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Fit to lead | Salil Murthy: "The pandemic has forced us to build new muscles"

"You can’t get fitter if you run once a month, and you can’t be a good leader if your team only see you in monthly townhalls. You have got to show up every day." - Murthy

October 11, 2021 / 08:41 AM IST
Salil Murthy, Managing Director, India and South East Asia, General Mills.

Salil Murthy, Managing Director, India and South East Asia, General Mills.


Note to readers: Fit to Lead is a series of interviews with business leaders on their approach to fitness, leadership and navigating the new normal.

You can’t force Salil Murthy, managing director, India and South East Asia, General Mills, to choose between work, running and golf. The IIM-Calcutta alumnus loves all three with an equal passion and all three play a part in helping him thrive as an individual and a business leader.

Fit to lead is a series of interviews with business leaders on their approach to fitness, leadership and navigating the new normal.Murthy, now 42, started running 15 years ago to offset his poor eating habits and sedentary lifestyle, and lose weight. Now he finds that being active also gives him the energy he needs to be on top of his game all day; it helps him manage stress and has taught him an all-important leadership lesson: just like you cannot become fit by working out just once a month, you cannot become a good leader by just showing up once in a while; you need to be there for your team constantly, leading them and giving them direction when needed. Excerpts from an interview:

How do you achieve your health and fitness goals?

I’ve been running, primarily full and half marathons, all over the world for the last 15 years. Running is so much more than just a fitness activity for me—it is meditative, energising and helps me think through problems.

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The other love of my sporting life is golf, which seems quite different from running, but under the surface, they are actually pretty similar. Ultimately, you are competing against the course... The final measure in both sports is how well you did against yourself. And the joy of a post-race or post-round beer with your fellow runners or golfers has few equals in heaven or on earth.

Also read: Fit to lead |Gagan Banga: "Running helps me focus solely on myself, and the things I can do"

What's your favourite fitness activity?

It has always been running, but a few months ago I introduced my cricket-crazy son, Vihaan, who just turned 10, to golf, and he’s taken to it like a fish to water. Now, I really look forward to Sundays where we play together and hang out afterwards.

Salil Murthy, Managing Director, India and South East Asia, General Mills playing golf

Your toughest fitness activity?

Leg day. I always thought that being a runner, my legs were strong. But I was quickly disabused of that notion after a few sessions.

What's your new normal like?

In many ways, the pandemic has forced us all to build new muscles to cope with our changing circumstances, both literally and metaphorically. I work out first thing in the morning right after my coffee. This is a bit of habit stacking, so I don’t need to think about it. This gives me the energy I need to bring to work, and this energy is different from before.

One thing I read that really struck me is that in this pandemic, we are all on the same journey but in different boats. I spend a lot more time connecting with my team and deep into my organisation through one-on-one (sessions), WhatsApp conversations, and even food delivery recommendations and meme sharing. I believe that really understanding the context that my team is going through on an individual basis is critically important.

Has your fitness routine, in any way, helped you navigate the uncertainties of the current times?

Working out first thing in the morning clears the mind but also releases the endorphins I need to hit the day running.

The other important area it has helped me in is in managing my stress. I started yoga primarily as a way to improve my flexibility… but I found that incorporating yoga, mindfulness and meditation sessions really helped centre me and make me more aware of how I was feeling. For example, I was able to recognise certain physical reactions to work-related stresses that I had, and managing those helped me manage the work issues better.

Are there any leadership lessons for you in your fitness journey?

As a leader, as in fitness, you have to show up every day, day after day, to be effective. The job of a leader is never done, and in stressful times, your team and organisation need you more than ever. So being there for them, coaching them, sharing your vision, getting feedback are not one-time activities, they are what a leader does every day. You can’t get fitter if you run once a month. You can’t be a good leader if they only see you in monthly townhalls. You have got to show up every day.

The second thing for me is really focusing on the actions I can take versus worrying about things that are not in my control. I couldn’t run in the lockdowns but I could still do a cardio session. Analogously, we can’t control the lockdowns but we can focus on making our supply chain more resilient so we can still get our food products to stores and consumers across the country. So, making sure that my team and I are working within our locus of control has been key to ensuring our business thrived in this pandemic.

What impact does your image of a “fit leader” have on your team?

I’m hopeful it has helped influence my team to get fitter in their own way. We’ve also started a company-wide gamified fitness program where teams compete to complete specific fitness goals like steps, calories, etc.

Has being fit helped you become a better leader?

The biggest thing we need to manage as leaders is our energy and not our time, as is popularly thought.

Personally, exercise has helped build confidence in me that I can take on the toughest challenges. When I show up to work after a 20km training run, I know that the hardest part of my day is already done. All the problems we tackle at work then seem easy. So whether it’s fitness or leading a business, developing and sticking to a clear structure and routine helps me get better every day.

Any challenges and goals for the next year?

I’d really like to start training for my next marathon whenever that happens. I’m also determined to get closer to a scratch handicap at golf.
Shrenik Avlani is an independent editor, writer and journalist, and co-author of 'The ShivFit Way', a book on functional fitness.
first published: Sep 26, 2021 04:59 pm

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