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Editor's Choice » International

How would business experts advise a new pope?

Catholicism, first and foremost, is a faith. But looking at it as a business that needs some changes offers an interesting perspective.

How would business experts advise a new pope?
Bill Keller International

February 21, 2013

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Behold a global business in distress — incoherently managed, resistant to the modernizing forces of the Internet age, tainted by scandal and corruption. It needs to tweak its marketing, straighten out its finances, up its recruiting game and repair its battered brand. Ecce Catholicism Inc.

Yes, the business of the church is saving souls, but it is nevertheless a business: a closely held conglomerate with a work force of more than a million, 1.2 billion more-or-less regular customers, 10 times as many outlets as Starbucks, more real estate than Donald Trump dreams of and lobbying clout to rival that of any secular industry. Now its C.E.O., physically and mentally depleted at age 85, is stepping down, creating an opportunity for a serious relaunch.

Catholicism is mostly a service industry — Canyon Ranch for the spirit, if you will — and its deliverables have stood the test of millenniums: instruction in how to live a good life, sacraments to consecrate major milestones, comfort in times of distress, the cleansing therapy of confession, penance and absolution, a sense of place in the universal order and the promise of a celestial payoff. The fundamental problems are not in the catalog. There is still a robust market for the faith. The problem — evident in the waning confidence of the customers as well as the rising market share of evangelical start-ups and none of the above — is with the management.

As we wait for the ecclesiastical board of directors to fill the Chair of St. Peter, I’ve been asking professional consultants, including some who work with the church, what Catholicism Inc. might learn from the temporal business world. After all, while the church adapts at a glacial pace, it does adapt. The church’s teachings have evolved not just on the liturgy but also on issues as fraught as priestly celibacy, slavery, money-lending, war and peace, wealth and poverty, divorce and the role of women; even that most divisive of issues, abortion, was not always defined as strictly as it is now.

For starters, my experts generally agree, it would help to have a pope with the drive and charisma to reboot the mission, someone with the gift of persuasion, a bit of media savvy and enough years ahead of him to follow through. “I don’t want to make it all about age, but wouldn’t it be nice to have somebody who was closer to 60 than to 80?” said a consultant who has helped reverse the fortunes of a major airline and a global fast-food chain. (Like some of my experts, he preferred to speak on background.) Pope John Paul II became pope at age 58, and before his papacy sank into scandal and Parkinson’s, he was a beloved, globe-trotting dynamo. Benedict XVI was 78 at the start, and he felt a bit like a caretaker.

The first major task facing Benedict’s successor will be to get past the lingering horror story of predatory priests, to restore the trust of the faithful and the respect of the general public. The business world has much to teach about surviving scandal. Michael Useem, director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the Wharton School, told me the church might learn from the way Warren Buffett cleaned up Salomon Brothers after a bond-trading scandal and Ed Breen revived Tyco International after its chief executive went to prison for theft.

The remedies were bold and effective. First, a purge of those responsible for the abuses and the cover-up. (“Managing out,” as it is called in the corporate vernacular, has been a major weakness in the church, so it was heartening to hear the Vatican spokesman say that Benedict’s retirement could “open the door for a potential wave of resignations.”) Second, unstinting disclosure to investigators, waiving any privileges. Third, appointment of a compliance officer with impeccable credentials, ethical tenacity and conspicuous support at the top. At Tyco, the new leadership went on a high-profile road show of the company’s outposts to drive home the reforms.

“Can you imagine,” Useem said, “if the new pope went on a tour, and at every stop he met with the local clergy and said: ‘It’s a new church. We’ve been at it for a couple thousand years, and at this point we need to uphold the principles we all hold dear, and here are my 10 steps for making that happen.’ ”

Once the new pope has dealt with the legacy of past disgrace, it will be time to look ahead. Ted Stenger, a corporate turnaround expert at the consulting firm AlixPartners and a devoted Catholic, pointed out that most big companies assemble their executives every few years for an intensive strategic review. The last time the church took stock was the Second Vatican Council, half a century ago. “The mission of the church is not going to change,” Stenger said. “But how you set objectives and tactics to deliver on the mission may in fact change.”

Full Story: Catholicism Inc.

Source: New York Times

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