Vighnesh Shahane: Fitness is not about ‘looking’ fit

The chief executive officer of IDBI Federal Life Insurance uses his running time to plan his day and introspect, not to network

Shahane has run 12 half marathons. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Shahane has run 12 half marathons. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

A cricket ball in a sock, with an autographed bat next to it, hangs in front of his large desk. Whenever he takes a break, he picks up the bat and knocks the ball around. “For all the years that I wanted to bat but couldn’t…I am making up for it now,” says Vighnesh Shahane, the Mumbai-based chief executive officer and whole-time director of IDBI Federal Life Insurance Co. Ltd, and a former fast bowler who played in the Ranji Trophy for Mumbai and Rajasthan between 1991-93.

After three years as a professional cricketer, with a salary of around Rs.6,000 a month, Shahane, then 24, went back to college. He completed a master’s in business administration from Mumbai’s Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies. He had realized that in his case, cricket wouldn’t pay enough to cover his bills.

But he did not stop running, something that had been part of his warm-up regimen in cricket-training sessions. Now 46, Shahane runs every day whenever he is in Mumbai. “I have run 12 half marathons. I haven’t run any marathon and I don’t think I will ever be able to run one now. Age is not on my side. I haven’t timed my 10k runs. In the 21k, my best was 2 hours, 15 minutes when I was 15 years younger and 15kg lighter,” he says.

With Shahane at the helm of IDBI since 2011, running has become an integral part of life in his organization. Under his leadership, the company has started sponsoring distance-running races, such as the Spice Coast Marathon (in Kochi), the Delhi Marathon, the Kolkata Marathon and the recently concluded Mumbai Half Marathon. Simultaneously, the organization has also introduced initiatives that encourage employees to run, especially in the races sponsored by it.

“We ourselves have got to be fit as an organization to tell the customer to be fit. What we are trying to do is give a positive spin to insurance by associating with these races,” says Shahane. Though he is a solitary runner, he does give in to colleagues’ requests for selfies at the end of
a race.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

Does running affect your performance at work? 

For me, a morning run is about getting high on energy to help me take the day head on. I have always felt more energized and focused on the days that I run. The days that I miss my run, I find myself a little at a loss for energy. Being in a position where I am responsible for the lives and careers of about 2,000-odd people in my company, I cannot afford lethargy. That’s where running comes in. I use the running time to plan the day, to think over impending issues and find solutions for immediate problems.

How do you balance training and work?

I really don’t train any more. All I do is run. There is really no need for me to balance work and running. I run when I need to run, and I work when I need to work. Ever since I quit playing cricket, running has been the simplest yet most effective way to keep my fitness in place. When I am travelling, however, my schedule most often does not permit me to go for a morning run.

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

I sincerely believe that fitness is not about “looking” fit. It is not about six packs or big biceps. Real fitness is what you feel from within. I am fortunate to have people in my senior management who are serious about fitness. That helps the fitness mandate find takers within the organization.

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

This is where the corridor discussions and chats help. Catching up with the ones that I know are sportspeople and runners (about 20% of the workforce), and talking to them about what they have done recently, not only charges me but also gets them going. To be honest, I still have some groundwork to do to fully utilize the potential of interactions and discussions on fitness. I have started off, now I need to consolidate.

Do you see any leadership lessons in distance running?

The most important lesson that I learnt was from my friend, Mahesh Bhupathi, a world-class sportsperson. Earlier in the year, we were running together and in the time we ran, he ran thrice more than me. I stopped when I couldn’t go further, but he continued, and egged me to try to run more. I simply couldn’t, so I sat down on the park bench. I asked him what kept him going even at his age (Bhupathi is 42). His reply will always remain with me. He said, “After a certain distance, you run with your mind, not with your legs.”

This is as true for corporate life as it is for running. There are times that you defy all logic with your performance because your mind said that it would go the distance. I have been using this principle in my work life and I have been able to achieve much more than I would have if I hadn’t got this life lesson.

Has running changed the way you network?

The way I work, for sure. But running is a solitary activity for me. I use the time to introspect and clear the cobwebs in my mind. Hence, I don’t use it for networking.

In a perfect world, how would you incorporate running/fitness in the workday of all your team members? 

The inspiration to run has to come from within. All I can do is provide the means and the necessary push to start. The toughest is to get over the inertia. Our flexi-timing is aimed at giving that extra hour or so to employees to pursue their fitness activities.

Your toughest race.

Every race is tough. When you are running for fitness and not for records, running timed races is tough, no matter what the terrain, weather or competition.

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.

For the videos and earlier stories, visit  here.

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