For most of Europe, especially those engaged in academic pursuits, September marks the beginning of a new year. After the traditional August downtime, during which business leaders too may have had time to read, reflect, write, or simply “beach”, this month marks a return to full speed.
As we also begin a new chapter with the launch of this column on executive health and sustainable leadership I wanted to challenge our notions on what a successful business career looks like.
The start of a new year, if not filled with intention and resolution, is certainly filled with aspiration. We look ahead to bold new objectives, ambitious plans and, perhaps, the fruits of achieving those targets. Reserved parking, chofer services and business class air travel may help simplify an executive life in order to focus on the business at hand, yet therein dangers also lie for health, which ultimately drives that business performance.
Let’s look a little deeper. In our Sustaining Executive Performance model which has been delivered to thousands of senior leaders worldwide we look at five key areas of health and performance. Before detailing these areas consider the following statements, representative of a typical “successful” executive. To what extent do these apply to your life today?
• Spending a large part of the day ensconced in an office behind a large desk.
• Glorifying 4hrs sleep. Being the first to arrive and last to leave.
• Always online, busy, hyper-reactive, and multi-tasking.
• Enjoying endless sumptuous business dinners. Mindless eating at home and work.
• No time for, or legitimacy placed on, physical training.
I am realistic. Work is work and from time to time our lives will represent part of the above profile, yet I don’t think this should be fully representative at all times. Sustainable business performance is built on the foundations of health, and this is driven by cultivating more MOVEMENT, RECOVERY, FOCUS, attention to food as FUEL, and TRAINING time, which are the five elements of the Sustaining Executive Performance model.
And this is the good news. Executive health need not be about taking that near sabbatical from normal life to fit in training for next year’s Ironman. We see many of our alpha business leaders tackle such a challenge with the same gusto as any grand business challenge. Admirable, yet perhaps not sustainable.
The far easier, and more beneficial strategy for business performance is a change in mindset that comes from subtle behaviour change, new habits, routines and ways of working.
Let’s take movement as a simple example. We have designed and constructed a modern world in which movement is harder than ever. And having an office job may be one of the most dangerous things you can do. “Sitting disease” has garnered significant attention in recent years and the fact that “sitting is the smoking of our generation” – highlighting the effects on life expectancy as comparable to being a heavy smoker. Yet what of the business benefits of more mindful movement?
Standing meetings, practiced by many in the Agile Programming field over the years are much leaner and cut down the wasted time of poorly focussed, overlong meetings that characterise much of the working week. A standing desk, used by Ernest Hemingway for all his books, may help contribute to the 3-4 hours standing time at work which gives the equivalent calorie burn to running 10 marathons a year.
Changing the design of a chair has been shown to improve brainstorming, with a more upright posture resulting in less criticism of the wild ideas necessary for innovation. Also in the creativity domain, a recent Stanford study found that walking improved creativity by an average of 60% as compared to sitting – so take that walking meeting, also useful to build relationships, cover sensitive subjects and drill down on a tough problem. Research has also shown eliminating the chair altogether improves collaborative outcomes with individuals less likely to defend their own territory.
Finally getting away from the desk has long been shown to result in more accidental encounters which drive innovation – a fact that is being reflected in the design of new office spaces by companies including Apple and Google. This is the movement imperative for business performance, supporting what IDEO founder Tom Kelley once remarked, “When I see someone at their desk all day, it’s suspicious how they pretend to work.”
I often talk of the first law of executive health in my lectures: that movement creates energy – in the oxygen-rich blood that is transported around the body and brain, not to mention both hormonal and neurological activation that helps executive thinking.
A movement that changes the signs of managerial success may also create energy in the organisation. When top executives have good habits, it motivates others. For example, all members of the C-suite of a top technology multinational that I’ve worked with no longer take the elevator. Businesses should also realise that work is no longer about “desktime” and allow their employees more flexibility and the trust to get on with delivering the best results.
So welcome to September, the start of a new year. Although “beaching” time may be over, retaining some time for reading, writing and reflecting – particularly regarding the way you work – amongst the sedentary meetings, e-mailing and multi-tasking may help make it a very successful one.
About the Author
Founder of The Leadership Academy of Barcelona [LAB] and author of Sustaining Executive Performance (Pearson 2015) Dr. MacGregor has delivered over 1000 sessions the past 5 years in executive health and behavior change for clients including Telefónica, Danone, IESE, IMD, and the BBC. He holds a PhD in Engineering Design Management and has been a visiting researcher at Stanford and Carnegie-Mellon. His executive education teaching is informed by academic interest in sustainability and design and he is an article reviewer for, among others, Industry and Innovation, Journal of Engineering Design, and the International Journal of Design Creativity and Innovation.