Hartford Courant on 07 January 2007

The Virtues Of Success

by Jeff Benedict

The Virtues Of Success

An impressive number of CEOs and senior executives at America's top companies are Mormons. More than a half-dozen of them live in Connecticut, including the CEOs at JetBlue Airways and Deloitte & Touche USA, the chief financial officer of American Express, the former CEO of Madison Square Garden Corp., and the founder of the world's largest privately held life reinsurance company, Life Re Corp.

The Mormon church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, teaches a set of bedrock principles that have helped these executives succeed in business. They include reserving Sundays as a day for worship and family, abstaining from all alcohol and tobacco products, maintaining strict standards of marital fidelity and paying 10 percent of all earnings to the church, known as tithing.

It's easy to underestimate the value of these habits in the business world. But the advantages are real to those -- Mormon or otherwise -- climbing the corporate ladder. Infidelity, for example, has tripped up numerous high-profile executives at Fortune 500 companies, while bringing embarrassment to highly respected corporate brands. Alcohol is a common lubricant behind boorish behavior and compromised judgment -- risks that business leaders who are under the spotlight and in control of vast shareholder assets can ill afford. And the practice of donating 10 percent of all earnings, whether to the church or a favorite charity, is a great insulator against greed, which was the root cause behind the dishonest actions by leaders at Enron, WorldCom, Tyco and numerous other companies.

The idea here isn't to suggest that Mormons have a corner on the integrity market -- they don't. But some aspects of the Mormon faith provide an unusually beneficial experience and perspective for success in business. For starters, at age 19, all males in the Mormon Church are expected to give up two years to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ and perform service for the poor, the elderly and the needy.

Time isn't all they sacrifice. Mormon missionaries must completely forgo schooling, employment, entertainment and dating while receiving no financial compensation.

"I often say if it wasn't for my mission, I wouldn't be the CEO of JetBlue today," said David Neeleman, who served his mission in the slums of Brazil. "I learned so many valuable lessons. The mission gave me the opportunity to serve and really appreciate people for their contribution."

JetBlue is routinely recognized as the top airline for customer service. Neeleman is respected by customers and employees for routinely working as a flight attendant on flights and working alongside baggage and ticketing agents at the gates.

"There are so many things you can do as a CEO to set an example,'' Neeleman said. "If the CEO is down there helping employees tag bags and clean airplanes, employees feel better about going to work. People will go the extra mile for you.''

Humility and service aren't the only things missions teach. Persistence is essential to the success of any Mormon missionary. It's also a crucial quality to succeeding in business.

"You go out there with a deep devotion, and you are just convinced that your product is the best product in the world,'' explained Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, who served his Mormon mission in Korea. "You try to sell it and you get knocked down and rejected. You have to figure out how to keep your self-esteem and your motivation up in the face of all this rejection. It's the hardest sales job known to mankind.''

When Dave Checketts was CEO of Madison Square Garden, he spent two years overcoming rejection in his ultimately successful quest to acquire Radio City Music Hall. It was not nearly as hard as persevering for two years as a young missionary in Los Angeles.

"A big part of my drive is this sense of needing to prove myself a little bit more,'' said Checketts, who now owns the National Hockey League's St. Louis Blues and a pro soccer team. "My mission gave me the confidence to do anything I set out to ... if I had enough faith.''

Family is the other aspect of Mormonism that provides an unlikely advantage in corporate America. Mormons believe that no institution or personal pursuit is more important than family. One way they ensure quality family time is to avoid work on Sundays.

David Neeleman, who has nine children, insists that reserving Sundays for family makes him more productive at work during the rest of the week. When things are good at home, it's easier to focus and perform at work. Conversely, poor family relations can severely limit a person's productivity at work.

Kim Clark, who recently retired as dean of Harvard Business School, came up with a personal set of rigid time-management rules to ensure that he did not let his professional obligations overcome his family responsibilities. For him that meant taking weekends off and making sure he left the office in time to spend evenings with his wife and children, helping with homework, changing diapers and reading bedtime stories.

"In business, the number of hours a person puts in is not a good indicator of output and performance,'' Clark said. "What really matters is being able to create high-quality time and very high-quality production.''

CEOs can't always avoid work on Sundays. But the point is that these Mormon business leaders minimize it and they make a point to connect with their children despite all their business obligations. When Dell CEO Kevin Rollins is overseas on business, he will get up in the middle of the night to telephone his son to help with math homework at the appointed time. This approach comes from the perspective that the title of father or husband is far more lasting than the title of CEO. And what lasts longest is what's most important.

It's a message that Kim Clark impressed on the graduates of Harvard Business School.

"In your time at HBS, you have read many cases and studied many companies,'' he told them at last year's graduation ceremony. "One thing I hope you have learned is that no company can compete successfully unless it builds on a strong foundation. For you as individuals, there will be no more secure foundation in your life than a home that is full of life and love. Conversely -- I hope you listen carefully to what I say -- you will find no success in business that can compensate for failure in the home.''