Headshot of Jon Harris, Senior Vice President and Chief Communications and Networking Officer for Conagra Brands.
Jon Harris, Senior Vice President and Chief Communications and Networking Officer for Conagra Brands. — Conagra

Why having a mentor is important, according to Conagra EVP Jon Harris:

  • A mentor is uniquely positioned to offer the kind of guidance and expertise that can help you make important decisions throughout your career.
  • There’s no better place to get outside perspective about career decisions and opportunities than from someone who’s actually on the inside.
  • Well beyond professional growth, a good mentor also can play a crucial role in navigating life’s challenges.

Jon Harris, Senior Vice President and Chief Communications and Networking Officer for Conagra Brands, oversees strategic development, direction, and implementation of corporate communication and reputation management across the business. He joined Conagra in 2015 and also oversees the Conagra Brands Foundation.

Harris is widely credited with helping to strengthen and transform Conagra’s communications into a digital juggernaut, as Conagra itself transformed from a company selling an array of branded and non-branded foods into a more branded, food-focused specialist.

Even as he’s played a role in helping to modernize the outreach of such iconic Conagra brands as Duncan Hines, Birds Eye, and Reddi-wip, he’s also helped to give a digital and social media presence to its more contemporary brands like Healthy Choice, Gardein, and Angie’s BOOMCHICKAPOP.

Harris explains to CO— how his mentor, who has followed him through three different companies, prepared him like nothing else possibly could have to oversee one of the food world’s biggest and most wide-ranging corporate communications departments for a $12 billion-plus brand portfolio.

CO—: Who is your mentor and why?

JH: It’s Sean Connolly, who is President and CEO of Conagra, and who has been with Conagra since 2015. Prior to Conagra, Sean was president and CEO of The Hillshire Brands Company from its formation as an independent company to its sale to Tyson Foods. Before that, Sean was CEO at Sara Lee’s North American foodservice business and President of Campbell Soup North America. He’s mentored me at Conagra, Hillshire, and Sara Lee. I’ve been blessed that we’ve been through so much together at three different companies for well over a decade.

CO—: What is your mentor like?

JH: Very early on, Sean taught me that no one wants to follow a pessimist. As a leader and mentor, you have to be optimistic. That optimism must be based on truth and facts. Watching that optimism in action is motivating. Before Sean came to Conagra, this was a company that had not invested much in its brand. That changed immediately. Sean is a natural communicator.

CO—: What have you learned from your mentor that’s been key, valuable, or even game-changing to your career?

JH: Great ideas come from anyone. They come from places and people you might least expect them to come from.

CO—: Which of your mentor’s qualities impact you most today?

JH: He taught me that leaders must lead. I still see Sean regularly meeting with customers and employees, but I’ve seen others who don’t regularly do that. Natural communication is paramount to a leader’s success.

He also taught me to be a lifetime learner. Know thy business and you can be a true business partner and have greater impact on the enterprise. He’s always sending articles to senior management to keep us aligned and motivated.

[Read: Execs From PepsiCo and Macy’s to Salesforce Reveal Their Mentors’ Best Advice]

Sean inspired the notion that great ideas come from anywhere … here at Conagra, we have something we call Catapult that’s based on the concept that everyone has great ideas and should be rewarded for them. We work with 32 plants across the U.S. and Canada for consumer insights. We [recently] came out with the new Orville Redenbacher’s Popcorn Seasoning line as a direct result of Catapult.

Jon Harris, Senior Vice President and Chief Communications and Networking Officer, Conagra Brands

CO—: How did your relationship with your mentor evolve?

JH: He ultimately taught me about the importance of transformation. As he was transforming the company, I realized that I needed to transform the communications functions.

As he was making tough decisions, I was making tough decisions in my group. Working along with him, we created a successful narrative — but along with the necessary and tough decisions like right-sizing the organization and moving the corporate headquarters [from Omaha to Chicago]. He enabled me to play my role in the communications department to help transform the company to a pure [branded] food corporation.

CO—: Show us your mentor’s imprint in action.

JH: Early on during the pandemic, Sean asked how other companies were dealing with the global crisis. That resulted in me taking the lead in creating “The Truffle Club”—a group of 20-plus senior communications leaders from many Fortune 500 companies who share best practices, ideas, guidance, and experience.

We connect regularly throughout the year and have helped each another work through issues that range from the pandemic and keeping our workforce healthy to the George Floyd murder … to record-breaking inflation and more.

It is a wonderful group where we all check our egos at the door and share our learnings. Out of all the industry groups I am in, this is the most useful and enjoyable.

CO—: Is there a recent project at Conagra that reflects your mentor’s imprint?

JH: Sean inspired the notion that great ideas come from anywhere. Back at Hillshire, we’d regularly ask plants and factories for ideas about anything from new products to how to operate more efficiently. That led to all kinds of improvements. Now, here at Conagra, we have something we call Catapult that’s based on the concept that everyone has great ideas and should be rewarded for them. We work with 32 plants across the U.S. and Canada for consumer insights. We [recently] came out with the new Orville Redenbacher’s Popcorn Seasoning line as a direct result of Catapult. And, yes, there’s even a Cinnabon Cinnamon Roll flavor.

CO—: Please complete this sentence: Had I not met my mentor, I would never have…

JH: Had I not met Sean, I wouldn’t be the leader I am. The head of communications is often viewed as someone who’s job is always to put a positive spin on things. That’s not true. I’ve been able to make tough decisions that impacted the entire organization thanks to Sean. He showed me to always be authentic and true to myself.

[Read: Execs From Hershey’s to Microsoft Reveal Their Mentors’ Best Advice]

CO—: What are the three most important lessons you’ve learned from your mentor?

JH: Create a refuse-to-lose culture; the best form of communications is face-to-face; [and] data and analytics matter: If you use facts to state your case, it will be much more powerful.

CO—: Are you a mentor?

JH: Yes. When I was very young, my father suffered from mental illness and had a hard time keeping a job. I decided that if I ever got to a place that I could help others in the workplace, I would do so. That is something that I’ve been a part of for 35 years.

CO—: What did you learn from your mentor that most surprised you?

JH: I always thought that mentoring was supposed to be about business. But it’s about life. My mentors have helped me though all challenges both professional and personal.

CO—: Here’s a flip: Is there any life advice that you would like to share with your mentor?

JH: I have been posting [on Facebook] daily inspirational sayings [#harrismint] for the last 15 years. I had a dear friend years ago who told me not to do it as he didn’t think I would stick with it. Fifteen years later… I’m still doing them. They connect with people in a powerful way, and I receive so many texts and messages from families who share them with each other on how it puts a positive tone to the day.

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