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The Economist recently compared Pope Francis to a business CEO - in fact, they suggested that business schools should use his actions in his first year as a case study of a turnaround CEO. Let's face it, until he took over, the Church was in trouble - some would call it a crisis.  To quote the Economist: "Pentecostal competitors were stealing market share in the emerging world, including in Latin America, where Francis ran the Argentine office. In its traditional markets, scandals were scaring off customers and demoralising the salesforce. Recruitment was difficult, despite the offer of lifetime employment in a tough economy. The firm’s finances were also a mess. Leaked documents revealed the Vatican bank as a vortex of corruption and incompetence. The board was divided and weak. Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, was the first pope to resign for 600 years, amid dark rumours that the founder and chairman, a rarely seen elderly bearded figure whose portrait adorns the Sistine boardroom, had intervened."

But in the year since he took over, "the business has recovered a lot of its self-confidence. The CEO is popular: 85% of American Catholics — a tough audience — approve of him. Footfall in RC Global’s retail outlets is rising again. The salesforce now talks about a “Francis effect”.

How did he do it?  He simply applied some principles of good management.

Pope and market share1. He focused on one core competency - helping the poor.  And he did that by his actions - people had given up believing the words of a Pope.

As explained by the Economist

One of his first decisions was to forsake the papal apartments in favour of a boarding house which he shares with 50 other priests and sundry visitors. He took the name of a saint who is famous for looking after the poor and animals. He washed and kissed the feet of 12 inmates of a juvenile-detention centre. He got rid of the fur-trimmed velvet capes that popes have worn since the Renaissance, swapped Benedict’s red shoes for plain black ones and ignored his fully loaded Mercedes in favour of a battered Ford.

This new focus has allowed the company to spend fewer resources on ancillary businesses, such as engaging in doctrinal disputes or staging elaborate ceremonies. The “poor-first strategy” is also aimed squarely at emerging markets, where the potential for growth is greatest but competition fiercest.

2. As well as the new focus, he is also repositioning the brand. Although he clearly continues to support traditional teaching on abortion and gay marriage he does so in a less censorious way than his predecessors (“Who am I to judge?” he asked of homosexuals).

3. The third management tool he is using is a restructuring. "He has appointed a group of eight cardinals (“the C8”) to review the church’s organisation and brought in McKinsey and KPMG (“God’s consultants”) to look at the church’s administrative machinery and overhaul the Vatican bank."
Is it all incense-smoke and mirrors or will it work?  Does he need more sweeping change such as a bigger role for women or married priests?

Of course the chairman’s attitude is unknown. The Economist says that "some analysts interpret the absence of plagues of boils and frogs as approbation; others point out that He moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform."

I think he is simply the smartest Pope in a while.  That's both business smart as well as "street-smart".  And in an institution that relies on irrational Faith, smart people are rare.  I note however that Pope Francis was trained and worked as a Jesuit.  These priests are the smartest and most educated Catholics - bar none.

Articles like these keep me as a loyal Economist subscriber.  I love it.  See the original here.