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How Mormons – like Romney – cultivate business savvy early on

Shouldering responsibility from childhood – conducting meetings, raising money, and giving talks for adult crowds – Mormon boys learn skills that can them succeed in business. Some Mormons, like Mitt Romney, go on to have extraordinary business success.

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldCorrespondent / May 14, 2012

In this file photo last week, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks in Oklahoma City. Romney's Mormon background, and the responsibility it puts on boys at an early age, is one reason for his business success.

Sue Ogrocki/AP/File

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In laying groundwork for a successful business career, it helps to become a religious leader at age 12.

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That's when Mormon boys receive the first mantle of authority as deacons in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), which has no professional clergy but vests ordinary people with religious duties, at young ages. Boys conduct meetings, raise money, and give talks for adult crowds while they're still settling into middle school.

Shouldering responsibility from childhood, according to scholars and observers, helps account for extraordinary success among executives such as Mitt Romney, who built a fortune in venture capital before seeking the GOP presidential nomination.

He's far from alone. Mormons have held top jobs at a range of brand-name organizations, from JetBlue to American Express, Marriott International to the Boston Celtics.

To be sure, the stereotype can be misleading. Plenty of America's 6.1 million Mormons don't climb the corporate ladder. The church does not aim to turn out C-suite executives. The connection between the religion and business leadership is more subtle than that, ob-servers say. For a child who has talent and ambition, the cultural conditioning the church gives can translate into a leg up in corporate America.

"You do see a disproportionate percentage of Mormons who have decent organizational and managerial skills," says Jeff Benedict, a Mormon journalist who profiles executives in his book "The Mormon Way of Doing Business: Leadership and Success Through Faith and Family." "That's because, at a very young age, Mormon kids are given responsibilities and taught to organize."

Mormons need no convincing that religious experience enhances business success. The LDS Church strongly encourages men at age 19 to go on a full-time, two-year mission to help grow church ranks. (Women go on missions in their early 20s, though it's not as strongly encouraged for them, and few move into executive positions in the business world. Eighty percent of American Mormons say their mission experiences, which often include living abroad and the toughening that comes with knocking on doors, have been very valuable in preparing them for a career, according to a fall 2011 Pew Forum survey.

Missions, however, are but a capstone on years of religious upbringing that inculcates problem solving, communication, diligence, and teamwork.

"Our graduates tend to be solid managers and executive types, but they're not shooting stars who get huge salaries and move up quickly," says Joseph Ogden, assistant dean at Brigham Young University's Marriott School of Business, where more than 90 percent of the 3,000 students are Mormons. "They tend to be more steady, [and] that comes from the culture." The Marriott School itself may not have the cachet of a Harvard or Stanford, but it does rank No. 34 among 441 US business schools rated by U.S. News & World Report this year.

Founded in the mid-19th century, early Mormonism emphasized economic communalism, not capitalism, according to Matthew Bowman, author of "The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith." That changed toward the end of the 19th century with cultural assimilation. By the mid-20th century, a process called "correlation" was regularizing church systems across the globe in accordance with American corporate culture and values.

Since the majority of Mormons (58 percent) believe marriages are most satisfying when women stay home, men tend to be their family's sole bread-winners and gravitate when possible toward well-paying, stable jobs. That often means drawing on traits honed in congregational life.

"I've been in business situations where things are absolutely unraveling and people are freaking out, [but] it didn't even faze me," says Tim Merritt, chief sales officer at Via Response Technologies in Orlando, Fla., who credits church responsibilities that felt daunting – working with special needs kids, for instance – for his ability to stay cool under pressure.

Entrepreneur Scott Johnson, of Highland, Utah, says he learned humility and calm resolve on a two-year mission in Brazil, where locals sometimes spit on him and sent dogs after him. Yet it was at home in a Utah congregation that traits were honed into practical skills.

"People don't just volunteer for positions in the church. They're called to particular positions," says Mr. Johnson, who launched AtTask, a Utah-based Internet company with 300 employees and $32 million in revenues. As a 12-year-old, Johnson served as executive secretary for his deacon group of peers, which meant running meetings and keeping track of delegated responsibilities. "The answer [to a challenge is]: 'Go pray about it, get revelation, and you'll be fine....' You sort of learn on the job."

Now Johnson comfortably supports his wife and five children on a salary tied to his roles as AtTask's chairman and largest shareholder. He has high hopes for all his kids, including a 12-year-old son, who's recently become executive secretary of his deacon group.

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