How Bain Shaped Romney

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Peter Hapak for TIME

In this week’s cover story, Bart Gellman delivers some great reporting on Mitt Romney’s Bain days, his decision-making as a consultant and a private equity CEO. The fun is in the details: a joke Romney once told about polar bear hunting and the story of how he almost came to blows with a Goldman Sachs partner who told him to “shut up and let me finish talking.” But the real issue is how Romney’s business experience, which he often cites as his chief political credential, applies to the presidency. Here’s Gellman’s conclusion:

No career can fully prepare you for the incomparable responsibilities of the presidency, but Romney’s business record displays qualities that nearly anyone would want to see in the White House. He has been a sharp judge of managerial and analytic talent, recruiting and holding the loyalties of able people in his investment firm and in the companies he bought. He could not have succeeded in management consulting or private equity without considerable skills as a strategist, salesman and negotiator. Romney’s accomplishments demonstrate “a very high level of intelligence, an ability to size up the situation and put the pieces together, to see the big picture, where they’re trying to go and what they’re trying to accomplish,” says Margaret Blair, a Vanderbilt Law School economist who teaches management law. “Those are good things that would serve a person well who is trying to be the President.”

Yet there are habits of Romney’s business career “that I think don’t translate at all,” she says. “If you walk in the door and you’re from the private-equity firm that has just bought the controlling interest in some company, you literally own the place. You can tell people what to do, and they’ll do it. That’s not the way politics works.”

Romney guided Bain Capital through its stratospheric rise with an extraordinarily selective approach to problem solving. He and his partners did not have to concern themselves with the whole wide world of corporate transactions. Even as a ­multibillion-dollar company in its later years, Bain Capital needed only a few big wins to earn its high returns. Romney learned to filter out most of the files that reached his desk, directing his attention to the fraction that showed the most promise and ­lowest risk.

To do all that well is very far from easy, but that is not the province of a Commander in Chief. Only the hardest problems head to the Oval Office, many of them with high stakes, high risks, ambiguous evidence and only imperfect outcomes. The problems come in twos and threes and tens, allowing little uninterrupted time for deep reflection. And a President can sidestep very few of them, however unattractive the odds of success.

Pick up a copy on newsstands Friday or subscribe and read the whole thing online. Watch exclusive video from 1986 of Romney telling his polar bear joke to Staples employees below: