The Mormon Way of Doing Business: Leadership and Success Through Faith and Family

June 14, 2013 | By | Reply More

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of the book The Mormon Way of Doing Business: Leadership and Success Through Faith and Family by Jeff Benedict (reprinted with permission):

 

On a Mission

“In business situations we get well prepared and we go in undaunted. I don’t know if this is unique to the Mormon culture. But we are individuals who have a mission and are absolutely undaunted by it.” -Dave Checketts, former CEO of Madison Square Garden Corp.

“People do a better job if they respect the leader of the company. I learned that on my mission-the value of people and how to truly appreciate them.” -David Neeleman, founder and CEO of JetBlue Airlines

Many JetBlue passengers have had the experience of boarding a plane, finding a seat, and looking up before takeoff to discover a middle-aged man standing at the head of the cabin, wearing a flight attendant’s apron and a name tag. “Hi, my name is David Neeleman. And I’m the CEO of JetBlue. I’m here to serve you today and I’m looking forward to meeting each of you before we land.”

For the remainder of the flight, Neeleman goes up and down the aisle, distributing snacks, collecting garbage, and making a point to meet every passenger. He also writes down their comments on a small notepad. Although the passengers are complete strangers to Neeleman, he quickly establishes a rapport with them. When the flight lands, Neeleman thanks passengers for flying Jet- Blue and then works with the flight crew to clean the plane and prepare it for its next flight.

No other airline has a CEO who works as a flight attendant just so he can serve his customers and get to know them and their needs better. No other airline has a CEO who works shoulder to shoulder with flight crews in order to appreciate their job better. Neeleman does both no less than once a month and sometimes as often as once a week. For this, he is praised for his business acumen, his devotion to his company, and for maintaining a fingertip feel for the direct needs and desires of his customers and employees.

Service Matters

Each time he works a roundtrip flight, Neeleman performs about ten hours of direct customer service and employee interaction. It’s no surprise that the annual national Airline Quality Ratings study, which is based on Transportation Department statistics, routinely ranks JetBlue number one in customer service. “There are so many things you can do as a CEO to set an example,” said Neeleman. “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. They know I’m not sitting in some part of the airplane where I don’t want to be talked to. Instead, I hang out with crew members.”

Direct service to customers and working in the trenches along- side employees may be unusual concepts for a CEO or business manager. That’s simply not the way business is done in corporate America. Neeleman didn’t learn this unique approach in business school or by reading some cutting-edge textbook on how to be a successful leader. He developed these habits at a very young age, long before he had any thought of creating an airline.

At nineteen, Neeleman served a full-time mission for the Mormon Church. Upon graduating from high school, all young men in the Mormon Church are encouraged to spend two years as missionaries, which entails teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to strangers and performing service for the poor, the elderly, and the needy. During this time missionaries must completely forgo schooling, employment, entertainment, and dating in order to fully devote all their energy and time to service. They receive no financial compensation, and they are expected to finance as much of their missionary expenses as possible. As teenagers, Mormon youth are encouraged to begin saving for their missions. The Church supplements whatever remaining costs can’t be afforded by the missionary or his parents.

“On my mission I learned so many valuable lessons,” Neeleman said. “The mission gave me this opportunity to serve and really appreciate people for their contribution.”

While on a mission, missionaries are not permitted to return home on holidays or for vacations. Phone calls to friends back home are prohibited. Calls to family are limited to specific holidays. This same opportunity is afforded to young women in the Mormon Church. But just as the Church strongly encourages its young men to serve missions, it strongly encourages its young women to obtain college degrees.

In 2004 the Mormon Church had over 56,000 missionaries serving full-time missions in over 120 nations and island states. Virtually all of the Mormon business executives in this book served full-time missions before starting their business careers. David Neeleman was assigned to Brazil. After spending roughly two months learning Portuguese at the Church’s language training center for missionaries in Provo, Utah, Neeleman spent the remainder of his two-year commitment living among poverty-stricken people in Brazil. The conditions were starkly different from the community he grew up in outside Salt Lake City.

On a daily basis Neeleman would put on a white shirt and tie, along with a name tag, and enter the neighborhoods and homes of Brazilians. Speaking their language, Neeleman would introduce himself by saying something along the lines of: “Hello, my name is Elder Neeleman and I’m a representative for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Then he would talk to them about the gospel of Jesus Christ and answer their questions.

This experience had a profound impact on the way Neeleman runs JetBlue. “My missionary experience obliterated class distinction for me,” said Neeleman. “I learned to treat everyone the same. If anything, I have a disdain for the upper class and people who think they are better than others.”

Neeleman’s perspective is evident in JetBlue’s business approach. There is no first-class section on JetBlue planes. All seats are sold at the same price. All passengers receive the same treatment and are referred to as “customers.”

Evidence of Neeleman’s approach is also found in the way he runs the corporation. All employees are referred to as “crew members” and wear badges with their name and photograph. Neeleman wears a crew-member ID badge at all times, too. Neeleman has no preferred parking space at the office. Nor do any other executives.

When he flies on JetBlue planes, he sits in the jump seat with his crew. There is no corporate plane.

The most unusual aspect of Neeleman’s leadership style is his compensation package, particularly in today’s climate of inflated CEO salaries. Long before CEOs came under fire for excessive salaries, Peter Drucker predicted: “In the next economic downturn, there will be an outbreak of bitterness and contempt for these super corporate chieftains who pay themselves millions. In every major economic downturn in U.S. history, the villains have been the heroes during the preceding book.”

Neeleman is an anomaly here. His annual salary is only $200,000 per year, plus an average of between $70,000 and $90,000 per year in bonuses. He donates his entire salary to a fund for his employees. Financially independent from the success of his previous business ventures, Neeleman is able to operate this way. “A fish stinks from the head,” said Neeleman. “There are so many things a CEO can do to set an example. CEOs are just seen as money grubbers-they want to build the company on the backs of their people. The value they ascribe to themselves is so wildly greater than anyone else in the company that there’s this king-type notion.”

Before serving a mission, Neeleman didn’t plan to create an airline. In fact, as a teenager he had no idea what he wanted to do. He struggled through school. “I was in turmoil,” Neeleman said. “I spent most of my early school days with my head out the window. I didn’t have any confidence in my ability to do well scholastically. I couldn’t write memos. I couldn’t spell very well. I never read books. I had a lot of anxiety about it because I didn’t know what a guy could do who couldn’t read or write or spell, and who had a hard time focusing.”

Neeleman later discovered that he has attention deficit disorder (ADD). This hurt his performance in school. It did not, however, prevent him from serving a full-time mission. The Mormon Church will accept any young person into missionary service as long as he meets the age and personal worthiness requirements. “I didn’t have focus,” said Neeleman. “For a guy like me with a learning disability, I had never been disciplined enough to focus on things. The mission taught me discipline and gave me the opportunity to serve and really appreciate people.”

The Mormon Church sends its young people on missions to convert people to Christ. But the practical result of the Church’s missionary program is that many Mormon youth who serve missions become firmly grounded in their religion at a young age and develop a strong sense of focus and purpose before starting college, marriage, or their careers. “My mission really saved me,” said Neeleman. “It was the first time in my life that I ever felt like I had some talent of some kind.”

The Mormon mission experience also brought life to Neeleman’s natural abilities and personal strengths, all of which are evident in his leadership approach at JetBlue. “Being a CEO is being a people person,” said Neeleman. “If an employee knows that the CEO donates his salary to them-and that employee then sees the CEO helping him or her tag bags or clean airplanes, those employees will go the extra mile for me in return. They know there’s not some limo waiting to pick me up and that I’m not sitting in some part of the airplane where I don’t want to be talked to.

“You have to lead people. They have to buy into your vision and respect you in a way that they want to perform for you. People do a better job if they respect the leader of the company. I learned that on my mission-the value of people and how to truly appreciate them.”




Obedience Leads to Success

Mormon missionaries are expected to abide by strict rules governing personal conduct. They rise early in the morning, observe a nighttime curfew, adhere to a dress and grooming code, are prohibited from watching television, and are expected to reserve time each day for personal study. Obedience and hard work, they are taught, are the keys to a missionary’s success. Those keys can lead to business success, too.

Before being named CEO of Dell, Kevin Rollins developed a reputation within the company for being a logistics and operational genius. Those abilities have a lot to do with why Michael Dell initially hired Rollins. Since moving into the CEO spot, Rollins has instilled his penchant for discipline throughout the company through his management style. Many of his personal habits that impact the way he approaches management were refined while serving a mission for the Mormon Church.

“Since I was nineteen,” said Rollins, “I’ve gotten up at fivethirty essentially every morning, unless I’m sick. Since age nineteen I’ve gone to bed early. So there’s a discipline of how to act. A mission teaches you to get up, get going, and do things. I also learned on a mission that if you just work really hard you’ll get good results. But if you’re smart and work really hard, you’ll get superb results.”

Adjusting to the rigors and self-discipline expected of Mormon missionaries was not that difficult for Rollins. From the time Rollins was in third grade, his father would enter his room each summer morning before 6:00 A.M. and wake him and his older brother by turning on the light. Rollins’ father would then say: “Here’s what you have to do today.”

Blurry-eyed, Rollins and his brother would sit up in their beds and listen as their father outlined a list of chores: weeding flower beds, working in the strawberry patch, or performing work in their yard, which encompassed over an acre. “There was a constant task,” said Rollins. “Yard work was just a staple. He expected us to perform.”

Rollins’ father was a civil engineering professor at Brigham Young University, and he had his own engineering firm. He would leave for work very early each morning and put in long hours at his office. When he returned home after work each day, he would gather Kevin and his brother and inspect their work. “He’d go out and look in the yard or wherever our assignment was,” said Rollins. “He expected things to look perfect.”

By the time Rollins reached high school, his father’s assignments at home increased in scope and would sometimes take days or weeks to complete. For instance, one summer his father instructed Kevin and his brother to build a walkway. But his was no ordinary walkway. Rollins’ childhood home was situated on a lot that had a large, steep hill that ran down the property behind the house. Rollins’ father, a skilled carpenter and cement mason, decided he wanted a walkway constructed from the top of the hill to the bottom. Before construction could begin, however, the hill had to be cleared of brush and rock. The entire task-from preparation to construction-fell to Rollins and his brother. “It was tough,” said Rollins. “We had to cut a walkway down that hill, then through the brush and through the soil and rock. It taught me the value of doing something every day, sticking to task orientation, which I have inherent in my management style today.”

On his mission, Rollins developed other daily habits, such as studying the scriptures. As a result, he still makes time to read for personal enrichment on a daily basis. On a mission he dutifully followed the Church’s instructions to proselyte, a practice that typically entails knocking on doors. Although this is not the most fruitful method of convincing people to join the Mormon Church, Rollins followed this course out of his desire to be obedient. “I believe that whether or not you are actually doing things that lead to success, through obedience you will get success,” said Rollins. “There’s a jump that occurs just through doing it. So I’m a big proponent of discipline, activity, never say die, really hard work, and never admitting defeat. A lot of that is mission based.”

The never-say-die, hard-work approach to missionary service had a carry-over effect to Rollins’ business aspirations. Rollins served his mission in Alberta, Canada, in the early 1970s. While there he noticed a very successful soft-drink franchise. After his mission he decided to set up a soft-drink franchise of his own in Utah. He had no knowledge of the industry or what it would take to create a beverage company. At age twenty-one he enrolled in business courses at Brigham Young University and married his wife, Debbie. With financing from his father, Rollins opened the Pop Shoppe, a soft-drink distributorship.

Debbie quit school immediately to work full time at the business. “We started selling our beverage before we got our plant up and running,” Debbie Rollins said.

Kevin purchased bottling equipment, arranged for trucking and shipping throughout the state, and built a bottling plant. Since he was a full-time student at BYU, he had the plant constructed near the campus, enabling him to race home from school at lunchtime each day to check on operations at the bottling plant. If equipment was down, Kevin would hurry to the plant and fix it in order to keep the operation moving.

“He wouldn’t even change his clothes,” Debbie recalled. “He would just dive into the grease and fix whatever wasn’t working. He didn’t even know anything about equipment. But he had this sense of what needed to be done and he did it.”

Within a year, Debbie Rollins was pregnant with their first child and Kevin was pitching his product to grocery stores in an attempt to expand sales. Little by little he convinced more and more stores until his soft drink was being distributed throughout the state of Utah. To accommodate demand, he had to create a distribution plan for delivery and contract with trucking companies to move his product. “If something needed to be done, Kevin just did it,” said Debbie. “If he didn’t know how, he figured it out.”

Consistency Counts

Missions can also be a powerful training ground to teach budgeting, time management, determination, and how to deal with and overcome adversity, all skills that are invaluable in corporate America. Harvard Business School dean Kim Clark served his mission in Germany in the 1960s. “The mission is so intense,” said Clark. “You are on your own. And the stakes are high. You are dealing with life and death. It’s serious.”

As a young missionary Clark was assigned to be the mission financial secretary. The Mormon Church has over 200 missions around the world. Each of them has up to 200 missionaries. The Church assigns a mission president to preside over those missionaries and run the mission’s finances and properties. A mission president and his wife are typically called out of retirement and serve three-year terms.

Kim Clark’s mission president was the CEO of a bank. “I got to work with him closely,” said Clark, who was assigned to work in the mission president’s office after he had been in Germany for about a year. “He had a profound influence on me and my sense of what was possible in positions of responsibility and leadership if people learned to execute them very well.”

At age nineteen, Clark was asked to be the financial secretary to the mission president, who had oversight of all the Mormon Church’s assets and finances throughout southern Germany. At the time, Clark had completed only one year of college at Harvard before leaving school to serve his mission. He had no experience with finances. Suddenly he found himself serving as a finance secretary to a bank CEO. “By being his financial secretary, I learned a lot having to do with organization, finance, budgeting, and accounting,” said Clark.

The experience taught Clark about management. “I saw in my mission what happens when a leader establishes a pattern of consistency and coherence across all aspects of an organization’s work,” Clark said. “My mission president didn’t just care about the quality of the teaching by the missionaries. He cared about the way our finances were handled. He cared about the way we were organized. He cared about training clerks properly and about whether our records-financial and otherwise-were in order, and whether we had control over what was going on.”

Clark applied these lessons in his management style at the Harvard Business School. “I try to run HBS as a living model of the very best ideas we have about how organizations should work,” Clark said. “I’ve tried to instill in people this commitment to the fundamental mission and help everybody understand that no matter what their role (alumni relations, teaching executive education, running the MBA program, or providing support or doing research), everybody has an important contribution to make to the mission of the school. If the school is to reach its potential, everybody has to perform at a high level. There’s nothing we do that’s not important, because we are educating people who are going to be leaders in the world. My mission for the Mormon Church was a very important influence in how I think about organizations.”

Persistence Pays

Above all, missions teach persistence. Dave Checketts, the former CEO of Madison Square Garden Corporation, had a persistent nature before he served his mission. When he was sixteen, Checketts went with his family on a vacation. It began in Seattle and was supposed to end at Disneyland in Anaheim. But while driving through Oregon en route to southern California, the family car broke down on a remote stretch of highway. Passengers in another car stopped and helped push the Checketts’ car down an exit ramp to a gas station. There a mechanic determined that the Checketts needed a new fuel pump. At this point it was nearly 6:00 P.M. on a Friday leading into the Fourth of July weekend. The local auto parts store had closed, along with most other businesses.

Dave’s father had to return to work the following Wednesday. If forced to wait until Monday to have the car repaired, the Checketts would not have sufficient time to complete the trip to Disneyland.

“I’m not going to let this happen,” Dave told his father. His father insisted that they appeared to be out of options. Dave disagreed. He asked permission to go to the next town in search of a fuel pump.

The nearest town was twenty miles away. Mr. Checketts asked Dave how he planned to get there.

Hitchhike, Dave told him. Mr. Checketts did not like the idea of Dave hitchhiking alone on a highway.

Dave persisted.

Finally, Mr. Checketts consented but insisted Dave bring his twelve-year-old brother with him.

Dave had never hitchhiked in his life. The first vehicle that approached-a pickup truck-stopped and the driver asked where the boys were headed. Dave explained and the driver told the boys to hop in the back.

Less than a half hour later the driver dropped Dave and his brother off in Medford, Oregon. On foot, the boys walked to four gas stations seeking a fuel pump for a Buick LeSabre. They had no luck. Finally, at the fifth gas station, Dave encountered a mechanic who said he just happened to have one.

Giddy, Checketts bought it. Then he and his brother sprinted back to the freeway to hitchhike back.

Suddenly, a policeman from the other side of the freeway began yelling at them through a bullhorn. He ordered the boys off the freeway, saying it was illegal to hitchhike. Dave told his little brother to stay put and then ran across the freeway to the officer. Checketts explained his predicament to the officer and pleaded for permission to hitchhike back to his parents with the newly acquired fuel pump.

“Hop in,” the officer said. He then drove to the other side of the highway, retrieved Dave’s younger brother, flipped on his lights, and sped down the highway. As the police car approached the exit where the Checketts’ car had broken down, Dave spotted his father.

He pointed his father out to the officer. The officer had already figured it out by the look of worry on Mr. Checketts’ face. The officer turned on his siren and drove toward Mr. Checketts. He rolled down his window. “Do you know these guys?” the officer joked. “I caught them shoplifting.”

The following morning the new fuel pump was installed and the Checketts made it to Disneyland.

Expect a Miracle

Checketts’ two-year stint as a Mormon missionary only strengthened his natural tendencies toward not taking no for an answer and for finding a way to overcome adversity. Checketts was sent to East Los Angeles in 1975, where he spent two full years teaching residents of Watts and Compton about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The neighborhoods he worked in were so tough that the missionaries were required to be in their apartment by 6:00 P.M. As a young white male wearing a white shirt and tie and pedaling a ten-speed bicycle up and down urban streets, he stood out and encountered steep opposition. He was ridiculed and sometimes even endured personal persecution.

Then one day Checketts’ mission president handed him and all the other missionaries business cards bearing the name of the Church. The reverse side of the card said: EXPECT A MIRACLE, emblazoned in gold. The missionaries were instructed to carry these cards at all times.

Checketts had put off his college education and marriage to his high school girlfriend to go on a mission. But under these conditions, frustration and a sense of failure set in. Expectedly, his success rate was terrible.

“I got this card at one of the lowest points of my mission,” Checketts said. “The notion of expecting a miracle is pretty powerful. It developed in me this sense of going in undaunted because somehow the Lord will open a door.”

From that day forward, Checketts’ approach changed. He got up every day and hit the streets of East Los Angeles expecting to succeed. “The sense of being a minority or a persecuted minority ties into this sense of going in undaunted,” said Checketts.

Soon the results changed. The last year of his mission was a tremendous success. By the time he returned to Utah at age twenty-one and returned to studying business at Brigham Young University, his competitive nature was well beyond a normal range.

These traits that Checketts developed in childhood and strengthened as a Mormon missionary fit perfectly into his business career. In the summer of 1994, Viacom sold Madison Square Garden to ITT and Cablevision for $1.075 billion. At that time, Checketts was president of the New York Knicks, which was owned by the Garden. The Garden’s new ownership promptly elevated Checketts to president and CEO of MSG Corp., effectively putting him in charge of the Knicks, the Rangers, the MSG network, and the myriad of live entertainment and events offered at the Garden each year. In 1994 alone, the Garden and its theater and Expo Center hosted 350 events.

MSG Corp.’s revenue in 1994 was roughly $400 million, coming from ticket sales and radio and television sponsorships. The Garden’s primary competitor for concerts and live shows was Radio City Music Hall, which routinely outbid the Garden for top shows. Checketts hated losing to Radio City. The only way to beat Radio City, he concluded, was to buy it.

That was no small hurdle. At the time, Radio City Music Hall and the land it rested on was owned by Rockefeller Center, which was under the management of Tishman-Speyer, one of the country’s largest real estate firms. However, Radio City Productions, which controlled the rights to the Radio City Christmas Spectacular and to the Rockettes, was owned by a Japanese company called Mitsubishi Estates. The Christmas Spectacular was Radio City’s primary revenue source, grossing $70 million each Christmas season.

Checketts wanted control of both the building and the production company. But he wasn’t the only one with his eye on them. Both Disney and Universal Studios were interested in acquiring them, too. And both of those companies had far more financial clout than Checketts and MSG Corp. The presence of Disney and Universal prompted MSG Corp.’s parent company, ITT, to tell Checketts to back off from trying to acquire Radio City.

Despite both external and internal opposition, Checketts pushed ahead. After all, gaining control of Radio City Music Hall couldn’t be as difficult as trying to teach Mormonism from a bicycle in Watts during the 1970s. He remembered the card that said EXPECT A MIRACLE and then formulated a plan.

In Checketts’ mind, it made no sense for one company to control Radio City Music Hall and for another company to control Radio City Productions, which determines the shows that are performed in the hall. To acquire control of the building, Checketts knew he had to convince those controlling Rockefeller Center to enter into a long-term lease with Madison Square Garden for Radio City Music Hall. That ultimately would mean negotiating with Jerry Speyer, one of the founding partners at Tishman-Speyer. Checketts didn’t know Speyer. He set out to change that by scheduling a series of dinner and lunch meetings with him.

Over a two-year period, he cultivated a relationship with Speyer, whose firm was attempting to negotiate a new lease for Radio City Music Hall. The problem was that MSG Corp. did not own Radio City Productions, leaving Checketts in no position to negotiate for a lease. While building a relationship with Speyer, Checketts began negotiating with Mitsubishi Estates to purchase Radio City Productions. At the time, Mitsubishi Estates was in bankruptcy. But Radio City Productions was a profitable business. Checketts offered to buy 50 percent of the company for $70 million. Mitsubishi accepted-a move that gave Checketts a leg up on Disney and Universal and put Checketts in a position to negotiate on behalf of Mitsubishi Estates for a new lease from Rockefeller Center. By this time, Checketts’ relationship with Speyer had solidified.

Now a 50 percent stakeholder in Radio City Productions, Checketts woke up one Monday morning and said to his wife: “Deb, I’m going to make a deal to get Radio City this week. This is the week I’m making a deal.”

“C’mon,” she said. “No. I’m serious. I may not see you this week. But I’m going to make a deal.”

On each of the next four consecutive days, Checketts held a four-hour meeting with Speyer. At the conclusion of the fourth day, the two men agreed to have dinner that evening. When Checketts arrived at the Manhattan restaurant where they had previously agreed to dine, he told Speyer: “I am not leaving you tonight until we make a deal.”

Speyer told Checketts he would have to come up to his price. “If I come up to your price, are we going to make a deal?” Speyer said he was willing to deal.

By 1:00 A.M. the restaurant was closed and no deal had been reached. Speyer said he was going home.

“I’m coming with you,” Checketts told him. He followed Speyer down Park Avenue to his apartment. Inside, Speyer, who also serves as a chairman of the Museum of Modern Art, showed Checketts an impressive array of art. Then the two men sat down and continued negotiating. Ultimately, Checketts agreed to enter a thirty-five-year lease with Rockefeller Center for the use of Radio City Music Hall.

At 4:00 A.M., the two men shook hands. On behalf of MSG Corp., Checketts now had a firm grip on the property for thirtyfive years and controlled half the ownership in the production company. At 6:00 A.M. Checketts made it home and went to bed.

But he wasn’t done dealing. When he reported his deal to Mitsubishi Estates, its representatives felt he had paid too much for the lease. Since Checketts and MSG Corp. now had all the leverage as the leaseholders and Mitsubishi didn’t like the lease arrangement, Checketts offered to buy out Mitsubishi’s remaining 50 percent ownership stake in the production company for another $70 million. Eager for cash, Mitsubishi agreed.

Now Checketts and MSG Corp. were into Radio City Production for $140 million. But on the day the sale closed between MSG Corp. and Mitsubishi Estates, the production company had $70 million in cash that had just been collected from the Radio City Christmas Spectacular ticket receipts. Checketts was already halfway out of the deal on the day he closed. The next year the Christmas Spectacular brought in another $70 million.

Meanwhile, Checketts and MSG Corp. invested an additional $70 million into restoring Radio City Music Hall back to its original condition in 1932. By the time Checketts left MSG Corp. in 2001, it was the sole owner of Radio City Productions and controlled the lease on Radio City Music Hall until 2036. And annual revenues at Radio City Music Hall had quadrupled.

“A big part of my drive is this sense of needing to prove myself a little bit more,” said Checketts. “My mission gave me the confidence that I could do anything I set out to . . . if I had enough faith.”

The Hardest Sales Job Known to Mankind

“Missions cause you to be a better leader,” said Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, who had to learn to speak Korean in order to serve his mission in Korea. “You go out there with a deep devotion and you are just convinced that your product is the best product in the world. You try to sell it and 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.”

Christensen teaches management and the development of organizational capabilities to business students at Harvard. Before arriving at HBS, Christensen was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, a White House fellow, and an assistant to two U.S. transportation secretaries. Today he is a consultant to companies such as Intel, Eli Lilly, Dell, Kodak, and others. But his missionary services for the Mormon Church preceded all these professional and academic achievements. His mission also helped prepare him. As a young missionary, Christensen served as what’s known as a “zone leader,” meaning he had oversight and responsibility to motivate his fellow missionaries. This leadership assignment can be an even harder task than taking religion to the doors of strangers. “It’s an even harder sales management job,” said Christensen, who saw the experience as great preparation for the world of big business. “If you are a zone leader, how do you keep these guys motivated when rejection is what their life is all about? Then you come into the business world and it’s duck soup compared to that.”

American Express’ chief financial officer, Gary Crittenden, served his Mormon mission in Germany. “The thing a mission does is teach you persistency,” said Crittenden. “Every day you have to get up and say ‘I’m going to spend this whole day out walking the streets,’ in some cases going door-to-door, and in some cases just stopping people on the street or on busses, even in the coldest weather.'”

The coupling of this persistence with other management skills can produce a powerful, unstoppable force in business. “As a nineteen-year-old missionary for the Church, you learn to advance your views in the face of significant opposition,” said Dave Checketts. “If you don’t, you never succeed as a missionary. That’s what makes the training so valuable and so unique.”

And when these men emerge from their mission experience, they have intensity and a sharp focus that cannot be taught in any business school. “We get married younger,” said David Neeleman. “We have kids younger. We don’t go through that phase of adolescence where men hang out with guys in bars. We come home from our missions, get married, start raising children, and get to work.

I was married seven weeks after my mission and we had a child ten months later. I didn’t have time to play around. I just had to get to work. So there is seriousness and focus.”

The missionary training quickly surfaces in their approach to business. “In business situations we get well prepared and we go in undaunted,” said Checketts. “I don’t know if this is unique to the Mormon culture. But we are individuals who have a mission and are absolutely undaunted by it.”

 

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