Artifact Six: Mitt Romney on the “Businesses” of Life

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In the lead-up to The Choice 2012, FRONTLINE’s hotly anticipated dual biography of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, we’re publishing “The Artifacts of Character,” a series of rarely seen objects that elucidate key moments and experiences in the candidates’ lives. Each Monday and Thursday for the next three weeks, we’ll publish a new artifact for each candidate.

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artifact one

Credit: courtesy of Clayton Christensen

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In 1978,  Mitt Romney –  then a management consultant with Bain & Company — returned to Harvard Business School, from which he had graduated only three years earlier, to give a talk to Mormon students. His aim was to illustrate how lessons from the business world can apply to personal pursuits, and a path to self-improvement.

Clayton Christensen, who was then a student and who would go onto become a Harvard Business School professor and the author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, took notes during the presentation. He later told the New York Times’ Jodi Kantor that Romney explained it this way: “You have the same question as General Electric. Your resources are your time and talent. How are you going to deploy them?”

Using a “growth-share matrix,” Romney then explained how individuals can allocate their limited “resources” — such as time, energy, skills, knowledge, talent and money — to help grow and generate profits from the “businesses” of life — including family, church, profession, community and self.

A young father at the time, Romney emphasized that time spent with your children now — as they develop — is more valuable than time spent with them later, in what would essentially be a “discount rate.”

Some of the other aphorisms Romney shared drew from his Mormon faith. One of them — “No success can compensate for failure in the home” — was a quote made popular by a former president of the Mormon Church, David O. McKay. Among some of Romney’s other maxims recorded by Christensen:

  • Never work on Sunday
  • Study the scriptures
  • Always hold home evening (A weekly Mormon ritual during which families are encouraged to spend time together engaged in study, prayer or other activities.)
  • Accept church callings
  • Attend the temple

But the advice came with a caveat, according to Christensen’s notes: Not taking the time to replenish the energy needed to keep up one’s resources base, Romney warned, would mean running fewer, less profitable businesses.

Romney completed both law and business degrees at Harvard in 1975. As he developed in his career at Bain and as governor of Massachusetts, he would become known for his data-driven, case-study method towards approaching problems.

Coming Friday: A discussion of this week’s artifacts with David Maraniss (Barack Obama: The Story), Jodi Kantor (The Obamas), Michael Kranish and Scott Helman (The Real Romney), Washington Post reporter Jason Horowitz and Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows. You can read the discussion of last week’s artifacts here.

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