Going. Ahead. With Gage: Interview with Jon Harris, Senior VP & CCO at ConAgra Foods

A few years ago, I started an interview series to learn more about the expectations leaders had of their employees and how they themselves helped inspire and encourage their employees to do their best possible work.

I’m excited to share that my Going. Ahead. With Gage (#GAWG) series is back, and my first guest is my incredibly smart and talented friend, Jon Harris, Senior VP and Chief Communications Officer at ConAgra Foods.

Your background in Communications is quite impressive! What are 5 things you’ve learned from leading Communications at multiple companies?

1. Never stop learning

2. You know more than you think you do

3. Be willing to work hard

4. You are only as good as your team

5. Know your company/client inside and out

What is your favorite part about working in this field?

Two things come to mind:

1. Communications is constantly changing and evolving with our consumers’ needs, tastes, and likes. Connecting with them, where they live and hang out, in a powerful way – online and offline – is what keeps things interesting, challenging and fun.

2. The people. I believe we have some of the smartest and most creative people in our industry.

What are some of the challenges you’re working to overcome in your industry?

For my company CONAGRA, it’s all about innovation and building relationships with existing and new consumers. 

For many years, our company and in large part, our industry, underinvested in innovation and appropriate support behind our brands, which is a great way to lose consumers and allow competition to “eat your lunch.”

We came in about three years ago, adding much-needed investment and innovation to our brands with strong results and continue to turn the business around.

How do you encourage innovative and creative thinking within your department?

We’ve created a culture of constant learning. It’s wonderful to think we know everything, but we don’t. I encourage my team to join groups that range from Communications 50 to Page to PRSA to PR Council and more. From these groups, we learn and share best practices that allow us to be the best partners we can for our company, brands, and executives.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received and from who?

Brenda Barnes, my mentor and former CEO from Sara Lee and Pepsi, said “It’s ok to be tough, but always be fair. There’s never a reason to be anything other than kind.” Great words.

How do you empower your employees to do their best possible work?

My team knows I am there if they need me, but I have great trust in them. There is no need for me to ever micromanage. Because of this, I will always challenge them to be better than yesterday, support their clients and brands with breakthrough, state of the art practices, and create an environment where they can learn as much as possible.

Also, no matter the title or level, my team members have access to our senior leaders and all executive talent so they can have maximum impact. That’s also a part of our culture and a big departure from where we were culturally just a few years ago.

What advice do you have for junior level employees wanting to make it to the C-Suite one day?

Ask questions. It’s common sense, but I see many professionals, no matter the level, hold back inquiries for fear of being embarrassed. Your supervisors will be more confident in you and trust you with more responsibilities.

It’s Your Career. Set your goals. Your biggest advocates at the company are your supervisors. If they don’t know where you want your career to go, they can’t help it along.

Be the quintessential can-do person. You aren’t better than any project. You’re a young employee. “Paying dues” is expected and working hard will allow you to be a better professional, person, and leader.

Be a student. Get trained. If your company uses email distribution programs, mapping, analytics, tracking, or ANYTHING—learn them. Even if you have to train yourself.

Love what you do and do what you love. You’re young. Mistakes will be made and realize that it is all part of the process. You are on a journey, so trust it and appreciate it for all it’s worth.

What is one of the most difficult decisions you have made in your career and what did you learn from that experience?

People. Unfortunately, in business, sometimes you need to make tough decisions about employment. Sometimes a person is just not a great fit for the team, company, or industry – no matter how hard you or the individual tries. And sometimes a company needs to make changes to its structure to better fit its objectives. Regardless, letting people go is never easy.

What I’ve learned is you need to address this early on to be fair to both the employee and the company.

You share awesome inspirational quotes on your Instagram – What is your favorite quote and why?

Thank you, Gage. My favorite quote is something that I try to live every day. It’s from Plato: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

It’s just so true. Life is tough, but also beautiful. Appreciate this and always treat others the way you wish to be treated. 

I love book recommendations to help me grow in my career and challenge my thinking. What books would you recommend as a must-read for career growth and just for fictional fun?!

Well, one of my favorites was loved by Steve Jobs. It’s called “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” by Clayton M. Christensen. It’s a classic on disruptive innovation and noted as the only business book that Apple’s Steve Jobs said “deeply influenced” him.

I love biographies and just finished a couple on the late David Bowie that was terrific, and I’m in the middle of the late Gene Wilder’s autobiography “Kiss Me Like A Stranger.”

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Jon! Stay tuned for another #GAWG next month!

— Gage Grammer

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