Why CEOs Run The World

“Hi 😊 My name is Ben. I am a CEO and a running addict”.

If there was a Runners Anonymous self-help group, a lot of the addicts would be CEOs. These days, running (or maybe endorphins) seems to be the drug of choice for CEOs. Why is that? And why am I following that stereotype? I hate to follow the crowd. Any crowd. I see myself as an unconventional thinker, a trail blazer. Yet here I am fitting right into a stereotype and perfectly happy doing so.

Last Sunday morning I ran 13.1 miles — effectively a half marathon, except this was on my own — around the coast of Manhattan and Brooklyn, in 1 hour 35 minutes. Just for the fun of it! (Though I was also keen to try out my new Lululemon running gear.). This was a new personal best and follows a pattern of me beating my personal best a half-dozen times per year for the past four years. At the age of 46, surely I should have peaked long ago, and now be gliding gently towards my rocking chair ….

Always on the Run

A little background: I have always been a runner of sorts. I started my career as a British Army officer, which involved running 2–3 times per week, along with all sorts of other exercise. I was fit. When I left the army in 1999 to enter the world of business (initially as a strategy consultant at McKinsey), I dropped that frequency to one run of six to eight miles every weekend. This was at an unmeasured pace — probably around nine minutes per mile — with my dogs tagging along. So I have never been unfit. However, through the next 13 years travelling the globe working in executive jobs at McKinsey, Coca-Cola and Google around the world, I flatlined at that level. My assumption was, that over time, I would let my fitness slip gently.

So what happened to make me a running obsessive, and fitter now than I was when in the army? I think the most likely explanation is becoming a CEO in 2012. CEOs make conference speeches and TV appearances more than others, and I am no exception. This leads to seeing your own picture a lot more often, and noticing yourself looking a bit chubby is a great motivator to get fitter. You also hear a lot about the link between fitness and being able to cope with stress. Getting some alone time is attractive too, given that your days are packed with back-to-back meetings. Therefore, since 2012, I have one-by-one initiated a number of actions that have each nudged me towards ever-increasing fitness:

  • Running midweek: In 2012 I toured the U.S. with a colleague and he suggested running together for fun. So I took my running kit and loved it. What better way to see the cities I visit for work than running around them at sunrise, when everyone else is asleep, the streets are empty and the sun is just peeking over the horizon? I now run twice per week midweek, in addition to my weekend run.

All those Miles Pay Off at Work

Now that I am much fitter, there are all sorts of benefits for my effectiveness at work:

  • Higher Energy: I have always been a high energy person, but I have seen zero drop off in that energy level with age or workload.

Physical Fitness, Business Performance

So is my experience unique, or is it actually good for company boards to hire fit CEOs?

According to Connect Sports, the average runner of a Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon in 2013 was $116,771. Overall, the National Runner Survey reports that 76 percent of marathon runners have a college degree and 73 percent have an annual household income of at least $75,000. There is certainly a correlation between business success and extreme running.

More interestingly, Becker Healthcare found that after identifying CEOs of S&P 1500 companies who had completed a marathon in each year between 2001 and 2011, researchers found the firms with top executives who had completed a marathon to be valued 5 percent higher on average than those that had executives who had not. As a fun aside, it seems that running also beats golfing. Biggerstaff, Cicero, and Puckett (2014) find that among the group of golf-playing CEOs, those in the top quartile of golf rounds per year are associated with relatively poor firm performance.”

It is hard to say whether it was becoming a CEO that led to my running obsession. However, now that I am doing it, I believe it does make me a much better CEO and also makes my life much more rewarding.

So I will keep running.

Have any thoughts? Leave me a comment below — or better yet, let’s chat during a run!

Brooklyn Bridge, August 2016

Brooklyn Rock ’n’ Roll Half Marathon, October 2016

New Delhi, India, November 2015

Tough Mudder, somewhere in the desert east of Los Angeles, April 2016

Ben Legg is an engineer, author and serial tech CEO. At The Portfolio Collective, he works with entrepreneurs to reinvent themselves and society

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