BOSTON — 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 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.
Mr. 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 interviews with those who have worked for him over the past 30 years — in the Mormon Church, business, the Olympics and state government — offer a far more textured portrait of the management style that he might bring to the presidency.
A serial chief executive, 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 raw data usually left to junior aides. He entrusts advisers with responsibility, but keeps them on a short leash, monitoring them through a flurry of progress reports and review sessions. Mr. Romney is, colleagues said, “conflict-avoidant.” 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, a longtime executive at Bain Capital.
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, and Ronald 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 American bombers during the Vietnam War. His passion for mastering policy and deliberative decision-making evokes the man he wishes to replace, Barack Obama.
Each president’s style resonated across his administration, establishing how staff members functioned and how 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 epicenter.”
Mr. Romney has shown a genuine talent for recruiting disparate teams (luring top-flight business people into the governor’s office), molding a workplace culture from scratch (as the founder of Bain Capital) and establishing priorities (as chief executive of the Olympics, he wrote down and distributed a list of “Five Guiding Principles.”)
But the skills, habits and quirks that fueled Mr. Romney’s ascent are untested in the crucible of the White House, where the crises, conflicts and challenges are unrelenting, the learning curve sharp and political instincts and personal diplomacy are invaluable.
“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.
Mr. Romney’s diplomatic, low-drama approach, admired by many of his employees, has at times proved problematic for the organizations he oversees, according to interviews.
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. “It was absolutely perfectly horrible and I have tried to completely repress it,” said the campaign’s pollster at the time, Jan van Lohuizen. The solution seemed obvious: Mr. Romney needed to step in, untangle the egos and eliminate somebody. But he did not act. “The problem should have been resolved,” Mr. van Lohuizen said. “It wasn’t. He would have better off had it been.”
Colleagues from every phase of his career said that Mr. 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. (Mr. Obama, for instance, is on his third chief of staff.)
Mr. 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 Mr. Romney’s campaign for governor in 2002.
After Mr. Romney’s traveling 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 Mr. Romney’s top Olympics aide, said his then-boss’s reluctance to fire people stemmed from concern about their fate. “He personalizes 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,” Mr. Bullock said.
That was the case with Doug Arnot, the managing director of event operations for the Salt Lake City Olympic Games. Not long after Mr. Romney was named chief executive of the games in 1999, with a mandate to clean house after a bribery scandal, Mr. Arnot was involved in a road rage incident in Salt Lake City. After repeatedly punching a pedestrian in a crosswalk, he pleaded guilty to an assault charge.
While some board members advised firing him, Mr. Romney refused after agonizing for weeks, citing Mr. Arnot’s good work record and critical role.
“They gave me a chance to prove myself,” Mr. Arnot said in an interview.
Mr. 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, Mr. Romney’s director of communications in the Statehouse, and now a campaign adviser.
As a boss, Mr. 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.
Just a few weeks before the Olympics began, Mr. Romney starred in an office rendition of “Romeo and Juliet.” He played Romeo, opposite a male colleague in drag. There was no kiss, but Mr. Romney ad-libbed a few lines: “Juliet, you are ugly as sin and need a shave to boot.”
“People just died,” Ms. Gillespie said.
Mr. Romney’s aptitude for problem-solving has a corollary: he often tries to solve them himself.
In the early 1990s, when he was the highest-ranking Mormon official in Boston, he asked Ron Scott to serve as the church communications director, a job that would require him to act as a liaison to other religious institutions and the local government. But when they talked the job over, Mr. Scott said, “It became pretty clear that he wanted to do most of the outreach himself, and that I wouldn’t have much to do.”
The urge to personally intervene is a recurring pattern. At times, it earned him plaudits, like when he temporarily took control of Boston’s Big Dig tunnel project after a construction accident.
Occasionally, it could ruffle those around him. Mr. Romney’s 2002 campaign run for governor did not employ a full-time speechwriter: he asked colleagues to draft them and then rewrote them, a habit he has carried over into the current presidential bid. (A frequent sight: foot-tapping aides waiting to load his revised speeches into teleprompters moments before he takes the stage.)
Mr. Romney even made time as governor to review the state Republican Party’s spending, line by line. “Well, do we really need to be spending $32,000 on a receptionist?” Rob Gray, a friend and political adviser, recalled him saying.
Mr. Romney had a better idea.
“Couldn’t we just have a voice mail system?”