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What managers can learn from selection of new Pope

February 28th, 2013 marked Pope Benedict XVI‘s last day on the job, as he became the first Roman Catholic pontiff to resign his post in nearly 600 years (and the first to do so voluntarily since Pope Celestine V in 1294). The 85-year-old Benedict (born Joseph Ratzinger) announced his resignation on February 11th because of a “lack of strength of mind and body.”

The unexpected resignation has created a number of unique challenges for the Church leadership. Some of these are specific to the Vatican, but many could also apply to the hiring processes of organizations of any size including making speedy hiring decisions, properly vetting new candidates, and creating succession plans in advance.

Lesson #1: Speed in hiring decision:

Of course, the election of a new Pope by a conclave of Cardinals from around the world differs from the way most businesses choose a new leader. Most organizations don’t sequester their senior leadership into their equivalent of the Sistine Chapel and refuse to let them out until a new leader is chosen (this process was established way back in 1274 by Pope Gregory X as a way to stop political interference and subsequent long vacancies between popes). But there is definitely value in the idea of quickly gaining consensus on a new hire.

The mantra “Hire Slow and Fire Quickly” has been a favourite of business writers for years. However, an increasing number of thinkers are disagreeing with its sentiment. Danny Boce from Fast Company recently wrote “that catchphrase isn’t just dumb, it’s counterproductive,” particularly for start-ups.

If your doctor gave you six months to live unless you got a liver transplant, would you hold out until you found the perfect liver? Or would you find the best liver available this very second and figure out how to make it work?

Danny Boce, Why “Hire Slow, Fire Fast” Is a Bunch of BS,” Fast Company, Feb 2013

John Rossheim at states that many businesses take much too long to decide on a new hire:

It’s a hallmark of the dysfunctional organization: A requisition is opened for a new line-manager position, but it takes 4 months to make a hire. By which time thousands of dollars have been spent on misguided recruitment efforts, six figures of revenue have been lost, and the HR department and the hiring manager are barely speaking to each other.  Make no mistake about it: a prolonged time-to-hire means opportunities lost and resources wasted.

John Rossheim, Reducing Time To Hire Checklist,

Some tips that Rossheim shares include:

  • Consolidate individual interviews, ideally seeing all candidates all on the same day
  • Have candidates show their skills by giving them a case study (or another relevant exercise) to demonstrate how quickly they can produce, how they think, and how serious they are about the position
  • Wrap up the recruitment process promptly, rather than taking excessive time to “sleep on it.” Delaying the decision can blur the interviewers’ impressions and increase the likelihood of losing a potential candidate to another company

In fact, Rossheim recommends businesses follow a process not unlike the papal conclave:

Within a day of concluding interviews, summon the decision-makers to an end-of-day meeting and promise each other not to adjourn until you’ve agreed on the winner.

John Rossheim, Reducing Time To Hire Checklist,

Lesson #2. Vet your candidates properly

The election of the new pope will be the result of a two-thirds majority of the voting Cardinals. The new pope will come from amongst their ranks and should be well-known to all of them. The serious candidates, including Canada’s Marc Ouellet, will have their champions working to persuade their fellow Cardinals on the benefits of selecting them.

It is likely that the conclave will pay special attention to any connection a candidate might have with any of the scandals that have rocked the Church in recent years. Selecting anyone that is later revealed to have been involved in the cover-up of a sex abuse case would have serious ramifications for the overall Church.

The stakes may not be quite as high, but it is critically important for all organizations to take due diligence in their hiring processes (not just for senior management positions).

Here are some tips around the hiring process:

  • Mention in the job posting if hiring depends on the completion of a police check, valid driver’s license, background check, or pre-employment medical check
  • Always do at least two (2) reference checks for every new team member, asking specific questions to better understand the work history of the candidate and listening for what they don’t say (many employers may be hesitant to speak negatively about a former employee for fear of legal action)
  • Don’t hesitate to verify a candidate’s academic credentials and employment history
  • Inform all candidates that your company will accommodate a worker’s disability (as per Ontario’s AODA legislation if applicable)
  • Make sure you offer a successful candidate with a written employment contract that will stand on sound legal footing (hint: never let them sign it without sufficient time for “consideration“)

Lesson #3. Succession planning is a must

Although most people were surprised by Pope Benedict’s announcement, observers now recognize signs that the Pope was nearing a decision to step down due to increasing health issues. Regardless, the fact that the pontiff is 85-years-old and in declining health should have signaled Church officials that the need to choose a successor would be soon in coming.

Unlike the position of Pope, most employees and managers do not plan to remain in their current roles until death (or incapacity). In fact, reports that “job hopping” is the new normal, especially for younger workers:

The average worker today stays at each of his or her jobs for 4.4 years, according to the most recent available data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics [USA], but the expected tenure of the workforce’s youngest employees is about half that. 91% of Millennials (born between 1977-1997) expect to stay in a job for less than 3 years.

Jeanne Meister, Job Hopping Is New Normal For Millennials: 3 Ways To Prevent a HR Nightmare, Forbes

No business today should be surprised when an employee or manager decides to move on and should take steps in plan in advance for a potential departure. Some tips include:

  • Identify “star” performers within your organization and create a career development plan for them (with their input), which will increase likelihood of retention
  • Don’t assume that younger workers will be satisfied to stay in entry level positions for long, ensure that you communicate career growth opportunities regularly (before they look elsewhere)
  • Review the demographic make-up of your workforce on a regular basis – if you have an aging workforce, it is important to develop skills of younger workers prior to their retirement
  • Cross-train your existing team members so that no one employee has sole possession of skills and knowledge critical to your business (an organized program of job shadowing is an excellent
  • Perform a “Skills Gap Analysis” each year as part of your annual strategic planning process


We wish the departing pontiff (soon to be known as the Pope Emeritus) well in his retirement and look forward to seeing what developments the upcoming papal conclave brings.

Anna Aceto-Guerin, CHRP
Clear Path Employer Services

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Clear Path Employer Services

Certified HR consultants and medical professionals at Clear Path Employer Services
Clear Path Employer Services is a team of certified HR consultants and medical professionals dedicated to resolving the human resources and claims management challenges facing businesses across Ontario. The company was founded in 2003 by Anna Aceto-Guerin, a Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP) specializing in WSIB claims management and NEER cost containment, with a focus on return-to-work programs and acquiring SIEF cost relief for employers. Read more
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