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.
Tata Starbucks CEO Sushant Dash has taken an unusual route to the top. He grew up in Baripada, a small town in Odisha. Studied economics at Ravenshaw University in Cuttack. He then had a choice between going to an established big-name B-school or studying brand management at the Mudra Institute of Communication (MICA), Ahmedabad - he got a post-graduate degree from the latter.
“This sounded much more exciting than the B-schools,” says Sushant Dash, settling into his newish office in suburban Mumbai. Newish because Dash took over as chief executive officer of Tata Starbucks in May 2021, during the second wave of the pandemic, and had to shuttle between his family and three dogs in Bengaluru and work in Mumbai for months.
Growing up in Baripada, Dash recalls they used to "cycle and run around" - the entire place had “about five cars in total”. He used to be a sprinter and played football and cricket at school. All of this took a backseat when he joined college and found “more exciting and interesting things” to occupy his time.
Dash returned to exercise only in the late noughties, when he started visiting the gym regularly, mainly for cardio workouts. “Since then, I have been setting goals and challenging myself to different activities, with a singular focus of becoming a better version of myself,” says Dash.
Four years ago, he took up running, ran his maiden full marathon at the Tata Mumbai Marathon in January 2020 just before the pandemic. Once the endurance sports bug bit him, he even decided to give a triathlon a go and started training with dedicated coaches. While running and cycling are no trouble at all, swimming remains his weakness. Because learning a new skill takes time and with his new role demanding a fair bit of his limited time, he has decided to drop his pursuit of the IronMan and plans to return to it later when he has the time.
Since the pandemic hit, Dash feels that there is no “normal” anymore as the situation is constantly evolving but it has taught him a lot of things and working from home has given him the luxury of eating three meals with his wife and son and more time to play with his dogs.
Excerpts from the interview:
When do you workout - morning or evening?
My day typically starts at 4am… with a workout. That’s the time I find myself most productive, and it’s also the most peaceful time for me. I dedicate around 10-12 hours a week to my fitness regime, which includes running (five times a week), strength training (thrice a week) and cross training (twice a week) like cycling. This routine is adapted if I am training for an event. For instance, when I prepare for marathons, I run at least 100km a week.
Favourite fitness activity…
Running. It’s my “me time”, my way of destressing, disconnecting and getting out of my work mode. It’s my meditation. It’s a big commitment, but I choose this over every other passion or pastime. Running is now a sport for me and my entire fitness routine currently focuses on building my endurance to run better.
I began training for the Half Ironman earlier this year but… swimming has always been a struggle.
What is your new normal like?
There is no normal; it’s ever evolving. If someone had told us a couple of years ago that through 2020 and 2021 we would be working from home and would do so successfully, we would not have imagined it to be true.
We are in transition and have adapted a hybrid model of working. Our offices have opened on a voluntary basis with a limited capacity. Our team has the flexibility to decide whether to come to office and when to do so. We’re giving them the freedom to choose what they’re most comfortable with. The situation remains dynamic, we remain nimble and are adapting practices that prioritise our team’s wellbeing.
Has your fitness routine, in any way, helped you navigate the uncertainties of the current times?
It surely has. Running anchors me; it is my comfort place… This physical activity rejuvenates me mentally and helps me de-stress. Sometimes, I am on a three-hour run and this leaves me with a lot of time to think and solve issues I have been grappling with. On the flipside, it also gives me enough time to disconnect – it works both ways.
One change you would encourage your teammates to make to deal with the challenges of current times…
Be flexible, open-minded and welcome change. The situation remains dynamic; we are constantly adapting and are currently practising a hybrid model of working. It’s interesting to note that this comes with its own set of challenges and opportunities. If this works well, and technology will play a major role in ensuring so, it will open a lot of avenues for companies and people. It will be a win-win situation for both; we will have access to better talent and a wider pool, and people will have more opportunities as well as greater flexibility.
Any leadership lessons in your fitness journey?
My training heavily focuses on building endurance… this has taught me that there are no shortcuts to success; it is a lot of hard work. It’s a process, and not something that you will achieve overnight. This has been one of the biggest learnings from my fitness journey that I apply to leadership and work as well… The entire experience has been very humbling; it shows you that there is immense scope for you to improve and emerge as a better version of yourself.
What impact does your image of a “fit leader” have on your team?
I hope that it motivates my team to understand that it is not difficult to set aside some time for your fitness routine. We have 168 hours a week and surely one can invest 5%, if not more, of this towards improving their health and wellbeing.
Has being fit helped you become a better leader?
My fitness routine has helped bring freshness to my thoughts and perspective. Oftentimes, we become unidimensional in our thinking due to which work tends to suffer. My fitness regime gives me an opportunity to gather my thoughts and disconnect from the world for a bit. It is mentally rejuvenating and helps me focus better when I get back to work.
My fitness journey has also made me more self-aware: I am better aligned with my strengths, capabilities and ambitions. It’s taught me to take a step back, re-asses the situation and realign my goals and strategies. It’s important to know when to cut your losses and this is something that we often forget to do.
Your leadership style is…
I believe in letting people be who they are and giving them the freedom to manage work in a way they deem fit. People often tend to straitjacket their teams and set rules about how work must be done, what time to begin work or how one must dress; in my opinion, this takes away from productivity and creativity.
I begin work an hour earlier than most of my team does or before my meetings commence. I find myself to be most productive early in the morning. However, this does not mean I expect my team to follow suit.
Let’s remember that we hire people for their individuality. Giving your team flexibility and freedom paves way for growth and learnings in ways unimaginable. The pandemic has been the biggest example of this. Trust your team to get work done.
My leadership style is also one that does not include micromanaging.
How does your fitness routine help you strike work-life balance?
Having a fitness routine has helped me pause, rejuvenate and bring freshness to my thoughts and perspective.
What challenges and goals have you set for yourself for the next year?
I currently run a full marathon in under 4 hours. I want to improve my timing to sub 3 hours 45 minutes.
Our goal for Tata Starbucks is to thoughtfully expand our presence in the country and take our authentic Starbucks experience to a wider audience. We like to say that we are not in the coffee business serving people, but in the people business serving coffee.Another goal for 2022 is to make our partners (employees) proud and invest in their health, wellbeing and success as well as creating a culture of belonging where everyone is welcome. Tata Starbucks remains grounded in its commitment to a long-term growth potential in India.