A Lesson for the Modern Workplace and School: Connection Before Content

A few years ago I had the privilege of attending a discussion led by Clayton Christensen on the future of education. As you may know, Christensen is a professor at the Harvard Business School who became famous for his work on disruptive innovation. So it was likely that this discussion would leave us feeling uncomfortable.

Christensen did not disappoint. He asked lots of challenging questions about the true value of higher education as currently constructed. What were residential colleges delivering that so exceeded the educational value of a free MOOC that those colleges could justify charging over $60 thousand or even over $70 thousand per year? And what about graduate schools? In this era of back-breaking student debt, what were they offering that the school of hard knocks could not?

I have been thinking a great deal about these questions since I started teaching in the M.S. in Information & Knowledge Strategy (IKNS) program at Columbia University. And those questions became even more pressing when I became Academic Director on July 1. How do we justify the time, effort, and expense required by our program?

It would take me a while to enumerate all the ways in which the IKNS program provides value so let me focus on one thing that became very clear this past weekend: we provide a laboratory in which our students can learn proven concepts and practices that equip them for effective leadership.

On Wednesday, August 22, our new cohort of students arrived at Columbia University’s Morningside campus for four days of Intensive study (the Intensive). Our original impulse was to stuff them as full of learning as was humanly possible in such a short time. As a practical matter, this would have required lectures from 9:00am – 6:00pm daily. We could do that. But was it the right approach?

Early in our planning, we realized that we needed to rethink our approach. Given that our program is demanding and very hard to complete without collaboration, the key was to spend the Intensive building the capacity of the cohort to collaborate. So we rethought everything. Rather than making them sit through hours and hours of lectures, we first had them develop their own self-awareness and then their knowledge of their teammates. Through a series of carefully designed individual and group exercises, they built an extraordinary level of trust and empathy. Then we could focus on learning collaboratively.

Our bet paid off. Within hours, these new students moved from being strangers to being friends. And, in that capacity, were more than willing to share their own knowledge and experience to help a classmate integrate new concepts and practices. In the process, they all learned an astonishing amount remarkably quickly. Arguably, more than they could have learned sitting passively through a series of well-intended lectures.

Don’t get me wrong. We had formal teaching sessions. But only after they were ready to learn together.

This experience is a timely reminder of an insight Nancy Dixon has shared with several prior IKNS cohorts: Connection before Content.” Building on the work of Peter Block, Dixon observed that in the workplace, we all work better when we know each other and trust each other. But that knowledge and trust should not be left to happenstance. A thoughtful manager can help speed the development of professional relationship and trust through some intentional practices such as ensuring that team members connect (and later reconnect) with each other before diving into the agenda. This creates a foundation of goodwill and understanding that can act as a shock absorber for the necessary creative friction of teamwork.

If “Connection before Content” is true in the physical workplace, it is doubly true in the virtual workplace and in a virtual learning environment such as ours. The capacity to connect enables the capacity to collaborate and the capacity to share knowledge.

Thankfully, our newest cohort demonstrated this past weekend that they are well on their way to developing their capacity to collaborate with their classmates. NOW they are ready to learn in our program and share that learning with their colleagues at work.

All of us will be the better for it.

 

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Are You Choosing Change?

It can feel at times that others are foisting change on us uninvited. However, in our finger pointing, we do not always admit that there are times when we should actively be choosing change; we do not see that sometimes our actions get in the way of helpful change.

One of the great benefits of life as a consultant is that I have the privilege of working with a variety of clients across a range of industries. As a result, I am able to compare experiences and learning from each industry to see how unique or generally applicable they are. The more I do this work, the more I realize that humans in every industry behave in similar ways.

This realization was brought home to me again earlier this month while working with groups of senior executives from completely different industries. Both groups found themselves in very difficult situations at work. And, while new management kept saying that things would be different under their guidance, the executives found it hard to believe.

To be honest, they had reason to be skeptical. These executives had grown up in their organizations and seen several management teams come and go. The executives felt they were the only guardians of institutional memory and could cite chapter and verse regarding what had been tried before and what had failed. For them, there was nothing new under the sun.

For the new management team, this was incredibly frustrating. They believed they had promising plans for their organization but faced a brick wall of recalcitrance whenever they broached the possibility of change.

My question to the executives was simple: What will you do differently this time to ensure success? This began an interesting conversation about learned behaviors and reflexive actions that, in the aggregate, made it remarkably difficult to bring about change. It was almost as if through these learned behaviors and reflexive actions the executives were trying to preserve the status quo — no matter how dysfunctional.

For example, when management proposed an idea, the executives might say, “We tried that before. It failed.” That’s just another way of saying “No change now, thank you.” Or, the executives might say, “That won’t work because the system is too complex.” That’s just another way of saying “Unless you can change everything to my liking, I won’t help you change anything.”

As you can see, these responses helped the executives feel as if they were being honest and responsible while they were mainly digging in their heels.

So what’s the better approach?

  1. Ask yourself: is there some good in this proposal that would benefit our mission?
  2. Ask yourself: is my learned behavior or reflexive action likely to help or hinder this change proposal?
  3. Ask yourself: is there something I could do differently to improve the likelihood of success?
  4. Do that better thing.
  5. Share your thinking with your trusted colleagues.
  6. Rinse. Repeat.

When you face change, pause for a moment to consider as objectively as possible if there is some good in that proposal. Then decide what you will do differently to enable success for that proposed change. In this way, you will be choosing positive change over blind opposition in defense of a dysfunctional status quo.

[Photo Credit: Geralt]

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Do You Have Moonshot Magic?

Buzz Aldrin: Apollo Flag

When you meet a person named Astro Teller, you know you are going to hear something interesting. Teller is the head of what he describes in his TED talk as the “Moonshot Factory.” We know it as X (formerly, Google X), the extraordinary innovation company. The impressive people at X call their goals “moonshots” because they are working on projects as audacious as the original moonshot proposed by President Kennedy. They also believe that they are working in a factory (rather than a lab or incubator) because they want to develop technologies that are both practical and replicable at a reasonable cost.

To achieve their moonshot innovations, the people of X have created a moonshot blueprint, a set of rules that govern their work:

  1. Focus on a huge problem that affects many millions of people.
  2. Propose a radical solution to that problem.
  3. Establish a credible belief that the technology necessary for that radical solution really can be built.

Putting this blueprint into action has resulted in an impressive array of innovations: self-driving cars, Makani energy kites that place portable wind turbines higher up in the stratosphere where the wind is faster and more consistent, and Project Loon (a balloon-powered Internet to provide connectivity to billions of people who live beyond cell tower access).

The moonshot blueprint has also resulted in some pretty spectacular failures. And that, paradoxically, is the secret of the Moonshot Factory’s success.  According to Teller, moonshot work is messy work so they have had to confront that reality:

But rather than avoid the mess, pretend it’s not there, we’ve tried to make that our strength. We spend most of our time breaking things and trying to prove that we’re wrong. That’s it, that’s the secret. Run at all the hardest parts of the problem first. Get excited and cheer, ‘Hey! How are we going to kill our project today?’

Obviously, this appetite for hunting down failure takes intestinal fortitude. After all, it’s quite natural for people to prefer the easy, safe path to success. Few want the disappointment or reputational risk that comes from being associated with a failed project. However, X needs its people to smoke out failures as soon as possible. It’s the best way to avoid truly expensive disasters later on.

So they put their money where their mouth is. In his TED talk, this is how Teller describes their winning approach:

We work hard at X to make it safe to fail. Teams kill their ideas as soon as the evidence is on the table because they’re rewarded for it. They get applause from their peers. Hugs and high fives from their manager, me in particular. They get promoted for it. We have bonused every single person on teams that ended their projects, from teams as small as two to teams of more than 30.

This is a radical approach to innovation that goes beyond Failure PartiesFailure Reports, Failure Targets, and even Safe-to-Fail experiments. Yet it is the secret to achieving moonshot magic.

What could you and your team accomplish if you developed moonshot magic?

[Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons]

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Your Clients Want Trilingual Services

foreign dictionaries - guidebooks-1425706-1600x1200Law firms are like professional sports teams in one critical respect: they pay a premium for top talent. Until now, that premium has gone to new graduates with the best grades and lateral lawyers with the best books of business.  Unfortunately, this overly narrow view of talent has been a costly mistake. Instead of focusing on academic pedigree or client numbers alone, firms should be focusing on a specific capability: being trilingual.

While speaking a variety of languages is life enriching, SmartLaw* has clear business reasons for requiring its personnel to speak three specific languages:

  • Law
  • Client
  • Technology

A command of the language of law is the one capability for which law firms have always hired. This one is obvious if you actually want to deliver legal services. However, speaking “legal” is not enough. It equips you to create legal services, but it does not help you do so cost-effectively or in a way that actually connects with clients. That’s where the other two languages come into play.

Speaking “client” means the ability to hear what your client is telling you and to interpret those words from the perspective of that client rather than merely from the perspective of that client’s outside counsel. This empathetic knowledge goes way beyond Google Translate (if, in fact, Google Translate could handle it!) to a deep understanding of the needs and aspirations behind the words. This is a language you learn best by being the client or by walking in the client’s shoes for many miles.

Speaking “technology” means more than just operating digitally. It means understanding the array and logic of the digital resources available. It means an openness to rethinking the way you work so that you can take advantage of the rich possibilities of those digital resources. And, above all, it means being willing to create safe-fail experiments that allow you to try new things as you explore novel ways of working. Without this willingness to experiment, you can never improve and you most certainly will not speak technology well.

It should go without saying that this trilingual capacity is not a requirement limited to lawyers. In a SmartLaw firm, all personnel will be trilingual and respected for it. When everyone in the firm has native ability in these three languages, then your firm is ready for the future of legal services.

*This post is excerpted from HighQ’s ebook: SmartLaw: Expert insights for the future of lawDownload the whole ebook here.

[My thanks to Rick Krzyminski and Richard Robbins for the conversation that led to this article.]

[Photo Credit: Dog Madic]

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How to Make your Clients Happy

smilies-110650_1280It turns out that the formula for making your clients happy is pretty simple: First, make your employees happy. As the video below from Harvard Business Review reports, there is a correlation between customer satisfaction, on the one hand, and engaged and motivated employees, on the other hand. Businesses with strong company cultures and positively motivated employees tend to have the highest customer satisfaction ratings.

So how do you make employees happy? Use positive rather than negative means to improve their motivation. It turns out that the traditional quantitative factors such as compensation and performance reviews don’t help improve employee motivation as much as we thought. Factors that have a much greater positive impact on employee motivation are well-designed roles, the mission and impact of the organization, clear career ladders, and a sense of community.

Why people work is actually central to how motivated they are. In “How Company Culture Shapes Motivation,” Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi report that there are six main reasons why people work: “play, purpose, potential, emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia.” Of these, the first three have a positive effect that tends to improve performance, and the last three have a negative effect that tends to diminish performance.

  • Play — you work because you enjoy it
  • Purpose — you work because you value the impact of your work
  • Potential — you work because it increases your potential
  • Emotional pressure — you work because some external force threatens your identity (e.g., guilt, shame, fear, etc.)
  • Economic pressure — you work to gain a reward or avoid a punishment
  • Inertia — you work because that is what you always do, even if you do not know why

Company cultures that emphasize play, purpose and potential yield better employee motivation and performance. Company cultures that use emotional pressure, economic pressure or inertia to spur employees on do not create happy, engaged, and positively motivated employees.

The takeaway from this research is that it is worth investing in an inspirational company culture. But, as you are pursuing that grand goal, be sure that you pay attention to the practical things that make your employees glad to get out of bed and come to work.

[Photo Credit: RSunset]

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Find Your Fool

389px-Jester-_Joker_Card001It’s April Fools’ Day. So keep your eyes open for the best jokes and pranks.  Typically, Google goes above and beyond by offering a variety of ways to mark the occasion. (For example, see how Google puts “the ‘real’ in ‘virtual reality‘” by creating Google Cardboard Plastic.) To keep track of Google’s 2016 efforts, VentureBeat has created a list of Google pranks that will be updated over the course of the day.

Not to be outdone, even normally staid news organizations will likely get into the act. In 2014 NPR pranked all those people who jump to comment on articles they haven’t bothered to read.  The NPR headline asked Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore? The comments that followed more than proved the point NPR was making.

If you’re looking for a great way to celebrate the day, may I point you in a different direction? Rather than looking for a clever prank to play, try looking for your own fool instead. What fool, you ask? A court jester kind of fool.

Let me explain. In earlier times, a court jester or fool was hired to entertain people of wealth. The fool might dress in brightly colored, eccentric clothing and would likely speak in a provocative or discomfiting manner. While many jesters entertained, others were hired for a much more serious purpose: they were required to speak truth to power. In fact, some were hired expressly for the purpose of criticizing their employer. According to the Royal Shakespeare Company, “Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558-1603) is said to have rebuked one of her fools for being insufficiently severe with her.”

While criticism is not in short supply in some work places, consider the type of direct feedback you usually receive from your team. Do they feel comfortable telling you the truth? Are they willing to take a position that you do not endorse? Do they let you know when things are about to go off the rails? Are they able to point out shortcomings in policy or action, and do so in a constructive manner? If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” it may be time for you to find your own fool: a truth teller whose honesty will help you bring your best game every time.

Now do you see the value of a fool? If so, celebrate April Fools’ Day 2016 by finding your own fool. And then see what a difference a forthright, constructive colleague can make in your life.

 

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Have You Eaten a Child Lately?

knife-fork-1498188Regular readers of this blog will know that I am extremely interested in productivity. Along with my interest in productivity, however, is an even greater interest in impact. At the end of the day, if what we do does not make a difference, then why bother?

So why do we repeatedly allow ourselves to work on too many projects in the face of too little available time? The predictable result of this diffusion of energy and attention is diminished impact.

It was in this vein that I began to consider cannibalism. To be clear, I am not literally suggesting that each reader give expression to their inner Hannibal Lecter. Rather, the type of cannibalism I had in mind was product cannibalism.

Consider Apple. In a 60 Minutes interview with Charlie Rose, Phil Schiller (Apple’s head of marketing) admitted that Apple often pits one of its products against another:

Charlie Rose: Is there danger of one product cannibalizing the other product?

Phil Schiller: It’s not a danger, it’s almost by design. You need each of these products to try to fight for their space, their time with you. The iPhone has to become so great that you don’t know why you want an iPad. The iPad has to be so great that you don’t know why you why you want a notebook. The notebook has to be so great, you don’t know why you want a desktop. Each one’s job is to compete with the other ones.

On the other hand, consider Bausch & Lomb. According to The Economist’s overview of cannibalisation,

Bausch & Lomb invented the soft contact lens but failed to launch it because the firm did not want to lose the lucrative business of selling the drops that hard lenses require. As a result, Johnson & Johnson swept into soft lenses, and the market for hard lenses (and their drops) disappeared.

The uncomfortable truth of strategic product cannibalization is that you have to be willing to grow some children at the expense of others. Bausch & Lomb responded to this discomfort by trying to protect their eye drop business. I’m sure it seemed like a rational decision at the time. By contrast, Apple deliberately refuses to protect its products. Instead of wrapping their products in cotton wool, Apple insists that each product earn its place by being strong enough and excellent enough to fight off the competition — including internal competition.

Each law firm support function offers a range of products and services. Does your support function demand such excellence from each product and service that you do not have to waste time worrying about competition from within your group, from other parts of your firm or from an outside vendor? If your product or service is not best in class, then the smart thing to do is engage in a little strategic cannibalization.  If you are not willing to do it, someone else will do it for you. And, if you abdicate this responsibility to someone else, I can almost guarantee that you will not be happy with the results.

So be sure to ask your team this question regularly: Have you eaten a child lately?

[Photo Credit: Simon McEldowney]

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A Leap Day Proposal

engagement-ring-1244468-1599x1066Legend has it that St. Brigid challenged St. Patrick to defy convention just one day every four years. What was her suggested break with tradition? She asked that on leap day women be permitted, for a change, to make marriage proposals to men. This opportunity for a woman to take control of her future was a rare one because the overwhelming norm of the day made it the man’s prerogative to choose if and when to propose, while the woman simply waited.

So what does this have to do with us? Your firm’s HR department will be glad to know that I’m not suggesting that we actively encourage an outbreak of marriage proposals at work. Nonetheless, I do think we can learn from Brigid’s audacity and Patrick’s flexibility. The audacity is found in Brigid’s willingness to speak up, to confront authority, to work to rebalance a system that tilts heavily in favor of one group at the expense of  another. She also cleverly sought the support of an influential person (Patrick) to accomplish her goal. The flexibility is found in Patrick’s willingness to listen to alternative points of view and to permit a departure from standard operating procedure in support of a good cause.

Channeling these two saints, perhaps we could re-examine some of our standard operating procedures.  Do they still make sense? Or are they traps of habit that leave us blind to the need for change? Do they create imbalances in the system? Could those imbalances lead to unhappiness, unrest or inequity?

As a manager, are you sufficiently like Brigid: willing to speak up, to confront authority, to work to rebalance an inequitable system?  Do you have (or are you able to get) the support of influential allies for your work? As a manager, are you sufficiently like Patrick: willing to listen to alternative points of view and to permit a departure from standard operating procedure in support of a good cause. Or, do you keep you head down and cling to the established ways of doing things — regardless of possible negative impacts?

While habits and standard operating procedures provide a measure of reliability, predictability, safety and comfort, they can in certain circumstances cloud our vision and stop us from seeing a problem or even a possible solution. These standard operating procedures also run the risk of falling behind the times, unless we rigorously and routinely examine them to ensure they respond appropriately to current realities.

If all you have the energy for today is micro-steps rather than taking on the system, consider the following incremental ways of following the model of Brigid and Patrick: seek out the input of people who normally do not have the floor, look to see if there are people in your department who could and should have the ability to exert more control over their work and prospects, solicit the advice of a person who has a different background or life experience from yours. I guarantee that you will be astonished by the insight that results — if you let it.

 

[Photo Credit: Bettina Schwehn]

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KM’s Role in Leading Innovation & Managing Change in Law Firms #ArkKM

Session Title and Description: KM’s Role in Leading Innovation & Managing Change in Law Firms

Innovation and change management are processes, not projects. And in today’s law firm setting, there is demand for both but great sensitivity around how much change the organization can endure at one time. This next case study will explore the theory and process behind successful innovation as well as how to make change stick—transforming best intentions into best practices—sharing examples concerning the role of KM in innovation and change projects at White & Case.

Speakers:

Alicia Hardy, Director of Professional Support, White & Case (UK) Oz Benamram, Chief Knowledge Officer, White & Case

[These are my notes from the 2015 Ark Group Conference: Knowledge Management in the Legal Profession.  Since I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error.  Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]

NOTES:

  • How they innovate.
    • Innovation is about accelerating the cycle at which small experiments fail.
    • Turning successes into processes by normalizing them and then scaling them up for wider adoption across the firm.
  • Innovation in law firms is hard.
    • Innovation is often the result of a big crisis. However Big Law does not feel that it is in crisis. So the drive to innovate diminishes.
    • Lawyers and law firms are risk averse.
    • Lawyers and law firms are not tolerant of failure.
  • KM should become the R&D function inside law firms.
  • Managing Change.
    • Focus on the emotional and psychological reactions. A tone-deaf approach to change management will amplify natural human emotions of fear and anxiety.
    • Be aware of dangerous assumptions such as one way is better than another.
    • The stages of acceptance of change are not dissimilar to those in Elisabeth Kubler Ross’ study of the five stages of death and grieving. So be aware of this inevitable journey for every one of your internal clients when you propose a change in the way they work.
  • Kotter’s 8 steps to change
    • (See the wikipedia summary)
    • the burning platform = a sense of urgency
    • pull together the guiding team
    • develop a shared vision and strategy for the proposed change
    • plan at the very beginning for good communication to enable understanding and buy in
    • empower others to act
    • produce short-term wins
    • don’t let up — persistence pays
    • create a new culture — this is about anchoring the new way of being/behaving so people cannot backside
  • Lessons from case studies.
    • Communication is key. People will resist that which they do not understand.
    • Be flexible. Your original plan will  inevitably have to be adapted to special or local conditions. Be open to this — within reason.
    • There is no change without casualties. So be strategic when you pick your casualties (i.e., when you decide who will pay the price for change).
    • When there is real risk attached to project, create a cushion. For example, when you are making dramatic change to the work environment (e.g.,  the DMS), allow people to work in either the new version of the DMS or the old version for a transition period.
    • Because people do not read email, they tried alternative forms of communication. Their most successful method of communication turned out to be sending everyone a postcard.
  • Conclusions:
    • Understand the problem.
    • Adapt the solution to fit your firm.
    • Have a plan, but be prepared to change if..
    • Communication is key. Communicate and promote at every opportunity.
    • Prepare to play the long game. Then everything is possible!
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Pope Francis on Law Firm Management

Pope FrancisPlease excuse the poor quality of the photograph in this post. I snapped it quickly as Pope Francis’ Fiat turned the corner onto Fifth Avenue, enroute to St. Patrick’s Cathedral earlier this evening. Despite the blurry photo, you can see the Pope in his distinctive garb and you can see his Fiat. And that’s good enough for the purposes of this post.

So what does the world’s most popular Catholic have to do with law firm management? It’s not that he has made any particular pronouncements on the subject. However, he does model behavior that would be very beneficial in law firm management:

1. He is unpretentious.

Pope Francis makes a very loud statement every time he steps into his Fiat. Aside from showing loyalty to an Italian product, he is shunning the trappings of world-class achievement. It is as if he is saying he has not forgotten where he came from. It is as if he understands the realities of life for the people he leads. This demonstration of empathy and solidarity makes it easier for devoted Catholics to accept his leadership. And it makes his leadership attractive to even disaffected Catholics and non-Catholics. In short, his lack of pretension makes his leadership extraordinarily effective and downright powerful.

Now, think about your firm’s leadership. Are they unpretentious? Have they stayed in touch with their roots? Can they still connect with the rank-and-file? Can they win over the disaffected?

2. He is accessible.

Aside from the considered ordinariness of the Fiat, its size puts him within reach of everyday people. He is not cloistered within a limousine. And then he stops the car to give a blessing to someone others might easily overlook.

Apart from his choice of vehicle, Pope Francis pursues accessibility to a degree that concerns his security staff. He is known to interact directly with visitors to St. Peter’s Square, “embracing and chatting with pilgrims, and kissing babies and children.”

This type of accessibility means that he is more likely to connect with people who have different perspectives than those of his inner circle. And it is more likely that he will meet people who are prepared to speak truth to power.

Is accessibility of this sort the norm in your firm? Does your managing partner find ways to be available to the people of the firm? What about your executive director or CXO? Can anyone speak truth to their power?

3. He does not cling blindly to past practices.

Over the millennia of its existence, the Catholic Church has had ample opportunity to develop and maintain traditional practices. Pope Francis, however, has shown a willingness to question some of those practices in light of modern realities. One cannot imagine him holding back change by using the favorite incantation of administrators the world over: “But we have always done it this before.” (Or its close cousin: “But we have never done it this way before.”) Given his mindset, it is easy to imagine the opportunity for thoughtful innovation within the Catholic Church.

Does a similar opportunity for thoughtful innovation exist within your firm? Or is innovation stillborn because of an unwillingness to examine and possibly put aside past practices that are no longer effective?

4. He is willing to adjust policy to respond to changing times.

In the short time since he took the helm, Pope Francis has indicated repeatedly that even some sacred cows may need to be sacrificed in order to keep the church relevant in the 21st century. To the consternation of purists, this has meant that he is willing to take another look at established church policy and, perhaps, amend it to reflect modern times.

How adaptable is your firm administration? Are they responding appropriately to recent changes in the business environment and the needs of clients? Does firm policy reflect a sense of confidence in the maturity, professionalism and commitment of staff?

What if Pope Francis ran your firm?

Can you even begin to imagine the difference it would make if Pope Francis ran your firm? Consider whether you can achieve some of those differences without papal intervention. It could result in a much-needed miracle for your firm.

 

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