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It’s tough at the top: What leaders can learn from the Pope and David Moyes

Pope Francis

It’s a tough time to be a change leader. In this blog I compare the contrasting fortunes of two high profile leaders, Pope Francis and David Moyes.

Over the last year these two high profile figures have had different fortunes – what can we learn from them?

(This blog was inspired by, and draws on, an article in The Economist.)

The Loser

Moyes should – you might think – have had a better year. He started with a number of advantages:

  • He took over the world’s second richest club with the money to buy almost any player he wanted.
  • He was the appointed/anointed one – having been chosen by the owners and Sir Alex Ferguson
  • He took over a side who, although past their best, did manage to win the tough English premier league last year.
  • The supporters have proved themselves to be loyal and supported the previous manger through tough times
  • The owners tend to be quite hands-off unlike Abramovich who changes his mind more often than a 14 year old choosing an outfit for a hot date

Moyes, as we now know, failed to even make it to his first 12 months. The media is full of explanations on why he failed. There’s no agreement so far but some initial thought might say that some of those advantages actually turned out to be disadvantages:

  • He had the money to buy players but didn’t really spend it – instead relying on the old squad. He needed some new blood to make his side fresh
  • The anointing meant it felt like there wasn’t an open process – and Ferguson is now taking heat for his limited choice who proved to be simply a pale imitation of him
  • The side won the league last year, but against poor opposition – and this year he didn’t seem to focus on winning one thing
  • The supporters are loyal – but they need something. Losing symbolic games to Manchester City hurts a lot
  • Hands-off owners are good. But the Glazers are businessmen – they want to make money from MU. If you fail to deliver profit-making results, you’re toast.
  • He seemed to lose the respect of his key staff – the players – and having them on your side is essential to winning

So overall no real sense of strategy from Moyes. No proactive change programme. And the result –  if you don’t take action, others move.

Let’s contrast that with Jorge Bergoglio, who was running the equivalent of a championship club, the Church in Argentina, before landing the top job.

The Winner

So Jorge was propelled to fame as Pope Francis and he has just celebrated his first Easter as CEO. When he took over the Catholic Church the world’s ‘oldest multinational ‘ was having major challenges:

  • Pentecostal and evangelical competitors were taking faith market share in the emerging markets, including Latin America and Africa
  • In its established markets, Europe and the US, scandals and a reluctance to ‘come clean’ were alienating ‘customers’ and demoralising the employees of priests and bishops.
  • Recruitment was proving difficult, despite the offer of guaranteed lifelong employment in a tough economy and a reasonable chance of a happy eternal life
  • The firm’s finances were also a mess. Leaked documents and media coverage revealed the Vatican bank as a vortex of corruption and incompetence. (Dan Brown eat your heart out.)
  • The board was divided and weak. A number of cardinals were suspected of having turned a blind eye to various scandals – financial, sexual and moral – over a sustained period
  • Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, was the first CEO to resign for 600 years and still wanted to hang around as Pope Emeritus. (Emeritus = lots of prestige, no accountability.)

Over twelve months the Pope has begun a dramatic and impressive turnaround in the business:

  • The new broom CEO is winning back customers: according to The Economist 85% of American Catholics – a tough audience – approve of him and his style.
  • Footfall in RC Universal’s retail outlets is rising again in both established and developing markets.
  • Morale is rising among the sales force and the number of trainee priests is growing – last year 63 signed up for the training in the UK.

How has a ‘septuagenarian Argentine’ succeeded in delivering change one of the world’s most secretive and conservative organisations? In my opinion, building on The Economist’s analysis he has looked at the following:

  • Leadership style
  • Core mission
  • Organisational restructuring
  • Brand repositioning
  • External perspective

Leadership style: he has very clearly distanced himself from the leadership style of the previous incumbent – the rather harsh and dogmatic Benedict. His style is much simpler and more emotionally intelligent.

And he has a sure eye for the symbol. An early decision was to put aside the grand papal residence in favour of a simpler boarding house which he shares with 50 other priests. He opened up Castel Gandolfo, the holiday home, to ordinary visitors. As the Economist points out he washed and then even kissed the feet of 12 inmates of a juvenile-detention centre. He got rid of the fur-trimmed velvet capes used by popes since the Renaissance, and swapped Benedict’s red shoes for plain black ones.  He traded down form the chauffeured Mercedes in favour of a battered Ford. And he fired Cardinals and Bishops who offended his tough rules on inappropriate behaviour – from bullying to spending too much on residences to sexual misdemeanors.

Core Mission: the Pope has done more than just make personal changes, he has refocused his organisation on one mission: helping the poor. This mission is a popular one, fits with his leadership style, and helps answer criticism levelled at the previous Pope that he was an ideologue obsessed with announcing fiats and bulls at elaborate and ostentatious ceremonies.

Again as the Economist says the “poor-first strategy” is also aimed squarely at engaging customers in emerging markets, where the potential for growth is greatest but competition fiercest.

Organisational restructuring: the church has long been criticised for being hierarchical and HQ focussed. Francis has appointed a group of eight cardinals called the “C8” to review the church’s organisation. They’re looking at all the decision making structures and, importantly, sorting out the Vatican bank, recently criticised by the EU for being un-transparent and possibly even acting illegally. (At one point Visa and MasterCard couldn’t be used by visitors to pay for admission to the Sistine Chapel as the major credit card companies cracked down on irregularities.)

Brand repositioning: if he is a revolutionary he’s a quiet one. He continues to reflect the established line on the big issues such as woman priests, abortion and gay marriage. But his line is a less censorious one than his predecessors. “Who am I to judge?” he asked when challenged about homosexuals at his first famous in-flight press conference.

Note also he’s positioned ‘poor first’ not as a radical change, but as a return to traditional values – the clue is in the Saint’s name he adopted. This is a clever – let’s change by going back to core values – approach.

External perspective: finally, and you might expect this of me and my job, he’s had the sense to bring in outside insights and perspectives. Coming as he did from Argentina into a job that historically goes to Europeans he understands the importance of outsiders. So he’s asked in some real outsiders to help.

Specifically he’s hired management consultants – McKinsey and KPMG. (McKinsey, interestingly is often compared to the Jesuits – high powered and cerebral). These two firms have been asked to review the way the whole global operation works and advise Francis and the C8 on how to build market share and become more efficient.

So a good year for Francis…The Economist in it’s article asks if he will succeed long term. Unlike Moyes, Francis can’t be fired unless the Church’s owner decides to reappear suddenly and exert authority. But will he succeed in long-term transformation? Time will tell but the church has been around a long time and may simply be going through its 21st century re-invention.

As Darwin said “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

If you want to find out how to be a Francis and not a David, come on our Transformational Leadership programme.

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