Business Leaders Can Learn From Pope Francis and Marissa Mayer

03/15/2013 05:27 EDT | Updated 05/15/2013 05:12 EDT
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Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, smiles during a session of the World Economic Forum 2013 Annual Meeting on January 25, 2013 at the Swiss resort of Davos. The World Economic Forum (WEF) is taking place from January 23 to 27. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

There is no better time to test your brand than when you become the new boss. Most of us are unlikely to become Pope or CEO of Yahoo, but the same challenges arise when we become office manager, team leader, or soccer coach.

Taking over as leader is relatively easy when things are going well with the organization or team, and when you have been groomed as the likely successor. In those instances, you should be able to smoothly slide into the role -- although you then have to prove you won't screw it up. But when you take over the Catholic Church, or Yahoo, or a losing soccer team, or any other organization that is losing relevance and showing declining numbers, coming in with a strong brand and showing early results is critical.

Here are some tips from how the new Pope and the new CEO of Yahoo have done so far:

1. You need to have some stories that illustrate your brand and build confidence. Pope Francis apparently refused to live in opulent digs in Buenos Aires, and instead lived in a small apartment and took public transit to work. Marissa Mayer was hired when she was five months pregnant, and then took two weeks maternity leave. You may not agree with the choices they made, but the stories clearly illustrated their brands of piety and ambition.

2. Listen to your stakeholders. It's early days for Pope Francis, but asking the crowd to bless him before he blessed them and meeting with his predecessor are good signs. Marissa Mayer hasn't built a brand of consulting with her employees (but see point three below).

3. Make a couple of tough decisions early. You need to show a balance of humility and authority. Mayer did this when she discontinued all telecommuting and insisted on some tough hiring guidelines. Publicly, it appears she has reinforced her brand of toughness, but at the expense of buy-in from her employees. Regardless, she has demonstrated that she can make unpopular decisions and stick to them -- an important attribute for a CEO. The pope will be making those decisions as he appoints new leaders for the Curia -- it is yet to be seen if he can build the brand as a skilled and insistent reformer.

4. Watch out for rumours from your past. Already, the stories abound that the priest who is now pope did not do enough to speak out against the generals who ruled Argentina and killed 30,000 people. Marissa Mayer has the advantage of coming from Google (where she was the first female engineer) -- and Google is still the media's darling.

5. Apologize where necessary -- don't smooth over problems -- and then move on. If you take over as soccer coach, with a losing, demoralized team, don't dump on the previous coach. Just talk about what you will do to change the situation, and if you were on board during the previous regime, own up to what YOU did wrong. Yahoo and the Catholic Church have both acknowledged mistakes -- but neither has yet shown its stakeholders what will be done differently in the future.

6. Finally, it's all about the results. A focus on your brand will help ease the transition into your new role, and can build the early support of key stakeholders, but sooner or later you need to demonstrate results. More wins, more profit, more churchgoers, more sales. Those results will enhance the brand of the organization, and of the new boss.

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