Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The monk and the corporate CEO


When Kenny Moore was leading the ascetic life of a monk for 15 years, he didn’t know he was in training for a successful corporate career. It wasn’t until he left the priesthood and took a job in human resources at KeySpan that he found out just how valuable his education had been. KeySpan is the $6 billion, publicly traded energy company based in downtown Brooklyn, N.Y.

He wasn’t prepared for the corporate world in the MBA sense. In fact, two decades later, he says he still doesn’t know much about business. But as a monk in the strict order of the Salesians of St. John Bosco, he had learned a lot about the soul. Although he didn’t know it when he was hired, he was starting a journey that would bring soul education to every part of the company, starting with the chief executive officer.

“I just think it’s amazing, divinely funny,” he says, his expressive face lighting up in wonder. “Maybe it’s not by chance and I’m playing the role I was supposed to play, and I’m still being priestly.”

The priestly role is definitely not the corporate norm, but KeySpan CEO Robert B. Catell recognized the gifts that made Mr. Moore different and took the risk of putting them to use in his company. He made his former monk an ombudsman, reporting directly to him, and set him free to employ his training at listening and creating community.

But this monk on the loose in corporate culture wasn’t going to just blend into the scenery that easily. Mr. Moore went on to stage a symbolic funeral, complete with Gregorian chant, when Brooklyn Union Gas, the former company, changed its name to Brooklyn Union, before finally merging with Long Island Lighting Company to form KeySpan. He got executives meditating before meetings, brought in a graphic artist to help those executives create a mural of their vision of the new company and built bridges between employees of the two companies after the merger. In a world dominated by earnings statements and annual reports, spirituality has taken a foothold.

“I have a bias from my years in the monastery that wisdom abides in the community, not at the podium,” he said.

As if all this isn’t enough to make Mr. Moore an interesting character, let’s mention now that he survived what was diagnosed as incurable cancer at its most advanced stages, a heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery during all of this. He tells his story in the book, The CEO and the Monk: One Company’s Journey from Profit to Purpose, written with Mr. Catell and business journalist Glenn Rifkin.

“Who would have thought that a guy who leaves the priesthood, comes down with cancer and survives, would then get to flourish in a Fortune 500 company at a time when business writers are talking about spirituality in the workplace,” he says in a voice that couples awe and humor.

Divinely funny things just seem to follow Kenny Moore around.

In addition to the time being right, with corporations slowly opening to the idea that employees didn’t have to check their spiritual side at the front door, Mr. Moore is quick to acknowledge he ended up in the right place as well. Brooklyn Union Gas had for a century seemed more like a small town company than an impersonal corporation.

The attrition rate had been about 1.5 percent, compared to other companies where it’s 10 percent or more, and it was hard to find an employee who didn’t have a relative also working there. Mr. Catell, himself a practicing Catholic, wanted to maintain that spirit as the company expanded to become one of the largest energy companies in the populous northeast and the fifth largest natural gas distributor in the United States, now employing 12,000 people in New York and New England.

“The role of this leader and the culture in this company accept it,” Mr. Moore said. “It preexisted. I didn’t create it. I took advantage of it. It’s not about me.”

As ombudsman, Mr. Moore can guarantee employees confidentiality. If they want to discuss possible sexual harassment he is under no obligation to report it, as he would be in his other role as human resources manager. Besides advising and offering comfort, he has started programs to make workers feel appreciated, such as the weekly arrangements of flowers sent to two employees chosen for their extra efforts on behalf of KeySpan.

All of this has brought Mr. Moore recognition far beyond Brooklyn. He and Mr. Catell recently received the Fr. Theodore Hesburgh Award from the University of Notre Dame. They were the subject of the lead story one week on “CBS News Sunday Morning” and they regularly give talks and workshops.

“You get this alpha male engineer of a Fortune 500 company and an artist, poet, priest,” Mr. Moore said, adding that audience members regularly comment on the relationship between the two. It’s a relationship Mr. Catell cherishes.

“In a business environment fraught with uncertainty, having access to a calm, patient, insightful, unbiased and spiritual point of view is invaluable,” he writes in The CEO and the Monk. “My relationship with Kenny is a special one. We sit alone, just the two of us, and talk about company matters in a way that transcends the usual business discussion. We say things to each other that people probably couldn’t say unless they had strong feelings of confidence and trust in each other.”

In addition to using his priestly gifts at work, Mr. Moore also practices them at home in Totowa, N.J. He says Mass for himself, has baptized his two sons -- he met his wife, Cynthia, at KeySpan where she worked in the finance department -- and hears confession and gives last rites in an emergency. Wanting to bring up his children Catholic, he and his family are members of Holy Angels Parish in Little Falls, N.J., where, at the request of a parishioner, he serves as a Eucharistic minister. His two brushes with death hammered home to him the importance of honoring this side of his life, so he leaves work at 5 p.m., refusing to put in the long hours usually expected in the corporate world.

Although his experiences have been extreme, he sees them now being reflected in a smaller way in those who attend his workshops and who come to him for help at KeySpan. “As the population ages, you have a large group of people in the workplace confronted with their own mortality and they want to die as successfully as they lived. They need help. They don’t go to church. They won’t go on retreat, but they will go to a business conference. They don’t ask me business questions or religious questions, they ask spiritual questions. There’s a marketing plan for this. It’s called life.”

It just took a monk and a CEO to see it.

Retta Blaney, NCR theater critic, is a former award-winning business reporter.

National Catholic Reporter, September 22, 2006

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