their approach to leadership helped them reach the top of their field.

For more on our Lead This Way Series, click here, and tune in to Yahoo Finance every Thursday at 3 p.m. ET.

Video transcript

MARK CLOUSE: Leadership is a muscle. And in my experience, honestly, it is the great differentiator.


BRIAN SOZZI: Two decades before Mark Clouse earned the top spot at Campbell's, he was rising the ranks in the army. The leadership skills Mark learned in the service allowed him to steady Campbell's after taking over, guide the company through COVID, balance the need of investors and customers in the current economic climate, and prepare this historic brand for success into the future. I'm at Campbell's headquarters in Camden, New Jersey, to get a basic training on how he became such an inspirational leader and went from captain to CEO.

MARK CLOUSE: One of the greatest gifts in my life after being a parent and a husband was getting the opportunity to lead men and women in the military. I got to do that at a very early age in my life. I'm not here today, honestly, if I don't have that foundational experience. Just so lucky to have had that opportunity and privilege,

BRIAN SOZZI: Talk to us about your leadership pillars. And does that ultimately reflect a lot of lessons that you learned in the military?

MARK CLOUSE: The day that I stopped learning about leadership is probably the day I should stop leading people. My philosophy on leadership is shaped very heavily by that time in the military. A task number one is set a clear direction, one that's simple enough that everybody in your organization top to bottom can understand.

Two, assemble the right people that-- you know, be self-aware enough to know who will complement you. You don't want to surround yourself by people that agree. And then third, it's about inspiring and motivating.

BRIAN SOZZI: Mark, it's not easy to inspire a large workforce that you have here at a company like Campbell's. How do you inspire people? What are some of your examples of pulling this off successfully?

MARK CLOUSE: It's not a simple question, right? Because I think it depends a little bit on the day and the circumstances. There tends to be leaders that approach leadership in one of two ways. There's either pushers, or there's lifters.

You can be a pusher that shoulder down, just shoving people forward. The problem is when you run into real obstacles as a pusher, that's when organizations come grinding to a halt. You can also be a lifter. And that's really what I've tried to do, right? Instead of just being that constant force of execution and deliver, how do you create this feeling of empowerment so that when they run into those barriers, they have the opportunity to overcome them?


BRIAN SOZZI: Just before you took over, this was a very different company. You know, there was pressure to do this, to improve returns. Those first 30 days really set the tone for what you have been doing since. What was your playbook in those early days?

MARK CLOUSE: Yeah, sure.

BRIAN SOZZI: What did tell your teams--


BRIAN SOZZI: Is there a motive to it?

MARK CLOUSE: It's a great question. And I think there were some real foundational learnings around leadership that have followed me throughout my career. And one of the things that I think leaders can make the mistake of is, well, look I'm going to sit down. I want to let it-- I want to absorb for 30 days or 90 days. And then I'll organize, or maybe I'll bring in a consultant. And we'll--

BRIAN SOZZI: No time for that.

MARK CLOUSE: Right, yeah. No, like, set a direction. Be clear about a path forward. Even if you're 80-20 on that, set the path and get the organization mobilized. And the simpler you can make it, the better. So for me, in those first 30 days, it was really about setting clarity and simplicity around direction.

BRIAN SOZZI: You start to get the structure right. You're improving the culture. You're getting the operations where they need to be. And then boom, COVID-19 crisis.


BRIAN SOZZI: When that started, what was your leadership playbook? Because we couldn't get products on the shelves.

MARK CLOUSE: It was a tragic moment in our history. I think for us, though, one of the things that was quite powerful was this concept that your friends, family, and neighbors are going to depend on us, right? I don't want to sound too much of a cliche.

But in the world we were in, our ability to keep food moving through the system meant that people going to the grocery store would find, you know, chicken noodle soup or find that bag of goldfish. I think the company was able to take a terrible situation like COVID and really turn it into a cultural catalyst for the company that solidified a lot of what we had been trying to do even before.

BRIAN SOZZI: And I think this leads up to one of your next chapters. And I would say it's responsibility to keep what you make affordable.


BRIAN SOZZI: Because at the end of the day, a can of soup could feed a family of four.


BRIAN SOZZI: Does that weigh on you?

MARK CLOUSE: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. It's one of those balancing acts, I think, is the way I would describe it, where you're trying to figure out, OK, how do we protect the financial integrity of these businesses while we ensure that we're keeping accessibility there on products that we know are incredibly important in moments where consumers are struggling? The benefit of a portfolio is it does give you some of the flexibility to make those choices.

BRIAN SOZZI: I can't believe you're buying a pasta sauce company because-- full disclosure, shocked the hell out of me. I'm like, I think Mark's going to get something in snacks. And then boom--


BRIAN SOZZI: --Rao's. The day before that deal, what were you thinking?

MARK CLOUSE: We-- I think we were collectively excited about it. And, you know, I was intrigued to see if the strategic merits of this would resonate with investors. To be able to add that, absolutely 100% offensive play aligned with our strategy and, I think, really positions us for the future.

BRIAN SOZZI: You're the 14th CEO with this company. When your time is done, what do you think your leadership legacy will be at an--


BRIAN SOZZI: --iconic American company?

MARK CLOUSE: Well, you know, I think about legacy in the sense of-- we actually talk about this. And to me, the definition of legacy is something that happens that otherwise would not have happened had we not been there. I hope it is looked at as the moment where we were able to prove to the world, to everyone that these brands that are 150 years old can be every bit as relevant today as they were back then while adding these incredibly differentiated brands that just reach a whole other level of contemporary relevance and that we can demonstrate that that can be done together in a portfolio that can be successful and best in class in the food industry.