Chief executives should stay fit to avoid boss burnout

Top executives have many business hurdles to clear - "CEO guru" Steve Tappin asks how they stay fit

Allan Zeman is a boss who takes his fitness seriously. So much so that he's prepared to keep some very important people on hold.

"I've kept presidents waiting for breakfast because I was exercising," he says. "US presidents in the past."

Mr Zeman, of the Lan Kwai Fong Group, thinks chief executives need to take care of their health and ensure they lead balanced lives.

He has personal experience of the importance of good physical health.

"I lost my father at a young age," says the Hong Kong-based chief executive. "He was 50, he died of a heart attack. It left an imprint on me."

Mr Zeman, who was eight at the time, grew up determined to exercise and look after his health.

In his own words, he now exercises "religiously" for 90 minutes every day: "I never miss a day, never."

Mr Zeman says the Chinese emphasis on balance in life is important and will make you better and stronger in everything you do.

If you neglect the need for a balanced life, he says, "You'll burn out and you'll burn out quickly."

Have a vision

In the interests of keeping fit, many business executives have turned to the sporting world for inspiration.

Three-time world heavyweight champion boxer Muhammad Ali has sometimes been hailed as an example of outstanding leadership.

Muhammad Ali training Boxing champion Muhammad Ali is famous for his mental and physical preparations

The legendary athlete once said: "Champions aren't made in the gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them - a desire, a dream, a vision."

And indeed, sports psychologists have long noted that where sport is concerned, psychological preparation is often just as important as the time and effort put into the physical part of competing.

But bosses beware: while you are busy floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, make sure you don't burn out like a candle.

According to a study conducted by Harvard Medical School, 96% of top managers said they felt burned out to some extent. One-third of them said the problem was "extreme".

Start Quote

Get energised by the people around you”

End Quote Frits van Paasschen Starwood Hotels

The most high-profile example of this in recent times has been Lloyds Banking Group chief executive Antonio Horta-Osorio, who took a two-month leave of absence at the end of 2011 because of exhaustion. He was only allowed to return to work after a thorough medical investigation.

So how do you cope with the stress of high-pressure leadership without falling victim to job fatigue?

Some chief executives argue that thinking like an athlete is important if you're planning to run a company and be at the top of your game.

Steve Tappin coaches chief executives and says they need to be fit if they are to do well - not just physically fit, but emotionally and mentally too.

Think long-term

Joseph Chen, the founder and chief executive of Chinese social networking site Renren, agrees with Mr Zeman on the importance of balance and physical fitness.

Woman pulling out hair Some chief executives warn that a lack of balance can lead to burn out

"The CEO is a very daunting task," he says. In his view, chief executives face so many demands on their time, energy and decision-making powers that physical fitness is essential.

But he also thinks changing the focus of the company, and the timescale on which it works, help the chief executive to do a better job.

Renren, as a company, focuses on where it wants to be in 30 years' time. Mr Chen believes this allows him to pace himself, like a long-distance runner, and take things more calmly.

"Tempo really creates a lot of stability and reason," he says.

Ask key questions

Frits van Paasschen, chief executive of Starwood Hotels, advises his peers to figure out what is important to them and to make sure the right things are in place.

He recommends they surround themselves with people who will give them energy and help them do their job most effectively.

Start Quote

If you bear every burden of the world, you're going to die a young death as a CEO”

End Quote Jeff Immelt General Electric

"Step back, work out what is important and then get energised by the people around you," he says.

Mr van Paasschen believes you also need to enjoy your work and find it meaningful.

"When people come to me and ask for advice about should I take whatever job, I always say, 'Do you like the people you're going to be in the room with, do you find the problems that you're going to be solving meaningful and interesting, and are you living somewhere that you and your family want to be?'" he says.

Mr van Paasschen believes that if you can answer yes to those key questions, all other problems are much easier to work through.

Control what you can

While chief executives hold enormous power and can be very influential, Jeff Immelt of General Electric warns that it is important to remain realistic.

They should only hold themselves accountable for things they can control, he says.

"If you bear every burden of the world, you're going to die a young death as a CEO," says Mr Immelt. "If you're going to say, 'Oh my God, what am I going to do about the French economy? It's so terrible right now.'

"You really have to evolve into a headset where I'm only going to hold myself accountable for the things I can control," says Mr Immelt.

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