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Hands down, it's hands-on

EARLY in his career, Julio Portalatin, president and chief executive of Mercer, settled on a management style that he gleaned from In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters.

He calls the style "management by walking around".

"I learnt that managers and leaders shouldn't spend as much time in their office as perhaps traditionally they felt they should. They really should spend time in the field, out and about with clients, colleagues, different constituents, regulators... applying some degree of positive impact on those levels in a very personal way. It taught me early on that that was going to be my style - being out, managing by observing, listening and applying those learnings in decisions I make."

He applied this style almost immediately when he joined Allstate Insurance. In his first role as new business coordinator, he had to make sure no client file awaited a decision for more than 30 days. There were no computers in those days. "My job was to find policies that were close to 30 days and make sure those got cleared. Some would say that sounds rudimentary. But I learnt new business workflow like no one else knew in the company. I knew where things were at any moment - the moment a policy arrived in the building to the moment it was issued.

"I knew every step - accounting, underwriting. Not many people got to understand the business to that level of detail which really aided my ability to become a supervisor." He was given six weeks to accomplish the job; he did it in four.

The second task was far more challenging - to manage the transition of seven women whose jobs were being phased out with the advent of computers. The women could take early retirement or stay on to be retrained in the use of computers. At that point, all of them decided to retire. The women were keypunch operators, a manual system of data entry that predated computers.

"In the first week with them, I tried to act like what I thought a supervisor should, and that went absolutely nowhere. Quite frankly, I was really perplexed about what to do next. I went back to the roots of what I had learnt in my life and the books I had read, to try a different tack - to basically take an interest in what they were doing first before I tried to instruct them on what to do."

He spent two days with each woman. "I learnt about their husbands, their kids and the lives they had, their careers with Allstate. All of them had been with Allstate for 20 years or more. That allowed me to connect in a different way. It became more of a team effort after that. I learnt that if you want to influence others, you have to learn what they do." So he sat with them and learnt how to keypunch, a skill that was going the way of the dodo. "They very much appreciated that, which allowed me to influence them."

Five of the women decided to stay on to be retrained, and two retired. "They were in a position to think about their future a little differently than they did before. I thought it was an interesting way to start my supervisory career."

He says of both stints: "I collaborated with people that I knew were important to the process. I didn't make it a confrontational aspect of their jobs. I made it so that they felt as excited about completing the task as I did."