My title at KeySpan is corporate ombudsman, but what I really do is help foster change in this old company. I also try to preserve a sense of spiritual connectedness in our agenda. That’s not so hard, since I spent 15 years as a monk.
I grew up in Queens. I wasn’t very religious, but I did feel called to the priesthood. Trouble was, I was such a poor student, the Archdiocese of New York wouldn’t accept me. Finally, a strict monastic order in New Jersey said they would give me a chance. In one course, an old monk told us, “In the Old Testament, Samson slew the Philistines using the jawbone of an ass. Imagine what God could do with a complete ass.” I thought, “I could contribute here!”
I was ordained as a priest and spent several years ministering to the sick and the poor. But ultimately, my spirit foundered, and I had to leave. It was the most difficult decision of my life. I was 34, back living with my mother, with no income. Fortunately, I met someone at Brooklyn Union Gas (KeySpan’s predecessor) who appreciated my background. He said, “The church isn’t that different from corporate America. If you know those politics, you’ll understand these.”
I went to work in human resources, helping to implement a performance appraisal system. I knew nothing about business, but I realized I could help people. We were training them in a system that required having difficult conversations. Priests know how to do that. After a year and a half, I was promoted. Then I was diagnosed with incurable, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I began a treatment of aggressive chemotherapy and full-body radiation. At times, I couldn’t even button my shirt. But it saved me.
I returned to Brooklyn Gas–and Bob Catell had become president. He saw that deregulation was coming to the gas business, and he knew things had to change. After coming so close to death, I had no interest in climbing the corporate ladder. But I began serving as an intermediary between Bob and the company’s rank and file, telling him how employees were feeling and also telling him things he did that contributed to the problem.
I proposed an event that would help us make the leap from a gas monopoly to an energy company in a fiercely competitive marketplace. I wanted to hold a funeral. I had read that change doesn’t start with a beginning but with an ending. So I booked a conference room and invited Catell and 60 or 70 others.
In one corner, I put two tombstones from our Halloween display and a funeral urn. I wore my priestly stole and played a tape of Gregorian chants. “Dearly be-loved,” I said, “we are gathered here today to bid a fond farewell to the Brooklyn Union Gas of old.” Then I asked people to write what was over for the company on index cards and put them in the urn. People wrote things like “lifetime employment” and “monopoly.” I got holy water and blessed the urn.
In the next corner was a steamer trunk for the things we needed to keep on our journey. We wrote things like “great people,” and “dedication to the community” on cards and threw them in. Finally, I had a stork from our Valentine’s display to symbolize our birth as KeySpan. I made everyone draw what the future of the company might look like with crayons on poster paper. By then, everyone was participating.
When it was over, the CFO said to me, “You have some set of balls. Nobody but you could have gotten away with this.” But I didn’t feel like I had been very brave. People are dying to be connected, invited, involved. They don’t like having things shoved down their throats in a formulaic way. They show energy and commitment when they can be players and influence an initiative’s outcome.
For years, I worked on employee surveys, and I noticed three trends. Nobody trusts. Nobody believes in top management. And people are too stressed to care. In the monastery, we called that a crisis of faith, hope, and charity. So corporate America not only has financial problems, it has spiritual problems. Maybe that’s the realm I work in. A wise leader realizes that if you can engage not just employees’ physical energy but their emotional, mental, and spiritual energy as well, you’ve got something powerful.
Kenny Moore, 55, is corporate ombudsman at KeySpan Corp., a Brooklyn, New York-based energy company. With KeySpan CEO Robert Catell and writer Glenn Rifkin, he wrote The CEO and the Monk: One Company’s Journey to Profit and Purpose (John Wiley & Sons, 2004).