The Catholic Church chooses a new Pope: Four lessons on transition for SMEs

The Catholic Church has finally chosen a new leader. After two days of conclave, Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina has been chosen to lead the church and he will be known as Pope Francis.

The decision comes after a tumultuous few weeks, during which the church has been forced to deal with the first resignation of the office in over 500 years. Such an upheaval has attracted more attention than usual.

Francis has apparently been well known within religious circles for dodging the trappings of church office, instead opting to live in a small apartment, take public transport and cook his own meals.

Businesses are not immune to leadership controversies. Leadership changes regularly cause problems within organisations, and sudden resignations often cause trouble. Shock resignations and board elections are notoriously difficult circumstances to control, especially when employees grow weary about the future of their jobs.

While the Catholic Church may have more members than the usual SME, the succession from one Pope to the next is a good example for businesses in how to keep things under control during a transition period.

So here are four lessons we can take away from the latest papal verdict, with regard to how businesses can ensure a smooth transition in their own workplace:

1. Always have a succession plan in place

The Catholic Church is often criticised for its rigid rules, but often they have a purpose. When the Pope dies, or resigns, a strict set of rules are set in place. The Pope’s ring, for instance, which he uses to seal letters, is immediately destroyed to prevent unauthorised copies.

The conclave then is underway, with a voting procedure already set for a new leader. This removes some anxiety from the whole affair, as the Church already has an idea of what is to happen.

Having a succession plan in your business is crucial. Research has already shown family-owned businesses aren’t terribly good at this, and a lack of succession can cause anxiety among owners and employees.

Having a proper procedure in place keeps your workplace running smoothly when the unexpected occurs.

2. Keep a leader in mind

Several reports this morning indicate Cardinal Bergoglio hasn’t come out of nowhere. In fact, it’s being reported he was the second choice to former Pope Benedict in 2005. His promotion is not a great surprise.

Good businesses know how to plan succession. Take a look at one of the wealthiest people in the world, Warren Buffett. He’s confirmed in letters to shareholders the succession plan for his business, Berkshire Hathaway, has been in place for a while. He hasn’t told anyone who is taking over, but he doesn’t need to. The question has been answered.

Look at what happened when Apple’s Steve Jobs resigned. The experienced Tim Cook was immediately promoted. It was quick and easy: as it should be with your own company.

You need to figure out your succession plan ahead of time. Keep people in mind, and talk to them about your plans. You don’t need to let everyone know, but when the time comes, they’ll be glad your company maintains a sense of order and control.

3. Immediately keep the employees in the know

When the Pope is first chosen, he isn’t kept secret for days. Within an hour, not only has the verdict been made public, but he makes his first appearance on a balcony in the Vatican. He makes a small speech, and gets on with his day.

There have been plenty of stories of companies who keep their employees in the dark. It’s never a good idea. Whenever a new chief executive or manager is hired, the employees should know as soon as possible. They should have the opportunity to speak with them, if possible, and simply get a feel for who they are.

Businesses which keep their internal decisions secret from the employees are doomed. Be as public as possible during a transition, and employees’ loyalty will remain.

4. Get things underway immediately

Already, the church has announced the Pope’s first mass will occur on March 19. Between now and then the Pope is set for a huge list of meetings and other events.

You can’t stagnate. Transitioning to a new leader shouldn’t be a time when things slow down. Politicians are notoriously horrible at this, with members of parliament taking over portfolios and taking six months to “get up to speed”.

You need to have a plan for what you’re doing, and then communicate that plan publicly. When transitioning to a new leader, you can’t be seen to be slowing down. Otherwise, it’ll just become more difficult for your business to survive.


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