Management Tips from Opus Dei
A leading Spanish business school founded by the group illustrates that Europeans have a firmer grip than Americans on how to succeed by caring for their own.
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About the same time that the "Da Vinci Code" was hitting theaters in May, I was camped out at a university in Barcelona, discovering some of the lesser-known secrets of Opus Dei, the Catholic society at the center of the book and movie's byzantine plot.
No, I didn't see any albino monks, cilices, or dead bodies. I was merely on sabbatical for three weeks at IESE, a leading Spanish business school founded by Opus Dei in 1958 as part of the University of Navarra. And the only thing I observed was great management.
For starters, IESE recently placed fourth among the top executive education programs in the world, according to rankings by the Financial Times. Unlike many European business schools, which have tried to mimic the U.S. model, IESE is intentionally different, with a greater emphasis on ethics and values both in the curriculum and in how it is run.
During my visit, dozens of faculty and staff members talked to me about what a great place IESE is to work because of its caring culture. Few were devout Catholics and even fewer were members of Opus Dei.
Then, when my wife came down with severe ear pain from flying with a cold, Jordi Canals, IESE's dean, arranged a difficult-to-get appointment with an ear specialist, got a taxi to take her to the appointment, and paid for everything, no questions asked.
Why a caring culture makes sense for IESE is pretty apparent: Emphasizing the long term, the school is interested in the personal transformation of its students and building closer relationships with them, and is willing to make the difficult economic trade-offs to convert noble sentiments into reality.
The school caps enrollment in its senior-level programs at 35 students, a remarkably low figure compared with most American schools. Forty percent of the alumni are alumni association members, even though Europe has less of a tradition of private philanthropy and provides fewer tax advantages for giving.
There are big lessons in this for U.S. companies, which have long resisted allowing more of their workers' lives inside their boundaries. Our CEOs pay lip service to the importance of both customer and employee loyalty, but they frequently overlook the importance of personal relationships and connections, and rarely consider the idea of doing more for people than what is formally expected.
Take, for instance, U.K.-based Innovation Group, a 1,000-employee, publicly held insurance software company. During the 1990s, executive board member Ed Ossie rebuilt MTW - now a subsidiary - increasing sales from $8 million to more than $40 million in about four years.
During this same time, annual employee turnover fell from an industry-typical 30 percent to just 4 percent. Ossie credits much of that to a culture of community he built among employees.
It began with the hiring process: As their partners started work, spouses would receive flowers and a note welcoming the family to the company. Every social function included family members too.
And because software implementation and consulting involve a lot of travel, the company offered "road warrior" concierge services and gifts to recognize employees' sacrifices. All of these small but important functions helped strengthen relationships and add to a sense of being one big happy family.
The lesson in all of this?
That success is derived less from "best practices" than from the values and beliefs of the leadership. You can copy methods and programs easily enough. But a way of thinking that creates deeper ties is much more difficult to duplicate.
Business 2.0 columnist Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business.