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What CEOs can learn from Pope Francis

It's hard to find fault with Pope Francis' pitchman technique. He is accessible, on point, and speaks in a language the world can understand. Over and over he delivers the same message—the Roman Catholic Church is a church for the poor—one that must go out among the people and act like a "field hospital" to tend to those in need.

"He is changing the face of the church without changing the product," said Thomas Gensemer, chief strategy officer of the public relations firm Burson Marsteller.

Even if the product is not changing, how it is managed, financed and delivered certainly needed freshening up when Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was elected the 266th pope of the Catholic Church in March 2013. The new pope inherited an ancient and massive institution tainted by the ongoing pedophilia scandal in the U.S., an insular and ineffective Curia, a corrupt Vatican bank and a church whose message was falling on deaf ears in many of the world's developed countries.

Reforming and restructuring the church was a tall order for a man whose audience goes beyond the 1.2 billion people who call themselves Catholic. In addition to being their spiritual leader, he is essentially the CEO of a nonprofit organization that the Georgetown University-affiliated research center CARA estimates employs, among others, 414,313 priests, 705,529 nuns, while operating 221,740 parishes, 139,029 elementary and secondary schools, as well as over 5,167 hospitals around the globe.

President Barack Obama (R) applauds Pope Francis speaks during an arrival ceremony for the pope at the White House in Washington September 23, 2015.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters
President Barack Obama (R) applauds Pope Francis speaks during an arrival ceremony for the pope at the White House in Washington September 23, 2015.

Less than two years into Francis' tenure, executive coach John Baldoni, chair of leadership development at advisory firm N2Growth, said he gives the pope high grades as an executive.

"What he has done is to change perceptions," he said. "Whether they last remains to be seen."

Francis' strategy and message were made evident in the homily he delivered at his installation Mass. He urged the faithful to be protectors of God's gifts of the environment, those in need, families and friendships.

He also sounded the alarm that the status quo was no longer acceptable. He said old structures in the church needed to be re-examined if they inhibited the "joy of the gospel," he and warned that remaining "shut up in structures" gives us a false sense of security.

While the message is important, changing perceptions of the church also requires action. At 78, Francis has said he expects his tenure to be a short one, so he moved quickly to attack problems that have dogged the Vatican for years.

"One of the first issues he had to tackle were the reputational issues linked to the Vatican bank," said a person familiar with the pope's reform agenda who asked not to be identified. "He immediately replaced top management. He made sure the bank was opening every record and having it reviewed in a manner consistent with international regulatory standards."

In addition to having records reviewed, the bank fulfilled its reporting requirements to regulators and adopted anti-money- laundering programs that meet international standards.

"It's almost like he is out of central casting," the source said. "Any crisis manager will say you have to act quickly and decisively by first determining the scope of the problem, then deal with the problem in a transparent way, communicate with stakeholders and put procedures in place to make sure it doesn't happen again. That is what the Holy Father did."

Francis also took aim at the Curia, the Vatican's administrative body. Many saw the Curia as insular and ineffective, and while he has left it intact, he also appointed what is being called the G-9, a group of cardinals from around the world who serve as another sounding board and source of information for the pope, so he no longer relies solely on the Curia for his information.

"His willingness to make change internally, it makes him a real source of authority instead of just being a front man," said Gensemer. "It gives him authenticity."

The authenticity is helping Francis do something a CEO of any challenged firm has to do—change the culture and incentive system. By eschewing the fancier trappings of the papacy like an apartment at the Vatican, he is showing those who serve under him how he expects them to behave.

"What gets rewarded now is service. What gets rewarded now is humility. What gets rewarded now is simplicity," said the Rev. Manuel Dorantes, a graduate of Northwestern's Kellogg School of Business and a spokesman for the Holy See. "That's what gets rewarded now in the Vatican."

As the head of the church, Francis has also moved swiftly to lay the groundwork for another key part of his legacy, his successor. Since being named pope, he has changed the face of the College of Cardinals, appointing a new generation that now makes up 25 percent of 115 member body, a generation drawn mostly from the countries in the developing regions of Latin America, Africa and Asia, rather than Europe and the U.S.

"We can't forget that it's the board of directors who get to choose a successor and very likely will come from among them," said Dorantes.

It is another way Francis is bringing the church's hierarchy closer to the people. Catholic populations are growing more rapidly in Africa and Asia, while Latin America is home to more than 40 percent of the world's Catholics.

Not everyone is willing to give Francis high marks as a manager. A July Gallup poll showed his favorability rating among U.S Catholics dropped dramatically here after he released his strong environmentalist encyclical "Laudato Si," a decline attributed mostly to unhappiness about his message among conservative Catholics.

Regarding the church's finances, Jack Ruhl, an accounting professor at Western Michigan University, said Francis "needs to improve the transparency of the church's finances here."

As for addressing the pedophilia scandal that continues to hurt the church's reputation and finances, Francis has created a tribunal to investigate bishops accused of shielding priests who were accused of child molestation. The tribunal has been welcomed by the victims and their advocates, though it is too early to know if it will help put this scandal to rest and provide closure and healing for the victims.

Still, Baldoni said CEOs of forprofit companies can take two key lessons from how Francis has managed his papacy so far: Don't be afraid to confront the elephant in the room and maintain open and honest communication.

And it is a communicator that Francis draws some of the highest praise.

"He is using social media like I have never seen anybody use it before," said Rob Reilly, global creative director at the advertising agency McCann Worldwide.

The pope's nine Twitter accounts, all in different languages, have a total of 23.4 million followers, and his most popular, @Pontifex, counts 7.1 million followers, more than TV host Stephen Colbert but less than NBA great Shaquille O'Neal.

His willingness to wade into a crowd and take selfies with the audience means his image is shared thousands, or even millions of times over, providing another chance to remind his audience of the church's overarching message of its commitment to the poor, or of whatever message he's delivered that day, be it on the European migrant crisis,his thoughts on homosexuals considering the priesthood ("Who am I to judge?"), and the streamlining of the annulment process for divorced Catholics.

When asked about Francis' longevity as a master communicator, Burson Marsteller's Gensemer said the pope can continue to be part of the daily conversation if he can continue to tap into the zeitgeist and focus on specific issues.

"It can't be a generic message of forgiveness," he said.

Among traditional Catholics, that message is not always well received. The pope's message has also been described as "confusing" by Philadelphia's Archbishop Charles Chaput, who will host Francis when he attends the World Meeting of Families on Friday and Saturday, and there is nothing in church teachings that say those on the front lines have to hew to what the pope says.

"The biggest risk," said Gensemer, is what will happen with the local parish priest and those under him, and whether his new talk with manifest itself in the local church and how it comes to life in local teaching."


While many of the challenges he faces are not unlike the CEO of a forprofit organization, the measures of success by which Francis will be measured are different.

"Nonprofits are not a dollars-and-cents proposition," said N2Growth's Baldoni. "Success is measured in retention numbers and new people coming in."

As of yet, a March survey by Pew Research showed little change in church attendance in the U.S., though Dorantes said Francis' impact may really be immeasurable.

"The whole mission is to be able to bring people to encounter Christ, and so that's the real measurement for us of profitability," the Holy See spokesman said. "How many people have encountered Christ through the work of the Catholic Church throughout the world?"