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Smoke Signals From the Vatican: Picking Popes and CEOs

Posted By: Stephen A. Miles

February 21, 2013

As the oldest succession process in the world kicks off at the Vatican, the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church is facing some truly modern challenges—ones that many global companies also face as when searching for their next CEO.

Examining such challenges reveals common solutions in how organizations can best select new leadership, and what is required given the realities of this age.

Navigating a Perception Crisis

Both the church and corporations are operating amid a seismic shift in how we connect with our institutions. Globally, all levels of church leadership have been implicated—if not by the courts, at least by public opinion—in the sexual abuse scandal, creating a significant crisis for the church in how to communicate its handling of the abuse. The crisis has brought about a disconnect between the Catholic Church and many of its 1.2 billion members worldwide, who feel the church’s leadership is “out of touch” at best—and criminal at worst—and doesn’t take their concerns seriously.

Corporate leadership around the world has experienced its own perception crisis. Occupy Wall Street and its sister Occupy movements are but an extreme manifestation of a general feeling of distrust and the belief that top corporate leaders are the (ongoing) cause of the poor global economy.

Given these perception challenges, both the College of Cardinals and CEO succession committees have a heavy responsibility to select a replacement who can best redress the reputation of his or her institution. Candidates who are perceived not to understand the optics of their decision-making will cause further rift with organizational stakeholders, whether they are church members or potential consumers.

Embracing the Future

A broader challenge even than how the church handles the abuse scandal is how the 2,000-year-old institution relates to the future, as well as the shifting societal and legal realities emerging today.

The future as an issue is more problematic for an ancient institution than for today’s corporations. While companies in their succession planning tend to focus on a 5- to 7-year window, the church must consider a much larger time frame. It is critical that the College of Cardinals select someone who has the “content for the role” and is able to lead the church into the future. This will require zeroing in ruthlessly on the two or three things that really matter, to the exclusion of many other issues.

The “eternal” nature of the Catholic Church does not mean its leaders can’t evolve with the times. Like many CEOs—and ahead of many others—Pope Benedict XVI opened a Twitter account (@pontifex), acknowledging the new forms of communication necessary for reaching global audiences. Even if he is tweeting in Latin, this is a small step in a much bigger process of trying to ensure that the church does not become “extinct.” As church leaders and corporate succession committees evaluate candidates for the top job, weighing how serious the applicants are about taking both large and small steps toward “progress” is an important part of the deliberation process.

Leveraging Globalization

“Global fluency” tops the list of attributes corporate succession committees look for when picking their next CEO. As consumer markets and supply chains—including talent supply chains—become increasingly global, companies are seeking leaders who can operate effectively across multiple geographies, cultures, and regulatory regimes.

The College of Cardinals, too, is facing increasing pressure to “globalize” given the growth in the number of congregants outside Europe. This shift in demographics, however, is complicated by the fact that most political power still rests with the European cardinals, who comprise more than 50 percent of the conclave.

The chances that a non-European would be elected pope are generally assumed to be low, although even the most Eurocentric cardinals cannot deny the importance of the growth in Latin American and African membership as numbers drop in traditional Catholic strongholds. The new pope will have to connect with these global constituents in order to effectively advance a conservative church agenda.

Defining an Agenda

When you have a large selection committee—as with the 118-member College of Cardinals—defining the criteria for the future leader has to rise above specific issues to address the philosophical direction the institution should take. The next pope will have to face what many CEOs are challenged by today: stakeholder overload. With scrutiny of the church greater now than it was during the Reformation, church leadership must seek to acknowledge—or appear to acknowledge—the diversity of its stakeholders, all the while maintaining its core principles.

Defining the church’s path will be a challenge for the cardinals as they weigh their selection. In choosing a new pope, it will be important to rise above the notion of picking the least “controversial” and focus on an overarching principle or two, around which the selection committee can rally.

Communicating Stability

While Pope Benedict XVI committed a very unselfish act by stepping down because he believed he no longer had the strength to execute his duties, the once-in-600-years-type announcement caught everyone off guard. This, too, can happen in a corporation: We have seen cases in which CEOs just decide they are “done” and announce that they are stepping aside. This can create a lot of questions and drama when there in fact may not be any.

In these cases, it’s important that succession committees “lead the process” well and create a sense of stability. They can do this by stepping in quickly and communicating a robust process that they’ve either already started or plan to execute immediately. By receiving an outline of the process, people inside and outside the company have something to follow—a good process can deliver great outcomes. It creates a sense of control and stability for all stakeholders, who can feel good that someone is leading.


Miles is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Miles Group. Previously, he was a Vice Chairman at Heidrick & Struggles and ran Leadership Advisory Services.