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Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican shortly after his election as leader of the Roman Catholic Church on March 13, 2013. (Michael Sohn/AP)
Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican shortly after his election as leader of the Roman Catholic Church on March 13, 2013. (Michael Sohn/AP)

Choosing a new CEO? The Vatican method might be onto something Add to ...

Imagine a public company locking up its board of directors in a room – without their smartphones – until they chose the next CEO.

Then, picture the public relations team communicating that a decision has been made by sending out a puff of white smoke.

It’s a scenario shareholders would never stand for, yet leadership experts believe there are lessons corporations can take away from the papal conclave – the oldest ongoing process of picking a leader.

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“One good thing is that they have a well-laid out process in place. They clearly have their act together,” said Chris MacDonald, director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Program at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto.

While much of the sequestration process may seem arcane, Mr. MacDonald said Roman Catholic Church has shown it’s in touch with today’s high-security world, having swept the Sistine Chapel for listening devices and using jamming technology to block electronic communication.

“This is all stuff that would have been irrelevant 50 years ago,” Mr. MacDonald said.

The ancient process of picking a Pope by secret ballot is also a wise move.

“You can imagine the problems with something like a show of hands. At a corporation, influential individuals – like the founder, a chairman or a retiring CEO – might sway a vote if it was done by a show of hands,” said Mr. MacDonald.

The white smoke may also seem old school, but works for the Catholic Church from a public relations perspective, said Eric Beaudan, a Toronto-based leadership practice director at executive search firm Odgers Berndtson. “I think the white smoke is brilliant. The whole world waits for that signal.”

Even though outgoing Pope Benedict XVI had joined Twitter, Mr. Beaudan said tweeting the news of the new Pope, or even hosting a televised press conference, wouldn’t have the same impact. “Using the black, then the white smoke, is already the most captivating moment on TV during this leadership process,” he said.

Still, experts say there are flaws in the process, including the perceived lack of succession planning for the top seat in what has been called the “largest corporation in the world.”

By choosing potential successors, the Pope could groom the next leader over part of his term, said Mr. Beaudan. “Then you would end up with a list of three or four qualified individuals who have done a lot of close shadowing of the previous Pope.”

What’s more, the closed process means there’s no way of knowing how or why the candidate was selected, adds Stephen Race, Vancouver-based principal and talent assessment consultant at The Headhunters recruitment firm. “[The Catholic Church] is like a family-run business. Because it’s not publicly traded, nobody knows what the criteria is,” Mr. Race said. “I think they would get a lot more people included and feeling better about where the organization is going if they were more open.”

While transparency measures would have to start slow within such a traditional and ancient organization, Mr. Race said it could start now by telling the public why a new Pope was the best candidate when he is chosen, as corporations do when they announce a new CEO. “Corporations learned this the hard way. They didn’t change because of altruism, they changed because shareholders demanded it.”

Despite the closed process, the Catholic Church could be commended for its ability to successfully manage the transition process for centuries. “Despite the flaws, it has captivated the audience and maintained the succession process. In one sense, you could argue the system is doing what it is intended to do,” Mr. Beaudan said.

“While it may seem very ancient to most of us, they have somehow managed to create a continued mystique about the process … and in a very emotional and dramatic fashion.”

Follow on Twitter: @BrendaBouw

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