Fit to Be CEO

By McLaughlin, Peter | Chief Executive (U.S.), September 2006 | Go to article overview

Fit to Be CEO


McLaughlin, Peter, Chief Executive (U.S.)


How some CEOs link fitness and performance.

I was in Hawaii giving a speech for the leadership of Washington Mutual Bank. As is usual in my case, after the speech I went to the fitness center for my daily aerobic exercise. To my surprise, working out next to me on a treadmill was Kerry Killinger, CEO of Washington Mutual. I asked him if he maintained a fitness routine and he answered by asking, "How could anyone working in the speed and stress atmosphere of today, especially directors of companies, survive without fitness? It's the best answer for combating stress and producing energy," which he has a lot of.

Pat O'Donnell is CEO of Aspen Skiing Company not just because of the prestige and money involved (although they're nice), but because he has to have a job where he can live a vigorous and healthy lifestyle. When I interviewed him for my book, CatchFire, his habit was to start most mornings in the fitness center at the Snowmass Club. One of the most unexpected effects of his early morning workouts, he told me, was the innovative and creative ideas he got while working out. "That's when I do a lot of my thinking. As a matter of fact, it's almost ridiculous now because I take a little notepad from station to station. I usually walk out with six or seven new ideas every morning."

Lara Merriken, CEO of Colorado-based Humm Foods, also finds inspiration in her fitness routine. "I was registered for school to become a naturopath, but one day while hiking about a week before the start of classes, I had the idea to create and produce healthy, natural, organic food bars." So she canceled her school plans and started working in the nutrition department of Whole Foods to understand the industry (and pay the bills) while developing the bars in her kitchen at home. In April 2003, just three years later, her company officially opened for business and started generating sales of about 1,000 bars a month. Humm Foods is now selling millions of LäraBars per month.

Amidst the phenomenal growth of her business Merriken manages to find the time to run four miles five days a week. In addition to generating new ideas, she benefits from regular exercise "because of the way it makes me feel. The busier it gets, the more I pay attention to my routine of exercise, meditation, yoga and eight hours of sleep per night. It's what keeps me energized, happy and grounded."

What's the point? Many CEOs concur with Killinger, O'Donnell and Merriken: Exercising, eating healthier foods and practicing some semblance of life balance improves physical, mental and emotional well-being. As a matter of fact, Kirk MacDonald, CEO of The Denver Newspaper Agency (publisher of the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News), said his adoption of a fitness-focused lifestyle three years ago "helped me become more innovative and get better at execution, but most importantly, it helps me maintain a clear picture of what we're trying to do. I can work through changes with my executive staff without losing energy or falling into an unhealthy level of stress."

But maintaining healthy habits and finding time for fitness isn't always easy, and many CEOs lack the skills to achieve balance, especially in the face of changing business climates. How do successful CEOs get it all done? MacDonald feels that too many try, unsuccessfully, to compartmentalize work, fitness, family and friends. "A CEO is never far away from his or her work. Compartmentalization just creates more stress. I believe we have to find a 'lifestyle rhythm' that incorporates an ebb and flow of work and play that's almost seamless."

Regardless of what strategies we choose to create a healthy, fit lifestyle, we had better start soon. A recent survey by William Mercer Associates indicates that for some CEOs these changes are imperative for achieving long-term career goals. According to Mercer, during an average workday of 11.9 hours, 73 percent of the senior executives surveyed were physically inactive, 40 percent were obese, and 75 percent had two or more risk factors for cardiovascular disease. …

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