Jon Harris, Chief Communications Officer, ConAgra Foods

The great thing about working in communications is getting the chance to work with everyone in an organization. My leadership style is very inclusive, and I really do value the opinions and the input of others.

June 2015

(At the time of this interview, Jon Harris was Chief Communications Officer of Hillshire Brands.)

You have an extensive and varied professional background leading others. How has your broad experience shaped you into the leader that you are today?

I’ve been fortunate to work with great people and great teams over the years, and I’ve gleaned something from each of those experiences. What I’d love to think is that my varied experience has allowed me to appreciate each and every aspect of business and the importance of working with all the key players of an organization. The great thing about working in communications is getting the chance to work with everyone in an organization. My leadership style is very inclusive, and I really do value the opinions and the input of others. I lead the way I wish to be led and I’ve had the pleasure of working with some terrific leaders who’ve helped me become an effective leader.

What do you think is the difference between leading and managing?

Leading is about looking at the vision and at the big picture and putting everything in place to get you there. Managing is a more day-to-day role and involves writing the chapters that ultimately complete your full story. Managing is important, but leading is critical because you want to make sure there is direction and that you have a true north. For me, the difference between the two is that leading involves taking people on a journey with you and proactively getting out there and making sure you’re making a difference within the organization. You need a leader in order to manage and you need a manager in order to lead.

What are you doing to ensure you continue to grow and develop as a leader?

I am a student of the business. I am constantly looking at ways in which we can better tell our story and share our story with key audiences. I serve on the Arthur W. Page Society and various other groups to stay on top of the latest trends, including how we can use social media more effectively because technology has changed the game for us. I also make sure I am in constant contact with my peers and like-minded CEOs at other companies so I can stay on top of what I can be doing differently and how I can do my job better. I also do the same for my team. I want to make sure we are on top of the latest trends that will help us share our story. It’s really about always being a student and never settling. I also have mentors that I work with on a regular basis and I continue to be a student of the consumer packaged good business. I am very much aware of what’s going on in the food industry, not just in the PR industry, so I can continue to make a positive impact.

Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader? Why and how did this person impact you personally and professionally?

I’ve been very fortunate to have some terrific mentors. Brenda Barnes, the former CEO at Sara Lee and Pepsi-Co, has had a tremendous impact on me as a leader because she showed me the importance of being tough, while also remaining fair and nice, and how critical it is to listen. To be a good communications professional and a good leader, you must listen.

What do you think is the biggest communication challenge for leaders today?

I think the biggest challenge for leaders today is making sure they’re ahead of the game and are constantly being seen as a source for information. Also, although social media has done great things, it has also had a negative effect because many times speed overrides accuracy which can do damage to a company, to an individual, or to a brand. One of the biggest communication challenges we must focus on is making sure we’re one step ahead of the game and that people know they can find information from the company first as opposed to newspapers or the Internet. It’s critical to make sure we are continuously practicing two-way communication with employees and key audiences so that we are taking them on the journey, not others.

What words of advice can you offer leaders on how to best engage their organizations in today’s dynamic environment?

In today’s dynamic environment, it is critical to never undervalue the importance of communicating fast and furiously with your organization. That is how you will develop credibility, that is how you will development alignment, and that is how others will develop passion and good feelings for the organization. By being proactive in our internal communications at Hillshire, we have brought everyone on the journey so they understand their value to the company and what their accountabilities are. We are only as good as the people who work here, and so for us, the best way to engage is through honest and transparent communication. Leaders must never undervalue the importance of communicating and making sure people feel heard and valued.

In addition to your role as CCO at Hillshire, you are an adjunct professor at the University of Chicago. What leadership traits do you instill in your students?

I want to instill in my students the importance of being an honest and transparent leader. I want them to realize that there’s always more to learn and that whatever they do, they do it to the best of their ability. I also want them to understand that it’s okay to not know something and to ask questions because that’s how they will learn and grow. I want my students to be very true to themselves and I want them to know that when it comes to business, they must know their clients and use their creativity to find solutions. Those are the leadership traits I try to leave them with in addition to the importance of networking and building relationships.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about your views on leadership?

Make sure you’re always listening; make sure you’re always learning. Never be too proud to say you don’t know something. And again, always be tough, but always be fair and kind. Make sure you’re always available and accessible. I try to be accessible not only to the media, but also to our employees, our leaders and our consumers. Communications professionals have a great responsibility to always be communicating, listening and engaging in two-way dialogue. In order to be a great leader, you have to be an effective communicator.


Interview By Teresa Wirtjers

Fast Facts

Chicago, IL
Number of employees:
Number of years in current role:
2 years
First job:
I interned at WXRK-FM in New York where I worked on the Howard Stern Show and others.
Leader you admire the most:
Winston Churchill, Brenda Barnes (former CEO for Pepsi-Co and Sara Lee Corporation) and Sean Connolly (president and CEO for The Hillshire Brands Company)

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