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.