THE BLOG
04/17/2013 02:24 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2013

The New Pope's Real Business Challenge: Supplying Accountability Is Francis' Defining Job

Much has been said about new Pope Francis being, essentially, a CEO. What hasn't been aired is what will be the real test of his tenure: He has to restructure the business. More specifically, he has to revamp the operating standards of the organization. Nothing changes until there's a system for accountability that compels managers to act in concert with the new papal vision.

CEOs don't often fail for lack of vision; they fail because they can't deliver the dream. Almost always, the problem is resistance to change that settles like permafrost in middle management, where tradition and procedure dominate. In any large organization, the middle has to be melted for real change to take place. This means the key to Francis' turnaround (and legacy) will be the Curia, the day-to-day managers of the Catholic Church around the world. The Curia constitutes the oldest, largest, most entrenched middle management of all.

What melts the middle? Compelling vision is important, but at best half the story. At least as crucial are concrete individual metrics that make everyone clear on the specific, measurable change for which they are personally accountable. You're up to the standard, or you're out of your current role. To a degree unmatched by most corporations, the Catholic Church is a top-down organization, and only the Pope can mandate sweeping change in operations and accountability. That's the only way to recreate an organization capable of world-class product development, market research, technology, customer service, and marketing -- all of which the Church needs to recapture its target markets.

How can Pope Francis get from vision to implementation? Here's a recommendation based on lessons we've learned from mentoring more than 200 first-year CEOs from the global 1000, and advising dozens of large-company boards on CEO succession.

1. Ask the questions no one else dares.
Put simply, the church has outgrown its operating structure. The scale of the challenges is too big for leadership to be a one-man job. Its Board is big, complex and aging (the average age is 72), so it's now Pope Francis' job to reexamine fundamental assumptions. For example, are the cardinals (the original C-suite, the name coming from Latin for chief) fit for the functional, organizational requirements of the church today? As for the Curia, how capable and effective are those heading operations, strategy, and marketing? What about IP generation or seizing the advantages of technological disruption? What does innovation mean to the Church? And how does it reconcile an ethos of forgiveness and salvation with a disciplined and unflinching response to clergy who have been molesters?

2. Surround yourself with people who see the world differently. Options for spiritual access and experience are multiplying, and the Church's customers are migrating. No single leader, however inspired, can anticipate or respond to the pace of change without a nuanced picture of customer demand. That picture demands that management engage with the market and readily admit what they don't know. As a new leader, the best thing Francis can do is surround himself with people who see the world differently and worry about different things. Plan for contingencies -- because disasters will happen -- and establish a code of business values to which everyone, at every level, will be accountable during times of crisis. Recruit and manage to that code of values.

3. Hire for agility and resilience. In today's best-run companies, the CEO and Board play leading roles with talent, focusing the conversation on values first, followed by two key characteristics -- agility and resilience. The Pope has responsibility for appointing more leaders than any other CEO in the world. He must raise the bar above functional expertise (e.g., technology and marketing) and emphasize capacity for change.

4. Set giant milestones. Tangible milestones are the best safeguards against the organization's reflex to pull inward. Whereas most businesses plot five-year plans -- with years four and five being largely speculative -- the Catholic Church needs a 100-year vision with progress measures beginning with current leadership. Otherwise, Francis risks what every new CEO risks: getting incredibly busy merely sprinting in place.

5. Demand specific, measurable results. Entrenched management eats milestones for breakfast -- unless you change their appetites. That's where KPIs (key performance indicators) come in. Francis has to establish precise criteria for every aspect of running the business from the Vatican to the rural parish. That includes oversight, so the new rules are followed on everything. The best leadership gives management a playbook that's clear and complete, and then allows a balance of autonomy and accountability on every play.

6. Be honest with yourself. The moment he donned the camauro marked the last time anyone will ever again be 100 percent honest with Pope Francis. He needs to hold others' agendas in perspective. Keep an eye on the external perception of the organization: damaged integrity, antiquated distribution channels, fast-eroding markets, and potential new markets threatening to shift the power center of the enterprise. And dare to show some emotion. The way to start restoring the Church's value esteem is to demonstrate he honors what his customers feel.

Overall, this Pope has said all the right things. He has demonstrated that, like many new CEOs, he has a compelling vision and a strong personal values set. Now he needs to get the world's oldest and largest business acting on that new vision day-by-day. The way to do that is to create a system for delivering the dream, with measurable actions for every job in the organization.

Patrick Pittard, former Chairman of Heidrick & Struggles and current Chairman of Pat Pittard Advisors, contributed to this post.