Reliance Brands' chief executive officer Darshan Mehta on the myth of work-life balance, reinventing oneself during running, and his most memorable run
Darshan Mehta, 55, deals with some of the world’s coolest and most exclusive brands, but it is difficult to categorize him as a running archetype. Marathoner, half marathoner, personal-best chaser—you just can’t slot the chief executive officer of Reliance Brands. An accountant by qualification, he says he is always running, but ask him about his races, and he tells you that he has been “singularly unfortunate in having to travel on days of many 10km and half marathon races that he had enrolled for".
Mehta wasn’t always a runner. Squash used to be his choice of sport until work forced him to travel more and more. His game time suffered. Posted in Bengaluru at the time, he was grumbling about this one day when the gaffer at the court said: “Sir, very simple sir. Carry a pair of sports shoes everywhere you go. And every time you miss squash, do 30 minutes of running."
Since then, Mehta, who stops for a game of foosball when he passes the table on his way to a meeting in the firm’s south Mumbai office, has been running, at times even twice a day. He runs 125-150km a month and has run in more than 100 cities of the world, for he travels about 200 days in a year. When in India, he often runs in south Mumbai with some of his colleagues.
Mehta, whose favourite running spots are Hyde Park in London and Central Park in New York, has over the years also become addicted to trekking, especially the high-altitude variety, and believes being physically fit is essential in modern-day offices, for it helps people to stay mentally fresh and agile. He leads by example and his enthusiasm and positivity are infectious; no wonder he leads a fit team, with each member involved in some sort of physical activity. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Does running affect your performance at work?
Yes, it does…in a big and positive way. Running is therapeutic. It’s a stress buster. It gives me a high—physically and mentally. After a good run, I am ready to conquer the world. Some of the best ideas come to me when I am running. Intuitive skills, a critical element to success, improve with physical exercise. Especially running, in my case.
How do you balance your training and work?
There is no such thing as work-life balance; there is no golden mean, no perfect balance. It’s an everyday and every week choice, because in my line of work there is no “atypical day or week". When I pack my bag, which is like every other day, the first thing that goes in is my pair of running shoes.
What effect does leading by example, as a fit leader, have on your team members?
People lead strange lives these days. They commute long distances over several hours, eat all types of food at odd times, are weekend husbands or moms, take weekend vacations (when was that invented?). Given all this and more, physical fitness, and the attendant mental freshness and agility which come with it, become very important. Demonstrating and leading by example thus helps.
How do you use running/fitness to improve interaction with employees and for team-building?
Running gives me a fresh mind, calms me, improves my span of listening and makes me patient. All, in turn, improve my interaction with my colleagues. It makes me more tolerable at work, as well as tolerant towards others.
Do you think running offers any leadership lessons?
The first thing that running teaches you is that it changes the competitive landscape. I am competing with myself. I am constantly resetting the bar by targeting to improve my last timing, last distance run, last calories burnt, increasing the number and kind of places where I have run.... In short, I constantly want to become a better version of me.
Running also teaches you patience and how to savour the journey. It makes one realize how long is 10 minutes or 1 mile. It has made me more observant and also brings in more humility. It reminds me of my mortality.
Has running changed the way you network?
I am not one of those who belongs to running groups. For me, running is as much about having “me time" as it is about physical exhilaration.
How important is employee fitness in your organization?
We are a young company. The average age of our employees is sub-30. A bunch of us go for high-altitude treks twice a year in the Himalayas. We have done more than 10 treks over the last few years. We have a talented, young fitness expert who conducts body flexibility and strength-building classes on Mondays and Thursdays, from 7-8pm, at the office. And then, of course, we have runners.
How would you incorporate running/fitness in the workday of your team members?
One cannot make fitness and running a part of corporate rigour or discipline. However, you can create an environment where a positive attitude to fitness is encouraged. The message that goes out is, “If you are into fitness, we will support and encourage you." In our organization, the gospel of “fit body, fit mind" is spreading. Also, it would help if we create a broader base in the workplace where the environment reinforces a fitness culture. That way, more people will be encouraged to pay attention to their health. But one needs to take care that while creating a recognition model for people who are motivated to be fit, it should not end up shaming others who have no interest in fitness.
Describe your training regimen.
Given my travel (schedule), I have no fixed regimen. I am a vegetarian, I do not eat eggs and generally do not eat after 7.30pm. No alcohol. No supplements. So I struggle with protein intake. But I love all outdoor activities; most of all, running outdoors and high-altitude trekking. I play squash too.
Your favourite running moment...
The beautiful run in Stockholm, Sweden. It was June, the weather was beautiful and the light, lovely. I ran along a canal and did not feel one bit of the 27km that I ran. Also, trekking is now an addiction close to running. The mountains set my soul free. The mountain people humble me.
What do you think about when you are running?
All sorts of things, actually…there used to be a time when I used to do cash flow while running. A lot of evolution is about the reinvention of oneself. If you listen to your body while running, in some way you are reinventing yourself…in some way you are saying, “I possibly learnt a new trick"…that means something has happened, and then you know it is a good run.
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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