How to successfully run a multinational corporation

Have you heard of Benedict of Nursia? In the face of the Dell-EMC integration, we want to share with you some surprising insights from a man who lived more than 1.500 years ago. 

The Benedictines knew how to run a multinational organization.
The Benedictines knew how to run a multinational organization.

Living on the edge of two ages

The founder of the Benedictine Order, Benedict of Nursa lived in interesting times. Ruling structures, civil wars and a cultural shift brought about by migrant tribes settling in the empire’s capital and provinces.

Benedict, the son of a Roman Nobleman  left Rome around 500 B.C. to find some quiet place away from the big city. He settled as a hermit, and soon after followers flocked to his place to share his life and vision. Around the year 530,  there were already twelve monastic communities.

Benedict had not invented monastic life. Congregations had been around for 200 years and more, and so were rule books on how to run a congregation of monks. But it was Benedict’s pragmatic approach to find a moderate path between individual zeal and institutional order that made his work, the Regula Benedicti (Rule of Saint Benedict) one of the most influential works of the early Medieval age. Today, 40.000 monks all over the globe are dedicating their life to the service of God and mankind – and they do this following the Rule of Saint Benedict.

Reading this, one might wonder: What makes an organization endure more than 1.500 years on a continent shaken by war, plagues, famine, culture clashes – and not only endure, but expand? And – being modern managers – which concepts could we copy or adapt to render our own organizations more effective in times of transformation?

Intrinsic motivators: the pillars of enduring success.
Intrinsic motivators: the pillars of enduring success.

Success factor 1: Intrinsic motivators

Ini contrast to today’s culture of managing by objectives – setting goals and rewarding achievement with financial payments –individual possessions of the monks are frugal. So their motivation must have come from within.

The American psychologist Edward L. Deci came up with the concept of intrinsic motivators, detailling them into three main streams:

  • Purpose  answers our yearning to be part of something larger than yourselves. For members of the Benedictine order, the primary purpose of their calling is to serve God, but not only in prayer and meditation, but in concrete service to God’s works and creation, most of fellow men.
  • Mastery describes the urge to get better and better at what we do. Every congregation is organized as a self-sufficient cell, assembling members with a variety of professions. Usually, a monastery’s member remains in the profession originally chosen and perfects his professional skills. Even the few administrative roles of the monastery – the abbot (= CEO), the prior (= COO and stand-in of the CEO) and the cellerar (= CFO) continue to pursue their original profession to the benefit of the congregation.
The monks were motivated by internal factors.
The monks were motivated by intrinsic factors.

These findings are useful to managers of knowledge workers in modern-day tech corporations for two reasons:

  • First they demonstrate the need for employers to demonstrate the purpose of their company. Why are we here? What purpose does or corporation serve? “Shareholder value” is not a good enough answer.
  • And second: We need to be able to demonstrate and prove to our employees that we take their willingness to develop not just as an optional benefit, but that this willingness is a requirement to join our team.

Success factor 2: A decentral structure

Deci has listed a third prime intrinsic motivator: Autonomy.

How is this need answered in a monastic order? Given our experience with religious organizations, we might suspect a highly efficient command-and-control hierarchy. That is not the case: Each congregation is not only self-sufficient, it is a self-governing unit with its own functional and structural body – a company of its own, loosely coupled to sister companies in a federation of abbeys.

The members of the congregation are subjects to the abbot’s absolute power, but this power gains legitimation from the abbot being elected in a democratic vote.

Benedict’s Rule allows the houses a high level of adaptability in order to integrate into their environment completely and to remain agile in the face of changes.

Translating this into the structures of knowledge-based companies:

Hierarchical command-and-control organizations are a relic of the industrial age, where one omniscient patron reigned over legions of uneducated workers. Agile and flexible organizations constantly strive to delegate as much as decision power as possible to the edge, where autonomous teams meet with customers to understand and satisfy their needs.

A strict hierarchy
Not even Benedictine monks obeyed the hierachical approach of the industrial age.

Success factor 3: The pragmatic approach

In the chapter describing the abbot’s role and personality, St. Benedict establishes the “discretio” as the most important requirement, which can be best translate with a “feeling for the feasible”, a very fine sensory for what the needs of the individual members of the congregations are and how they can best be aligned with the needs of the collective. Discretio helps the abbot to decide with temperance between general rule and individual need and between the feasible and the ideal.

For a leader in today’s business world this means that whatever strategy is developed and communicated by the corporate board, the pragmatic application of this strategy to a real-life customer situation wins the game.

Success factor 4: Embrace diversity

In Benedict’s times, society followed patrician rule. Families, states, and organizations were run by the nobility – and nobility referred to descent, experience and age. In his Rule, Benedict demonstrates his famous pragmatism also when it comes to taking difficult decisions: Not only the abbot and the elders shall be included, but Benedict explicitly mentions the younger members of the congregation to be consulted. The younger members deliver valuable input, exactly because they have not decades of experience. They are less bound by traditions and more willing to call things what they are. Benedict knows: The experience of the old and the passion of the young enable the congregation to find solutions that might be better adapted to a challenge.

Today’s diversity options go beyond integrating the young and the old. In a 2015 report, consultancy company McKinsey stated that for companies chances to outperform their goals are 15% higher in a gender diverse environment and as high as 35% for corporations going beyond gender integration.

Creativity needs mental space.
Creativity needs mental space.

Success factor 5: A healthy work-life balance

“Ora et labora” – pray and work – has become the Benedictine order’s tagline. Interesting enough, this well-known slogan has become one of the most misunderstood passages of the Rule of Benedict, often interpreted as “pray and work and do nothing else”. Whereas it is true that Benedict is no friend of idleness, the notion of keeping the monks busy at all times is wrong. The passage should be understood in a way that “doing work is great, but there must be time for the soul to rest”. As a man of the creed, it was clear to Benedict that the resting place of the soul would be prayer. In order to grant the balance between work and prayer, the daily routine of Benedictine monks is structured in a rigid sequence of three hour slots. After three hours of work the monks are called to prayer, and the joint recital of psalms has a meditative and calming effect.

As work life has become more demanding for today’s knowledge workers, so has the need for regular rest become more immanent. Fixed ritualized routine can help the creativity up, and quite a few organizations have started to install rest rooms in their office environment so employees can take a “fueling up” rest.

Tap into our vast sources of knowledge.
Tap into our vast sources of knowledge.

Success factor 6: Enable the learning organization

In the times of Benedict, education was still a privilege of nobility. Benedict understood the power of the written word and encouraged his monks to learn and practice reading. It did not take many generations of monks for the Benedictine order to invent a splendid business model: The monasteries offered their scripture services to any nobleman interested in having a valuable manuscript copied for his own use – under the condition that the congregation was allowed to create a 2nd copy for themselves. Thus Benedictine abbey fast became fortresses of knowledge – holding high the torch of ancient wisdom through the entire Middle Age.

The thought that all available knowledge has already been written down and only needs to be cross-referenced has become reality with the general availability of knowledge through the internet. Modern authors describe a reform of education and knowledge work in a way that not the memorization of facts and figures will be considered as education, but the effective way to research that knowledge. For modern entrepreneurs this means that the available knowledge both in outside sources as well as in the heads of the employees must be cultivated and harvested in order to secure a competitive advantage.

So we learn that applied to today’s challenges, Benedict’s Rule provides a surprisingly fresh approach towards leadership in times of transformation.

Please note: This is a shortened version of the original article. Find the full article on Stefan Züger’s blog.

About the Author: Dell Technologies