Vivek Subramanian: Distance running is a metaphor for meaningful roles

Physical fitness also improves focus and concentration. It helps develop a positive outlook, says Vivek Subramanian


Vivek Subramanian.  Photo: Aniruddha Chowhdury/Mint
Vivek Subramanian. Photo: Aniruddha Chowhdury/Mint

He heads a brand that sticks (literally). Though Vivek Subramanian, 53, doesn’t mix his running with his work, it does work as a binding agent between him and his wife, Radhika Vivek, who is also his running partner. For the chief executive officer of the Fevicol division in Pidilite Industries, running is a part of his personal life, though he does find quite a few lessons in it. The level-headed business leader has taken part in seven half marathons since he started running seven years ago.

“The need for doing something meaningful to stay fit, especially as I got older, was one of the motivating factors. It helps if you find the prospect and fact of running to be enjoyable, which I did,” Subramanian says. The Banaras Hindu University and Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, alumnus is the first to point out that his fastest half marathon timing of 2 hours, 33 minutes is “rather modest” but adds that he has been consistent. He believes fitness is a matter of informed choice and not the outcome of groupthink or fads. It helps if the organization has a culture of aiding and supporting employee fitness and wellness. The approach has to be one of facilitation, not imposition, he says. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Does running affect your performance at work?

Not directly. For me, running is clearly a part of my personal life and space, and is developmental and recreational. Running is a form of constructive physical and mental exercise. It helps me stay fit. Physical fitness helps in staying alert, handling pressures better, and working harder where necessary. Physical fitness also improves focus and concentration. It helps develop a positive outlook.

How do you balance your training and work?

I don’t train to run. The way it works for me is to keep it casual and easy, and not to make a chore out of it. I run up to 45 minutes per day.

What impact does leading by example as a fit leader have on your team members?

I believe most people are mature enough to draw lessons and learn from the good things around them by themselves—not restricted to running or staying fit. I find that people prioritize things for themselves quite well. I do not run to set an example for anyone. The purpose of running, in my case, is not linked to organization or team-building.

What are the leadership lessons you find in distance running?

Distance running is a metaphor for meaningful roles, both personal and professional. It teaches you important lessons: You need to dig in and take a medium to long-term view; persistence, especially when facing resistance or difficult terrain, is essential; motivation to keep moving comes from many sources, but, essentially, the crucial difference is motivation from within; there is a need to see the bigger picture while undertaking any important activity; you need to be able to manage yourself and your emotions well, before you can manage, motivate and lead a team.

Has running changed the way you work and network?

It has helped me think and focus better. At a very tactical level, running each day has helped me view things from a clearer perspective. It has helped lateral thinking. Consequently, it has helped in resolving issues, and working through opportunities with a different, unconventional, and often, new and “outside-in” view. At a different level, it has helped me connect with new acquaintances and renew relationships and contacts…and in a context that is different from the regular or routine engagements and work.

How important is employee fitness in your organization?

There are two aspects to staying fit. Overall, a culture of fitness helps in maintaining a positive atmosphere in the workplace. It keeps the organization mentally young, irrespective of the actual age of the people employed. This improves speed and agility in arriving at results and outcomes. Overall, this also promotes optimism and drive.

At another level, for each employee, fitness improves self-confidence, both professionally and in personal life. This is a prerequisite for a fulfilling career.

Who are your running buddies?

My wife and I run together very often. Both of us work. Running helps us catch up with quality time together that is otherwise not easy to come by other than on weekends.

How would you incorporate running/fitness in the workday of your team members?

I do not, and have not attempted to, incorporate running in the workday or life of any person other than myself!

Describe your training regimen.

For me, running itself is a form of physical training. It is a fitness regime in itself. However, this has more to do with my own way of handling running as a regular activity in the face of other day-to-day work and preoccupations. Serious running requires regular physical training to strengthen the body and muscles, including the core, abs, quadriceps, hamstrings, etc. This is best handled with professional help. For me , this should be the way forward as an area for improvement.

Your favourite running moment till date.

Speeding up—actually increasing my speed—after a fairly slow initial stretch of 4-5km and recovering from a slip and fall, to complete the half marathon with my best timing. This was in my most recent half marathon, the Hiranandani Thane Half Marathon.

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.

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