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The Reluctant Romney

As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney could not resist burrowing into the bureaucratic weeds: He once took the statewide math and reading test for 10th-graders, then startled his education commissioner by calling to say, “I like No 14” and rattling off the answer.

india Updated: Oct 20, 2012 22:52 IST

As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney could not resist burrowing into the bureaucratic weeds: He once took the statewide math and reading test for 10th-graders, then startled his education commissioner by calling to say, “I like No 14” and rattling off the answer.

As the head of the private equity firm Bain Capital, he was so uncomfortable cutting loose struggling employees that a legend grew: Executives sent in to his office to be fired emerged thinking they had been promoted.

And as a candidate for president this year, he resisted pressure from advisers to select a running mate before leaving on a high-profile trip overseas, insisting that he makes better decisions with time and reflection.

Romney’s bid for the White House largely hinges on his own narrowly drawn image of himself as a chief executive: the data-splicing, cost-cutting turnaround expert. But dozens of those who have worked for him over the past 30 years offer a far more textured portrait of the management style that he might bring to the presidency.

A serial chief executive officer, the Republican presidential nominee is steeped in management theory and eschews gut instincts. He is not so much a micromanager as a microprocessor, wading deeply into the kind of raw data that is usually left to junior aides. He entrusts advisers with responsibility but keeps them on a short leash, accountable through a flurry of progress reports and review sessions. His decision-making process is unhurried and Socratic, his instinct to exhaustively debate and prod.

“He was not somebody who forced decisions to be made before they needed to,” said Geoffrey Rehnert, an executive at Bain Capital. Two other colleagues used the same phrase to describe him: “conflict avoidant.”

In his approach, there are intriguing echoes of and departures from presidents past. His intensely hands-on style sets him apart from George W Bush,the self-styled chairman of the board, andRonald Reagan, who cared only for the big picture and left dirt-under-the-fingernails policy work to his staff.

His tendency to immerse himself in the details recalls Lyndon B Johnson, who closeted himself with Pentagon brass to personally choose targets for US bombers during the Vietnam War. His passion for mastering policy and deliberative decision-making evokes the man he wishes to replace, Barack Obama.

With each president, their style resonated across their administrations, establishing how their staff members functioned and the public assessed them.

“Everything flows from that Oval Office,” said Mack McLarty, the chief of staff to Bill Clinton during his first term. “Everyone else, the chief of staff, cabinet members, really start to adapt and work with that.”

The president’s management, he said, “is the epicentre.”

Romney has shown a genuine talent for recruiting disparate teams (luring top-flight business people into the governor’s office), moulding a workplace culture from scratch (as the founder of Bain Capital) and establishing priorities (as CEO of the Olympics, he wrote down and distributed a list of ‘Five Guiding Principles’).

“Some of Romney’s experience probably would be useful to him. But if he thinks it’s going to translate so easily into the Oval Office, I think he has a surprise coming,” said Robert Dallek, the presidential historian.

Romney’s diplomatic, low-drama approach, admired by many of his employees, has at times proved problematic for the organisations he oversees.

Four years ago, campaign aides said, he allowed distracting conflicts to fester within his presidential campaign when members of his advertising team split into warring factions. As new operatives arrived, touching off a power struggle, weekly meetings devolved into angry shouting matches that stretched on for hours.

The solution seemed obvious: Romney needed to step in, untangle the egos and eliminate somebody. But he did not act. “The problem should have been resolved,” says then campaign pollster Jan van Lohuizen said. “It wasn’t. He would have better off had it been.”

Colleagues from every phase of his career said Romney loathes pushing out people with whom he works closely and will do just about anything to avoid it — an approach that has inspired deep loyalty to him even as it has raised questions about his ability to make tough personnel calls, as presidents inevitably must. (Obama has no such scruples and is on his third chief of staff.)

Romney’s image as a pink-slip issuing corporate raider, who drew derision for once saying he liked being able to fire those who provide him with services, stems almost entirely from his role at Bain Capital — buying and selling of faraway companies, whose workers he never met. But in his own offices, “he’d be much more apt to simply push somebody to the side and rely on advice from somebody else he perceives as better than to fire somebody,” said Ben Coes, who ran Romney’s campaign for governor in 2002.

After Romney’s travelling press secretary, Rick Gorka, was caught on tape this summer cursing at reporters during a trip to Poland, he was briefly removed from the campaign trail. But he remained in his job.

Fraser Bullock, who was Romney’s top Olympics aide, said his then-boss’ reluctance to fire people stemmed from concern about their fate. “He personalises the situation, from what I saw,” he said. “It’s ‘Oh, boy, what will happen to this person? Are they going to be able to get another job?’ That is why he gives people chances to recover.”

Romney did cut employees loose. As governor, he pushed out several officials whose actions reflected badly on his administration. “In state government, my observation is that the governor had a low tolerance for people who underperformed and he wasn’t reluctant to hold them to account,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s director of communications in the statehouse, and now a campaign adviser.

As a boss, Romney was big on small gestures. At Bain Capital, he instituted a rule that every meeting begin with a joke. At the Olympic offices in Salt Lake City, he once showed up with a griddle and apron to cook his staff a surprise pancake breakfast. And on his last campaign, he took a break from debate preparation for a game of touch football with his advisers.

Employees said he seemed to intuitively understand how to motivate people who worked long hours in high-stress jobs.He doled out generous bonuses, to be sure. But he also roamed halls, poking his head into cubicles and offices, inquiring what people were working on, quietly studying the mood.

"He would say, ‘People aren’t smiling enough,’" recalled Cindy Gillespie, who worked with him at the Olympics and the governor’s office.