If Corporate Leaders Were Sports Managers, We’d All Get Fired

The debates are intense. The stakes are high. Experts from around the country plot strategies for the coming months. Lining the hotel ballroom are tables of sandwiches, snacks and soda to keep them going all day long. It’s a serious expense, but the next year of business success is at stake.

And yet, success has already been undercut — by bad deli, too much sugar and zero sunshine.

In business, the language of athletics describes our teams – “high performers” who “set the bar,” “run with” ideas and “tackle hurdles.” We need and expect the best these folks can offer. Yet if we treated professional athletes the way we treat our talent, we’d be fired in a heartbeat.

Look at the average multi-day corporate meeting. Would sports managers keep their jobs if before a big game they kept their players locked in windowless rooms and fed them junk food?

Not a chance. So why do so many companies keep wasting inspirational stories, teambuilding and strategic planning by foisting it on teams too tired, run down and cognitively — and chemically – checked out to function at their best?

And what could we be doing differently?

The Research Is In

There’s science behind what to me seems self-evident: how we fuel and move our bodies impacts how we think and function.

One Oregon State University study found potential links between fat and sugar consumption and sinking cognition and brain flexibility. Sugary foods offer a brief blast of energy, but the resulting crash can tank focus, notes a nutrition professor at the University of Canberra.

On the other hand, fatty acids, such as the Omega-3s found in salmon and walnuts, and the Omega-6s found in avocado, form some of the key building blocks to our brains, according to the UK Brain and Spine Foundation, which is sponsored by National Health Services, the UK’s version of our National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Exercise, too, can boost our mental capability. An overview from Harvard Medical School notes that exercise boosts blood flow to the brain, improving mood and sleep functions – all vital for employees we hope will “hit it out of the park” for our companies. Exercise increases memory and retention too, another study from the University of Texas at Dallas shows. Move more, think better – win, win.

Exercise for Cognition

Some companies are already moving in the right direction. When I worked at Hewlett-Packard, sunrise yoga often welcomed offsite meetings. Or, we’d bring in a local exercise instructor to offer an optional class from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m.

The Chief Human Resources Officer at SAP, Stefan Ries, is a fitness buff who leads group runs at off-sites. A five-mile jog at 5:30 a.m. may not work for everyone, but Stefan sets a great example of company executives encouraging staff to care for their bodies as they prepare to use their minds.

This isn’t just a Silicon Valley fad, either – a survey last year by a hospitality trade group found that health-conscious meetings are trending up. Conference hotels now offer perks such as “silent walks” for rejuvenation, or waterfront workout classes to ramp up before the big meeting.

Even Wall Street power-brokers have taken to downtown Manhattan spin classes, replacing steak dinners and spas as places for board gatherings and client meetings.

Start Making the Change

You don’t have to set an alarm before the birds or rent out an organic farm to create healthier and more productive meetings. Some suggestions:

  • Include a half-hour brisk walk in your agenda to shake loose the mental cobwebs. Make it a group activity and watch teammates bond and bounce ideas off each other from the morning session.
  • Consider exercise options at off-site locations. Is there a workout room or hiking trail? If you’re bringing in people to a company location that has showers, changing space and/or a gym, encourage attendees to take advantage.
  • Pick healthy environments. Instead of Las Vegas, pick a place like Napa with access to the outdoors and beautiful weather. Your Vegas die-hards may complain but you and your company will reap the benefits.
  • Demand more from catering. Feeding people cola and cinnamon buns doesn’t help anyone. Include complex carbs such as grain salads or multigrain bread. More fresh vegetables, please. Go mini on the muffins and cookies and provide fruit alternatives. Small plates encourage saner eating and fend off food comas. Just say no to bags of potato chips.

You’re investing a lot of time, money and soul into pulling the best out of your team. They need you to give them the right tools, inside and out.

So pass the fruit, and come run with me.