Sudhanshu Vats: It’s a great time to reflect

The group CEO of Viacom18 says the open road, the sights, sounds and smells, teach you about focus, patience and perseverance

Going strong: Sudhanshu Vats has run 10 marathons. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Going strong: Sudhanshu Vats has run 10 marathons. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Numbers.... It has always been about numbers for Sudhanshu Vats. Not surprising for someone who has spent a considerable time with the consumer products company Hindustan Unilever Ltd and is now group chief executive officer (CEO) at media firm Viacom18, which he joined in 2012. But it’s not the sales and TRP (television rating points) numbers that fascinate Vats the most. It’s the sub-4-hour marathons and the miles he runs that give him the kick.

The 48-year-old has completed four of his 10 marathons in under 4 hours. He is animated and happy as he explains that he finds running therapeutic. He says his favourite medicine for a mild headache or fever is lacing up his trainers and breaking into a run. A cross-country runner in school, Vats reignited his passion for running with the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon in 2004.

Vats says that by taking his fitness seriously, he is also fulfilling a duty towards his team members. Many of his colleagues now join him for a run every month for the Donate A Mile initiative, where Viacom18 employees either join Vats for his morning weekday runs or donate for every mile he covers to support the cause of girls’ education. Not only has he been an inspiration at his workplace, the father of two has also been influential at home. His elder daughter joins him in his runs once a week.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

Does running affect your performance at work?

Running is, literally, a way of life for me. It has helped me inculcate many personality traits that have shaped me professionally and personally. Running has taught me the importance of planning and of being able to break down longer plans into shorter milestones. It is a great time to reflect. The open road, the sights, sounds and smells therein, teach one about focus, patience and perseverance.

The other thing about running is that it is a great leveller. I get the chance to interact with people from all walks of life and appreciate the diversity that surrounds us. Finally, running does wonders to lift your mood. Heading off for a run before work significantly improves my ability to think clearly, focus on the things that matter and overall productivity.

How do you balance your training and work?

Eventually, it all boils down to my passion for running. It’s not very difficult to make time for something that one is so passionate about.

How does leading by example as a fit leader affect your team members?

This is a question best answered by my colleagues. We owe it to our families, colleagues and organizations to act responsibly when it comes to our mental and physical fitness. I would like to believe that by taking my own fitness seriously, I am also fulfilling a part of my responsibility towards my team members. Many of them are equally driven by their own fitness goals. Hopefully, this will work as a multiplier and help more within the Viacom18 family understand the importance of fitness as a tool to cope with the stresses of the workplace, manage their personal time better and boost their performance.

How do you use running/fitness to improve team-building and interaction with employees?

At Viacom18, fitness is ingrained into a great number of activities that bolster employee interaction. We organize in-house sporting tournaments like cricket and football, offer subsidized gym memberships and healthy food in the cafeteria. Additionally, this year we started the Donate A Mile initiative. We plan to continue working in this direction.

What are the leadership lessons you can get from distance running?

Long-distance running offers several leadership lessons. For one, it takes hours and hours of dedicated practice. It’s a classic example of the “10,000 hours” rule (10,000 hours of deliberate practice is required to become world-class in any field, according to author and speaker Malcolm Gladwell). In our professional lives, it becomes important to “stay the course” despite challenges and setbacks. It also teaches one the importance of timing. Peak performance should be timed well for it to be sustainable. One has to be focused about his or her goals and this requires a great deal of mental grit and determination. All in all, perseverance, timing and mental strength form the essence of the leadership lessons offered by long-distance running.

How important is employee fitness in your organization?

We have introduced a holistic wellness programme called CARE that allows for regular medical check-ups for employees and their families. It also allows our employees to have regular sessions with professional doctors, counsellors and dietitians within the office premises. We have regular zumba classes too within our premises so that employees can enjoy a fun workout.

Who are your running buddies?

I have running buddies from different walks of life (pun intended). An architect, a tech-entrepreneur and another management professional join me for most of my runs.

Describe your training regimen.

I follow a weekly regimen where I run on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings for an hour, starting around 6.30. Over the weekend, I push myself harder by running for 2-3 hours at a time. I have a very hard taskmaster in my trainer and former national marathoner Savio D’Souza. He constantly eggs me to run tall and breathe well. He is an old-world coach and a terrific gentleman.

Your toughest race.

I lost my father a month before the 2010 Mumbai Marathon and it completely disrupted my training schedule. It was among my toughest races—one that made me stretch my mental and physical boundaries.

Your favourite running moment till date.

During the 2012 Mumbai Marathon, I was participating along with a “running mate”. Everything was going well till we covered around 35km. Suddenly, my partner developed massive cramps. I stopped alongside him to figure out if there was any way to reduce his pain. Some of the other contestants urged me to move on; it was the “natural” thing to do given that medical help was at hand. But we had practised together for so long that it seemed almost criminal to desert him at this stage. I stuck with him and tried my best to motivate him to finish the race. To my pleasant surprise, he fought back and rose to resume running. Not only did both of us finish that marathon, we actually did it within 4 hours.

Running With The Boss is a fortnightly series where CEOs and MDs talk about leadership lessons, management mantras, the importance of a fit team, and striking a work-life balance through running. Click here for the video and earlier stories.

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