In the pantheon of social stereotypes, the fat-cat CEO has always held a cherished spot. The brusque, pot-bellied, cigar-chomping heavyweight striking deals over well-lubricated lunches before being chauffeured back to the office for a snooze. And male. Always male. Yet, in so many ways, that cartoonish figure is becoming obsolete. Today’s CEOs are as likely to indulge in marathons as marathon lunches, personal bests are picked over alongside quarterly figures and bonuses, and a refreshing gust of female CEOs has blown through the dusty old boys’ network. The modern exec must be fit for purpose, which, increasingly, means being fit. Dynamism, stress management, mental clarity – all roads lead back to exercise and, in many cases, running. Somewhere along the line, the fat cat has become the lean tiger.
Glenn Earlam, CEO of gym chain David Lloyd, is just such an example. A sub-three marathon runner in his youth, the rangy 51-year-old has taken his passion for running and made it an integral part of both his personal and corporate life. Barring injury, he’ll be out pounding the pavements three or four times a week. He likes to run anything between three and six miles at a time and he relishes the head space that this gives him away from the pressures of overseeing a £360m business and a workforce of nearly 9,000.
‘I more or less have to exercise,’ he says. ‘If I didn’t, then the thing that would be stopping me would be lots and lots of work – and then a combination of that, plus not being able to get outside in the fresh air to clear my head, would pretty quickly wear me down. So it’s a crucial part of the balance in my life, and that goes for a lot of CEOs I know. Loads of them run, they’re pretty fit, and they’re also acutely conscious of the need to be prepared and ready to do a good job. That’s the real change in my lifetime.’
Whether it’s running with his grown-up children (‘this morning the 19-year-old and I ran 3km as fast as we could’), training for the London Marathon, which he completed last year, or taking part in running-related initiatives such as RunTheCEO, in which budding entrepreneurs get to run with, and pitch to, business leaders, Earlam describes himself as ‘unencumbered’ once the trainers go on. ‘I think it helps me to perform better in my job and in the corporate environment. When I’m running, sometimes I’ll think about work, sometimes I won’t. But I’m definitely freer when I’m doing it.’
(Related: How to fit training into a hectic lifestyle)
For his most recent focus, the Bournemouth Half Marathon in October, he invited the David Lloyd ‘transformation group’ – those in the top tier of the business – to join him, and around 50 have accepted. ‘This being David Lloyd, it’s going to be a reasonably competitive crowd,’ he says with a chuckle. ‘There will definitely be some sense of people trying to beat each other, and that’s great. One of the things I’m trying to encourage staff to do is lead an active lifestyle, to use the product. It’s what we’re all about, after all.’
The new breed
It is indeed, which perhaps makes it less surprising that the company has a figurehead of Earlam’s make-up. Yet one doesn’t have to search hard to find examples of the new breed of all-action exec in other sectors of the business world. Iris Worldwide is a creative agency that works with clients such as Samsung, Adidas and Shell. It employs 1,000 people in 14 offices around the world. Iris was one of the first big companies to implement a comprehensive corporate wellness scheme – and to meet chief executive and founding partner Ian Millner is to understand where the impetus is coming from.
RW catches up with Ian shortly after his morning workout, which is performed in full view of the company’s London office with Wellness Director Rebecca Cox. Arriving at the office at 6.30am, his session of sprint training, boxing and circuits begins at 7am and lasts an hour. The 400 or so staff filing in to the office past this conspicuous display of executive dynamism don’t even blink; they’re used to it. ‘Ian’s a bruiser,’ says Cox, with a smile, when the workout is done. ‘He likes the explosive stuff: a real sprinter. He won’t mind me saying that, at 47, he’s one of the oldest in the company – I think our average age is 26 – but few can keep up with him.’
Millner laughs on hearing this, joking, ‘I’m just battling to keep insanity and middle age at arm’s length.’ He’s always been active. As a youngster he played rugby and cricket at every opportunity, and trained every day, thinking nothing of setting off on 12-mile runs across the moors where he lived. He went on to study PE and movement science at university. ‘It helped me understand sport and activity, what it does and how it contributes to other things that you’ve got going on in your life. When I left university, I took a lot of that with me.’ Free personal training sessions for all 400 staff are just one of the bonuses of working at Iris. There are also physio sessions, health screenings, inter-agency 5K races and as much organised sport as the workforce can handle. The latest initiative will see staff challenge Millner to a sprint race, with the carrot of an extra day off for those who can beat the near-50-year-old ‘bruiser’. Brave, as well as inspirational – but Ian refuses to see himself as a one-off.
‘There’s been a massive cultural shift among executives,’ he says. ‘Some of that is because these positions are less dominated by middle-aged men. It’s also because health issues are more prominent – heart disease and the role stress plays within that, for example. All these things are connected. You look at running, at cycling, at triathlon – it really isn’t uncommon to see people of executive level going out for hours on end these days.’
Fit for purpose
Few are better placed to witness the sea change in CEO behaviour than Steve Tappin. The Yorkshireman is a leading ‘CEO coach’, working with dozens of Fortune 500 execs over the past two decades, as well as hosting the BBC World series CEO Guru. CEOs thrive on accomplishment, and he believes running and other physical challenges offer them a drip-feed of the stuff. ‘The age of the fat cat is over,’ he says, firmly. ‘A significant proportion now incorporate running and exercise in their daily routine. They put themselves in challenging situations in their physical lives to get the physical benefit, but also because it gives them the benefit of not being in their heads, of getting away from work and giving them a new space to operate in.’
That’s not to say all are as enlightened. The workload of the average CEO, according to Tappin, is ‘around 120-130 per cent of capacity'. At that level they’re swamped and they lack mental sharpness. Anything higher and they start to become volatile. Ultimately, they hit a wall of mental and physical exhaustion. He sees exercise as a key component of bringing this back down to a manageable level of around 80-90 per cent. ‘What most are beginning to realise is that they’ve got to “squander”, in inverted commas, that hour or whatever a day for exercise to create mental clarity, emotional stability and high energy. That’s the place where they make better decisions and become better CEOs.’
(Related: Running through stress)
The benefits are not just internal. A CEO is both manager and figurehead, after all, and their behaviour has the capacity to ripple down through a company’s strata. ‘The rule has always been that whatever the CEO does, other people will follow, and that totally applies to how they run their lives,’ says Tappin. ‘CEOs need to be much more aware that how they are and how they turn up has a massive effect on their people. If they make a consistent shift for three to six months, then the company will come with them.’
Attempts have been made to quantify the benefits to a company of a dynamic leader. A study by the Social Science Research Network in 2014 claimed to have found a correlation between marathon running and corporate success at a CEO level. Researchers pored over results from America’s 15 largest marathons looking for CEO entrants. They found that the percentage of chief execs finishing at least one marathon nearly doubled in the decade from 2001, to nearly one in 10. They then looked at the companies these execs were running – finding that firms led by those who had completed even one marathon had five per cent greater value, even adjusted for anomalies around past performance and market challenges. Directly attributing one to the other would be foolish, but few would argue with the study’s conclusions that pointed to running’s ‘buffering effect on stress’ and its ‘positive effective on cognitive functions’ for those at chief exec level.
If there was an exact correlation between the volume a CEO runs and the performance of the company they lead, then Stella & Dot would be out of sight by now. Not that business isn’t already booming for the direct-sale jewellery and fashion company – 375 corporate employees, more than 30,000 ‘independent business owners’ (franchisees) and a valuation in the hundreds of millions. At the helm is Jessica Herrin, a self-declared running ‘addict’. She came to the party late – ‘I thought it was torture when I first started, at around 17, purely as a way to stay fit’ – but since then she has run five times a week, with her two pregnancies the only hiatuses.
‘Running is my sanity saver,’ she says. ‘I often tell people that if it doesn’t seem like I’m running, they should be concerned about the strategic direction of our business and my ability to lead. I think I should do other things as well to balance out my fitness – but I enjoy it so much and it does so much for me mentally that I’m just addicted.’
Between six and eight miles around the Crystal Springs area in which she lives in San Francisco is her favoured route (‘the first criteria when I buy a house is that I have to be able to run immediately out of my door’), but she has also completed a four-hour marathon. Herrin’s treadmill sessions are devoted to Orangetheory, the punishing, high-intensity workout programme, but her longer, outdoor runs are what she calls ‘slow and happy’; typically around an 8:30min/mile pace. ‘I get lost in my head and don’t pay attention to my time. Running is like a moving meditation for me. During the week I run by myself, but my weekend jogs are very social. Those runs are honestly the basis of my closest friendships because you can talk about everything and anything.’
And what of the corporate benefits? ‘I’m a huge advocate for fitness. I think if you don’t have a strong body you don’t have a strong mind, and it becomes hard to operate at your best in both brain power and emotional intelligence. I believe that if you tell yourself the lie that you’re too busy for exercise, what you’re doing is making yourself far less effective for the rest of the day. When I travel, I struggle to run and I can feel my stress levels are much higher. The moment I get out there again, my problems and burdens feel lighter.’
Some exec watchers argue that peak physical fitness is a way of projecting tacit dominance in the boardroom. For Herrin, it’s more nuanced than that. ‘As a woman, I don’t have a subconscious desire to spar with colleagues; I’m more likely to want to hug them. But I love that running makes me strong, not skinny, and I love having that primal knowledge that I could endure. Not in a fight in the boardroom, but if I was stranded somewhere or if I had to help my children or other people.’
Herrin refutes the idea that the growing number of female CEOs is what’s driving behavioural changes for the top tier in business, saying the numbers are still too negligible. Plus, not all the female CEOs she spends time with share her devotion to health and physical fitness. ‘I have a “white heel” [female] group of CEOs that I meet with and it’s divided. Around half are like me and into their exercise, their physical challenges, in a big way. But the other half is too busy with their work and their families. I worry about this half because there’s way too much stress in what we do not to have that physical release.’
Food for thought
Stress, and physical release, are things that Dennis Woodside enjoys in equally gargantuan measure. As Chief Operating Officer for Dropbox, he and his fellow execs oversee a workforce of 1,700, while he’s tasked with making strategic decisions for a company valued at $10bn in 2014. His schedule is, it’s fair to say, rather busy. And how does he escape these stresses? With self-imposed physical torment in the form of Ironman triathlons: 2.4-mile swims, 112-mile cycles and full marathons, completed in agonising sequence on a single day. He’s rather good at it, too: in October he made his second appearance at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. In all, he’s completed a dozen of these gruelling races.
‘I started running for rowing practice – we’d run to the boat house every day at Cornell University, upstate New York, and our coach would have us do pretty long runs as part of our coaching regimen,’ he explains. To his natural running ability – he has twice dipped under the magical three-hour marathon mark, in the Sacramento and Chicago races, and has run a 3:07 London PB – he’s added cycling and swimming expertise, enlisting in the latter the help of the US national team coach, no less. ‘Now I’m kind of mediocre at all three disciplines,’ he lies.
‘I run, swim or bike every day and it’s a way to clear my mind and just think about what needs to happen – what I’m doing right, what I’m doing wrong. And you get lots of good ideas when you’re on an 18-mile training run.’ If not quite an immovable part of his week, it does take something dramatic to tear him from the training sessions that block off his diary’s daily 6.30-8am slot.
‘I think my corporate performance would suffer quite a bit without exercise,’ he says. ‘It becomes harder to concentrate, and also you just don’t have that thinking time. I look at my schedule on a typical day and it’s meeting, meeting, meeting. So not a lot of time to sit and reflect. The importance of execs having time to think, rather than just to do, is well documented. For me, exercise has just been a part of my life for so long now that it really is a tool I’ve come to use. I certainly hope that will be the case for a long time.’
Dropbox didn’t go from plucky student start-up to global business behemoth in a decade without an eye for progressive working practices. Woodside is helping to drive some of these, through the areas of his life that he’s evangelical about. For one, he opens up his schedule to colleagues who want to run with him – from any level of the company. ‘You’d be surprised how many people are runners,’ he says. ‘Maybe they’re a little intimidated about the boss, or about their ability to stay with the pace, but they needn’t be. When we did our recent leadership course, “Run with Dennis” was on the formal schedule and anyone could join in. We went nice and easy to make sure everyone felt included. It’s great. You get to know people that way who otherwise you might not spend time with.’
The equitability of physical endeavour – running and exercise as a social balancer – is something emphasised by all the execs we spoke to. Glenn Earlam confessed to devouring Running with the Kenyans, by Adharanand Finn, on his summer holiday this year and was struck by its contention that running is fundamentally a primeval instinct: man was built to catch prey and outrun predators. ‘I love all that stuff. I really do,’ he says. ‘The idea of standing alongside anybody and everybody, and it being a great leveller.’ Millner and Herrin echo this, and also seem drawn to – or at least accepting of – the elusiveness of optimum physical performance. You can be pulling up trees in the corporate world, making millions in salary and dividends, but on some days running will choose to show you who’s boss. Or someone else will.
Woodside tells a great story from his four-year spell living and working in central London. His daily training run would incorporate a high-speed lap of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. ‘I was reasonably fast and not a lot of people would pass me,’ he recalls. ‘But one morning I heard breathing behind me, and it started getting closer. People were pointing at whoever it was. I remember thinking, “What’s going on?”
Despite his best efforts, that pursuing runner eased past him. ‘It was Paula Radcliffe,’ he says. ‘And she must have been four or five months’ pregnant. That certainly put me in my place.’
TIPS FROM THE TOP
Train early: ‘That way, you get the benefits over the day.’ Ian Millner
Be flexible: ‘It can be hard to maintain set running times, as work pressure varies. In busy weeks, I’ll only manage to run once midweek. I’ll then run Saturday and Sunday.’ Glenn Earlam
Get kitted out: ‘I have running kit everywhere, at all times. So there’s no excuse for me not running.’ Jessica Herrin
Meet on the run: ‘If you know someone you need to meet is a runner, consider opening up your schedule to them and having a meeting as you go.’ Dennis Woodside
Compete: ‘Have little race-offs and challenges between yourself and your colleagues. Competition improves your training and creates rapport and respect. Plus, it’s fun.’ Ian Millner
No run is too short: ‘If I only have 20 minutes, I’ll run 20 minutes – but maybe do sprint intervals rather than distance. Any run is better than none.’ Jessica Herrin
Set targets: ‘I plodded for about 20 years, but after I was 40 I entered a half marathon and did it in about two hours. Then I thought, I wonder if I could go a bit quicker. I’ve doing that for 11 years.’ Glenn Earlam
Vanity second: ‘I’d always rather run and not have time to blow-dry my hair. And that’s from a woman who runs a fashion company.’ Jessica