Pope Francis – the Undercover Boss: “Sell your desk!”

Pope Francis

Pope Francis in regular dress

The Undercover Boss is a television franchise that began in the UK in 2009, but has since spread to many other countries. It features the experiences of senior executives working incognito as entry-level employees in their own companies to see exactly how the company’s customers are being treated and the challenges that their employees face in delivering good service. A week or so ago there was the delicious hint that Pope Francis himself might be going out at night as an “undercover boss” to distribute alms to the poor and experience their plight first-hand.


Archbishop Konrad Krajewski

The suggestion occurred during an interview with Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, the energetic 50 year-old who Francis has appointed as the Vatican “Almoner”. The Vatican has since issued a necessary denial that the Pope ever goes out at night in this way. But the spirit behind the thought that he might do so is instructive. When he appointed Krajewski, Francis gave him the following advice, “You can sell your desk. You don’t need it. You need to get out of the Vatican. Don’t wait for people to come ringing. You need to go out and look for the poor.”

Real results in any organization rarely reside at head office and this is especially true of so-called “commodity” businesses, where one’s product or service is not easily differentiated by design or brand. I can remember some of my best insights into the wholesale steel business came when I went out in the trucks to deliver steel on the back roads of Wisconsin. It meant an early start at 5am. The trucks were loaded the night before and one had to get an air seat installed on the passenger side of the cabin to replace the standard boneshaker. But the insights into the business were invaluable. One learned quickly about the practical challenges of getting into and out of a customer’s yard, as well as gaining invaluable information about the state of their business, both in its organization and their levels of operation. This was different from the kind of information that our salespeople could get by going through the front door and comparing the two sources was often revealing.

The Entrepreneuring Spirit

Pope Francis’ instructions to his Archbishop were a small replica, a fractal, one might say, of his vision of the mission of the Catholic Church. I have mentioned in another blog the similarity between his vision and that of the early English Quakers of the 17th Century.  The Pope is less concerned with the Gospels as the history of a man who lived and died two millennia ago and may return at some indeterminate time in the future than he is with them as a living narrative that people can see in their lives everyday. Early on the Pope talked of the “freshness and fragrance” of the Gospel, as if it were a meal ready to be eaten. The Time article that celebrated his selection as Person of the Year for 2013 reports on a general audience he gave in December in which he tells the faithful that Jesus is already risen. “Do you believe that Jesus is alive?” he asks them. “Yes” they respond.

This is what the Quakers called the “authority of the spirit”, which they used to contrast their guiding principle with the Catholic “authority of the priest” and the Protestant “authority of the text” (the Old Testament). The authority of the spirit was based on individual experience, but in a group context. It was an awareness of the here-and-now and the opportunities that it presented, both spiritual and commercial. For the Quakers made no distinction between religion and business and they took this entrepreneurial awareness of the present with them as they journeyed around the commercial centres of England, building their network as they travelled.

It seems to me that it is exactly this entrepreneurial spirit that Pope Francis is trying to encourage in the clergy, with a correspondingly reduced pre-occupation with their careers. “A lack of vigilance, as we know, makes the Pastor tepid…”, Francis preached, “It tantalizes him with the prospect of a career, the enticement of money and with compromises with a mundane spirit; it makes him lazy, turning him into an official, a state functionary, concerned with himself, organization and structures, rather than the true good of the People of God.” Substitute “customers” for the last phrase and “manager” for “pastor” and it becomes something that could be said about almost any large organization.

A small but important change that came out of our experience riding in the steel trucks was that we started to consult the drivers regularly on what they were seeing on their delivery runs, enrolling them as part of our intelligence system. Instead of giving all the hockey tickets to the salesmen to pass on to the buyers, we also gave a few to the drivers to pass on to the customers’ yard bosses. Time spent waiting for unloading dropped sharply, boosting productivity and drivers started to use their time to ask better questions about what was happening in the customers’ businesses

The bottom line: Sell your desk!

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