Leadership lesson: don’t ever give up

Being fit and providing the positive explicit and implicit motivation helps in establishing a connect with the team, says Rajat Malhotra


Rajat Malhotra. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Rajat Malhotra. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

From 9am-5pm, Rajat Malhotra, 47, finds himself dealing with a lot of feet and metres as part of his job at one of the world’s biggest real-estate consultancies. Alongside, at least four days a week, he spends time counting kilometres. Malhotra, chief operating officer, integrated facilities management (West Asia), Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), studied nuclear engineering at the Naval College of Engineering, and first started running in the 1980s, while serving in the navy. In the decades that followed, he stopped—till professional and personal life events prompted him to start again in 2010. Since then, he has run around 45 races, mostly half marathons, clocking a best timing of 1 hour, 37 minutes for a half marathon. As a youngster at the naval academy, he had run the marathon in 2 hours, 59 minutes and the half marathon in 1 hour, 25 minutes.

The fleet-footed corporate leader believes “endurance sports reveal facets of personality that may not have been known in a normal business environment”. Edited extracts from an interview:

Does running affect your performance at work? 

Absolutely. Running invigorates me both at a mental and physical level. I am essentially an early morning bird and for me each run is a catharsis of sorts. A run at threshold pace requires an intense connection with yourself and to do that, one has to empty the mind, which is really what meditation is all about, isn’t it? At a purely physiological plane, there is enough written out there to prove that running heightens and enhances energy levels, VO2 max (maximal oxygen consumption) and thereby improves overall well-being. This surely has an implication on my work performance. When I hit the desk charged up, the energy is infectious and tends to carry along to my team.  

How do you balance your training and work? 

All I need is an hour to 90 minutes in the morning. For the days I have an early flight, I have devised a 45-minute workout and I wake up that much earlier… since it’s a passion, it comes naturally to me. There is one thing I constantly remind myself of: This time in the morning is the investment I make in myself and, since I am the main stakeholder in all that I influence at work or in my personal life, it is an investment made that is every bit worth the effort.  

When you set an example as a fit leader, what impact does it have on your team? 

One has to establish professional and personal credibility with the team one leads. Being fit and providing the positive explicit and implicit motivation helps in establishing a connect with the team in a domain that transcends the purely professional, which is so important in building teams that succeed. My team now regularly participates in races.  

How do you use running to promote team-building? 

Running is an individual sport but training for a run isn’t, and also sharing your experiences in running isn’t. Both group training runs and experience sharing work beautifully in team-building. People get to know each other better and this helps in establishing well-knit teams. We do training runs as a group and the venue is different each time. In a place like Mumbai, this ensures more team members are able to sign up for these runs.

Any leadership lessons you find in distance running? 

Distance running is all about digging deeper to find reservoirs of energy and will that you never knew even existed. Running teaches tenacity, patience and the ability to push ahead when you think all is lost. There is a concept of hitting the wall in distance running. It is a physiological phenomenon and all runners experience it, but each time, come hell or high water, you climb or breach the wall and move ahead. This is the greatest leadership lesson that running affords: Don’t ever give up.  

Has running changed the way you work and/or network? 

Running is the new golf. My old man is an avid golfer and we have this father-son conversation often where I scoff at his golf and he scoffs at my running. I have to admit running is taking over from golf in bringing people together professionally as well. I have many friends in many running groups who have become business connections. How wonderful is this? The statistics are there for everyone to see. When I first ran the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon, there were only a couple of thousand runners and now there are close to 40,000…this is huge in the marathon’s short history.   

How would you incorporate running in your team’s workday? 

In a perfect world I would love to do a meeting while on a run in the hills. Running takes some time to adopt but once you get hooked, you’re hooked for life. I am not in favour of mandating running as a regimen, but I believe the best way to popularize it is to encourage the members of the team, set an example and share experiences. At the end of the day, running and fitness is a positive interest and movement and bringing it into a conversation can only be beneficial.  

Which has been your toughest race? 

The 2015 Airtel Hyderabad Marathon has been my toughest race in recent times. I am a barefoot runner and during the Hyderabad race I tore a calf muscle just 2km into the race. It was excruciating and I thought of quitting every few hundred metres but something made me go on. So I went on and managed a podium finish in my age category. This race was all about digging deeper and unlocking reserves of will and energy I never knew existed.

Running With The Boss is a 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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