Getting Well is Good for Business

Ted Gavin is the first to admit that health was not a priority before the incident that changed his life. He worked constantly, exercised rarely and ate one meal a day, usually late at night. “I was probably the textbook example of a Type-A person for whom health was a remote afterthought to all the demands of work and schedule and family and other obligations,” says Gavin, founding partner and managing director of bankruptcy consulting firm Gavin/Solmonese. A little over a year ago, Gavin, who plays guitar and bass with a band during his rare free time, was rehearsing for a gig in Seattle when he slipped and fell, breaking both wrists.

“They took my blood pressure and it was perfectly normal—for two healthy men,” he recalls. That led to a battery of tests, which ultimately showed a 100 percent blockage in his right coronary artery. “I should have been dead,” he says.

After a triple bypass, Gavin had six weeks of recuperation time to think about his life and priorities—and he decided to make some changes. Today, Gavin is 50 pounds lighter. He exercises every day and eats a mainly vegan diet with small, healthy meals. His heart function now is better than normal. He still works hard, but now he takes time out to reboot. At night, he leaves his mobile phone charging in the other room.

“You’re never going to remember the long list of things you did instead of taking care of yourself. But you will remember the things that happened because you didn’t take care of yourself,” says Gavin, who is married and has two children. “And if you’re not around to do it, the people who care about you will remember.”

Neglecting health and exercise is not a foible unique to CEOs, notes Stephanie Faubion, director of the executive and international health program at Mayo Clinic. “Many of us are more proactive about getting the oil changed in our cars than taking care of our own health.”

But for CEOs and others at the highest corporate levels, an unhealthy lifestyle can often be an occupational hazard. Packed schedules coupled with intense pressure to satisfy stake
Look holders makes self-care challenging for even the most well-intentioned CEOs. It doesn’t help that top executives—accomplished, high-energy, high-stamina—are conditioned to view themselves as somewhat more immune to physical ailments or human limitations and, therefore, often push themselves into overdrive for long stretches.

But CEOs are human, says Faubion. “You can go 100 miles an hour, but it’s only a matter of time before things start to break down if you aren’t paying attention.” Over time, overwork, lack of exercise, poor eating habits and sleep deprivation take their toll on the system, leading to health problems that can eventually cause major events that affect not only the individual CEO but his or her company.

Last October, United Airlines suffered a setback in its turnaround plan when newly minted CEO Oscar Munoz suffered a massive heart attack just over a month into the job. In the weeks leading up to his heart attack, Munoz reportedly worked around the clock, flying about the country to meet with disgruntled employees and dissatisfied customers. He was determined to put the company back on course following years of lagging performance since the merger with Continental in 2010. Instead, United was forced to implement an interim solution while Munoz was sidelined for months following the heart attack and heart transplant surgery.

“What is the cost of that to the company?” asks J. Craig Venter, co-founder and CEO of Human Longevity, a genomics-based, technology-driven company creating the world’s largest database of whole genome, phenotype and clinical data. Part of the problem is that CEOs lack the information they need to make smart decisions about health and lifestyle, says Jack Groppel, cofounder of the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute and author of The Corporate Athlete: How to Achieve Maximal Performance in Business and Life. “Human beings are biological organisms.

In business school, [CEOs] learn how to be great managers and leaders, but they never learn anything about the biology of the human being,” he says, adding that mobile technology has created an “always on” business culture that makes it all too easy for CEOs to overwork and push personal health to the side. “Now, they have to be available 365 days, 24/7. So then they start to develop a story of, ‘If I’m not connected, something bad will happen,’” says Groppel. CEOs have to learn to set those boundaries themselves and then trust those left in charge.

Gavin, who was forced to let others take over, says he learned a valuable lesson about leadership. “As important as we all think we are, if it doesn’t keep working if we get hit by a bus, then it’s not working when we’re there,” he says. That’s taught him to go on vacation, to unplug and to reserve time every day for physical activity and recharging. “It’s easy to think it can’t exist without you. And I had a few moments of that when I was being told, ‘You have to have this surgery.’ But I got past it. Because what was the alternative? Drag the ship down with me?”

Fortunately, getting started on a new course toward a healthier lifestyle doesn’t require as much downtime as a major health crisis would. Executive health programs at top medical centers around the country offer comprehensive screenings in as little as one day.

Mount Sinai Hospital, for example, offers a 12-hour screening that evaluates participants “from top to bottom,” says cardiologist Dr. Valentin Fuster, physician-in-chief of the Mount Sinai Medical Hospital, director of the cardiovascular center and one of the leaders of the executive health program. Participants receive comprehensive lab workups and a battery of biological-function assessments, including cardiovascular, pulmonary, gastrointestinal, endocrine, ophthalmic and audiometric and dermatological. Before leaving, the executive receives an in-depth consultation and strategic recommendations to address any current or potential health issues.

Getting to that first step of information gathering is often half the battle. “It’s very characteristic for CEOs to ignore their own health, to think, ‘it can’t happen to me,’” says Fuster, who notes that in almost every participant who comes in to be screened, some unknown risk factor or potential health issue is uncovered.

Venter, whose company, HLI (Human Longevity), runs the Health Nucleus program for comprehensive screenings for executives, estimates that about 40 percent of participants who assume they are healthy go through the program and discover something important that needs to be addressed. One executive, in his mid-50s with no symptoms, learned he had a large tumor underneath his breast bone, Venter recalls.

A week later, he had the tumor surgically removed using robotics technology and he went home cancer free. “Had he not gotten the test and then detected it later because he had symptoms, he’d probably have had two years to live,” said Venter, adding that early detection can prevent the No. 1 and No. 2 causes of premature death in both women and men: heart disease and cancer. Once executives know the status of their health, they can begin to make changes. Some of the executive health programs, such as the Mayo Clinic, offer help in that area.

Participants in the Mayo Executive Wellness Experience meet one-on-one with a personal coach to review goals and challenges; then, they participate in interactive sessions on nutrition, physical activity and resiliency. They leave the center with a customized plan to improve their lifestyle and to achieve greater health and well-being—despite a very full schedule. One new development in the works is a “living lab,” developed by the cardiology team, which will show executives in an office setting how they can use the latest technology
and fitness products. Ideas include pedals installed under the desk, desk treadmills and exercise-ball seating to allow users to work on core fitness while sitting at a computer. “Sitting is the new smoking,” says Faubion.

Some CEOs incorporate exercise into their workday in other ways. Cheryl Black, CEO of You Technology, the largest digital-coupon-network provider in the U.S., takes advantage of a beautiful path around the office building by holding walking meetings, during which she walks and talks with members of her team. The one rule: everybody leaves his or her cell phone at the office. “It’s a really productive time to chat because when the phones and computers are not in front of them, you get a lot more attention,” says Black. Diet is also a huge factor, says Groppel.

CEOs all too often will skip meals or make poor choices because they’re eating on the go. “If you think about what’s going on with the brain, if you’re going long periods of time without eating, you’re not getting enough glucose to the brain.” Without the right fuel, the brain is operating at a disadvantage. Duff Stewart, CEO of creative marketing agency GSD&M ate that way until 2011, when his wife expressed concern about his health. “One of the bad habits I had was that I’d skip breakfast and come to the office early to get things done. I’d work through because everyone wanted to meet with me and then go home and wind up eating double what I should have,” says Stewart. Today, Stewart eats small, healthy meals throughout the day and has incorporated a daily regimen of exercise.

He zealously guards that time on his calendar. “You have to do that. If you just say, ‘I’ll go to the gym tomorrow,’ too many things will come into the mix and interrupt that.” And because he’s working more efficiently, he finds himself with more time rather than less. “When you do this, you’re also calm and have a different wavelength that enables you to be engaged and present in the conversation you’re in and not irritable and thinking about other things.” In addition to bringing down the cholesterol level and strengthening the heart, exercise can also help immeasurably with stress.

“Stress is an immune system suppressant,” says Venter. “The immune system is the main thing that protects us from cancer. All of us are constantly clearing cancers from our system. But if you have a suppressed immune system, your risk of cancer goes way up.”

One obvious way to prioritize fitness is to bring it onsite, which Centerra Group, a paramilitary support company, did by converting a large office into a gym. “There’s no excuse not to exercise now,” says Paul Donahue, Centerra’s CEO, a former competitive body builder who does not need to be sold on the benefits of exercise. He estimates that about 20 percent of employees take advantage of the gym to get in shape. “That’s not as high as I’d like. But if we didn’t have the gym, it would probably be the country’s average of 2 percent, so we’re a lot better than that.”

Mount Sinai’s Fuster notes that companies that put programs in place, including onsite gyms and flex-time so that employees can take advantage, will ultimately benefit. “You need to prioritize health as one of the main objectives,” he says. “If you do it for your company, you will get motivated yourself.”

On the flip side, if a company puts a program in place and the CEO doesn’t get involved himself or herself, then there likely won’t be a lot of buy-in from employees. “Because the employees won’t really believe they have permission to do it, no matter what they’re told. If they don’t see the senior leadership doing it, they won’t either,” says Groppel. Carine M. Feyten couldn’t agree more.

The president and chancellor of Texas Woman’s University, who is a vegetarian, works out in the university exercise center alongside students. “I strongly feel that as a CEO, I can’t just talk the talk—I have to walk the talk. Otherwise it’s just another program.”

C.J. Prince: C.J. Prince is a regular contributor to Chief Executive and other business publications.
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