Home » Leadership & Strategy » Leadership » Fit To Be CEO

Fit To Be CEO

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 …

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 Coloradobased 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. Without making changes to their lifestyles, how will these executives make it to the fourth quarter of their careers?

Elizabeth Curtis, CEO of Sharp Community Medical Group, an integral part of the giant Sharp Health- Care, the second largest employer in San Diego, is a CPA with a wicked sense of humor (do I sense an oxymoron here?). She has a life filled with early morning meetings and late dinners, since those are the only times the 1,100 physicians of Sharp HealthCare she’s responsible for can meet. Despite her irregular schedule, she maintains an almost daily workout routine. Here’s how it works, in her own words:

“During the week, I start my day by going to a very strategically located gym, one mile from my office, which is in keeping with my constant time and motion personality. I miss the traffic and get a great workout. On the weekends, I do not go to the gym. I ride my horses, bike, and water-ski and, oh yes, chop up wood for the woodpile, fix fences, work in the garden, etc. As for diet, I start my mornings with fruit and maybe some yogurt. Lunch is usually salad or salmon, unless we go on a binge to a wonderful Mexican restaurant, then we go hog wild. Dinners are always served at our meetings; I just try to keep the intake down to a dull roar.” Curtis has planned out a routine that takes efficiencies and even geography into account.

Barry Elson, former CEO of Flextech in London, had a dilemma after the terrorist activity in London on July 7, 2005. Warned against public transportation, he eschewed the company’s car service and decided to walk to and from work, 18 minutes each way. At the time, Elson’s home base in London was a hotel; luckily, it was equipped with a fitness center that he was able to use on weekends.

Elson is an 80/20 healthy eater, with his beverages of choice being tea in the day and wine in the evening. Health can be fun and as a matter of fact, when it isn’t, it’s difficult to maintain. Elson turned a transportation complication into a healthy habit: He enjoyed his walks to work and learned more about his temporarily adopted city. Like Kirk MacDonald, he doesn’t want to hold himself out as someone special. They both adopted changes in their lives that helped them perform up to their capabilities, stay healthy and energized, and maintain some balance.

All of the CEOs I interviewed had multiple reasons for going to the trouble of adjusting their schedules in order to be more fit. Health was high on everyone’s list as “a way to work off stress and remain calm during troubled times or challenging projects.” John Saeman, CEO of Medallion Partners, believes even a short workout in the early evening prepares him for whatever charity dinner or family outing might be on his personal schedule, especially after tough days.

Most CEOs agreed (and the research certainly backs this up) that exercise improves their mood and light food such as salads at lunch enhances their afternoon energy level.

In order to maintain a healthy lifestyle, follow these best practices:

  • Eat breakfast. Most have cereal and fruit or poached eggs, a light omelet, whole wheat toast and coffee (or tea for Elson).
  • Eat a light lunch. Salads are number one, some with grilled chicken, tuna or salmon on top. High protein, low fat lunches make for a brisk afternoon and help avoid the “3 o’clock slump.”
  • A piece of fruit in the afternoon provides fuel to the end of the day. Lara Merriken argues for her Lära- Bars, which I find to be an excellent source of energy in the late afternoon.
  • Some, à la Winston Churchill, take short naps, or at least breaks from the action, especially in the mid afternoon. (I think this is the most important “recovery period” next to sleep you can have.)
  • Fish is a staple in the diet of these CEOs, as are fresh veggies. Many agree that a glass of wine is a healthy, fun accompaniment to a light dinner.
  • As far as exercise, multitasking seems to make it easier to accomplish their fitness goals. Many combine aerobic exercise with watching sports, the news, or their favorite television show. Most, as you might have guessed, have some exercise equipment at home or at the office. MacDonald says that he needs goals for his exercise. He is always “training for triathalons or long biking events €¦ something to shoot for.”

CEOs are on the whole much more attuned to the value of sleep, though not all are able to regularly attain the required amount. Since MacDonald’s change to a new lifestyle, he sleeps seven to eight hours every night as opposed to the four or five he used to get. “It’s all in the rhythm,” he repeats. A higher priority had been placed on “real vacations” to complement their “working vacations” and a conscious attempt made to achieve more balance in their lives.

Life in the Fourth Quarter

Most CEOs from the boomer generation are increasingly aware of how they will live in the fourth quarter of life. This is the period of life in which we either start to die slowly every day or we acknowledge that we have a good bit of control over our future by commitment to fitness, a balanced lifestyle and fun. Would you rather die slowly on a high-fat diet with little or no physical movement, even less energy and no fun in your life, or change your lifestyle and live robustly for the 30 more years you’ll likely live, perhaps dying suddenly in the arms of your lover at age 93?

Dr. Andrew Weil, a pioneer in integrative medicine and an author, calls this compressed morbidity: compressing many possible years of slowly dying into one brief period of months or even a few days, then bingo, you’re gone.

How much more fun is that? For the most part, it’s up to you and your commitment to an active healthy life until it becomes a habit, which it is with most of the CEOs interviewed. 


Peter McLaughlin (www.petermclaughlin. com) is a Denver-based executive coach and author of CatchFire and Mentally Tough.

About peter mclaughlin