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Taking the Reins, Pope Francis Needs to 'Lean In'

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Imagine a company that generates revenue exceeding ExxonMobil (XOM), market penetration superior to Microsoft (MSFT), and more global outlets than McDonalds (MCD), KFC (a subsidiary of Yum (YUM)) and Starbucks (SBUX) combined.

Now consider a firm that can recruit highly trained personnel who gladly work long hours, including Sundays and holidays, for a fraction of their going market rate. Moreover, millions of unpaid volunteers flock to support its every endeavor.

Picture a financial statement with entries like "Total Assets: Beyond the ability of man to conceive" and "Free Cash Flow: Uncountable billions of dollars a week."

Finally, conjure a CEO who is answerable to no Board of Directors, fears no activist shareholders or corporate raiders, and has tenure for life or until he decides to retire voluntarily. Alas, there's no corporate jet but all his flights are escorted by military fighter aircraft.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the newly anointed Francis I, Papal Poobah of Vatican City, LLC!

But, of course, all is not smooth sailing at The Holy See. Like any new CEO, the Supreme Pontiff faces considerable, and immediate, challenges:

  • Unengaged User Base. The Catholic Church, like Facebook, claims about 1.2 billion registered users, but both tallies grossly over-inflate the number active consumers. It's increasingly apparent that only the bored, lost and lonely regularly attend Mass -- or post to their walls on Facebook. The new Pope, perhaps in conjunction with Mark Zuckerberg, needs to reverse this trend.
  • Bloated Bureaucracy -- Much like General Electric (GE) or General Motors (GM) in the 1980s, the Vatican is larded with layers of inefficient and obstreperous management. Francis I must channel his inner "Chainsaw Jack" to right-size his corporate headquarters.
  • Untapped Diversity -- Countless studies prove that resilient companies are also the most diverse. Thus the Vatican can't continue to exclude half the human race from its senior management. It's been a century since women found opportunity beyond their traditional roles in nursing and teaching, it's time they do the same within the Church. OK, so it's safe to assume that female priests are not part of the papal playbook; but Bergoglio must nonetheless engage his Jesuit judiciousness and establish ways for "church ladies" to realize their full potential.
    Oh, and speaking of diversity, it might help if the church occasionally ordained some heterosexual priests.
  • Undeveloped Emerging Market Strengths -- Europe and North America may be the Church's traditional markets and "cash cows," but the Southern Hemisphere is the "rising star" that will define its future. The Argentine Pope must fully leverage his connections to, and knowledge of, this region. Visits to Columbia, Congo and Costa Rica must take precedence over Canada, Croatia and the Czech Republic.
  • Nonexistent China Strategy -- Quick, 1.35 billion-person China is home to how many Catholics: 250 million, 100 million? Nope, less than 12 million Catholics reside in the Middle Kingdom. Like Nike or Reebok, the pope cannot ignore the growth potential presented by millions of Chinese eager to embrace western culture and traditions.
  • Needed Financial Reform -- Political shenanigans and lack of appropriate oversight ruined Lehman Brothers, AIG and Bear Stearns. The same could happen at The Institute for Works of Religion, aka the Vatican Bank, if third millennium controls are not soon put into place. Decades of scandal -- including alleged Mafia money laundering and financial malfeasance towards Holocaust victims -- does not inspire stakeholder trust in a financial institution.
  • Finally (Gulp!), Public Relations -- Ohmygod, where to begin . . . an endless stream of PR fiascos have bedeviled the Church more than, well, the Devil. The new pope needs to quit the endless images of pedophile priests and medieval pageantry and initiate a no-one-can-fault media blitz focused on feeding the poor and serving the sick; choosing a name inspired by legendary humanitarian St. Francis Assisi was a brilliant first step. Another idea: find the next Mother Theresa, or invent her, and promote the hell out of her.

In short, the Holy Father needs to buckle his popemobile seatbelt; he's in for a bumpy ride. But the Church -- like venerable companies including Apple (AAPL), Chrysler and Citigroup (C) -- has come bank from the brink, multiple times and continued to thrive. Hundreds of millions who depend on the Catholic Church's spiritual, temporal and educational support are counting on Jorge Bergoglio to do the same!

-- Written by Andrew Kosztyo in New York City.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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