Shape Up

This is the ninth in a series of 10 posts about different aspects of CEO branding.

This is not another piece about how a majority of Americans are overweight or obese. Nor is it a description of the way weight problems bear down on employee health and productivity. There are plenty of articles out there about corporate wellness programs and the great ROI they deliver, and you already know all that stuff.

The focus of this post is the impact of a CEO’s own physical shape on the brand image of the CEO and of the company. If you see two CEOs together, one overweight and the other trim, which one gives you the better impression?

You might well feel the urge to say that a person’s weight has no effect on your impression of him or her. As an enlightened, modern person you probably aspire to be fair-minded and inclusive on all the sensitive equality issues of our time: race, gender, age, sexual orientation, height and weight. Plus, in a country where way over half the adult population is overweight, you’ve probably adjusted your view of what’s normal.

If the sight of an overweight person doesn’t trigger any stirrings of prejudice in you, you’re in a minority; weight prejudice is rampant. A study of workplace discrimination around obesity found that Americans tend to think weight problems are caused by lack of self-control and that obese people, in the words of the report’s conclusion, “must be deficient in other areas … performance of duties, social interactions and appearance standards.” Cleveland Clinic’s president and CEO, heart surgeon Delos Cosgrove, caused a massive stir in 2009 when he told a New York Times reporter that if there weren’t legal issues, he would stop hiring obese people. This year a hospital in Texas went further and banned potential employees with a BMI over 35 (a body mass index higher than 30 is considered obese).

I’ve been writing and talking about globesity for more than a decade now, and I’ve heard every shade of opinion about what causes it. Strip away the intellectual shadings and, at a gut level, most people are on one or the other side of the old nature versus nurture argument. Some people think weight problems are mainly caused by factors beyond control, such as genes or viruses; others think it’s down to poor lifestyle choices and lack of self-control.

Whatever the causes, there’s no doubt that one effect is prejudice and negative perceptions—and that’s a potential worry when you’re a CEO embodying both your own brand and your corporation’s. You owe it to yourself and to your company to show how you care about healthy habits for work, starting with your own. One big incentive beyond improved health is that it gives you great latitude to express your creative and/or entrepreneurial chops with the programs you choose. You can devise your own or tap outside expertise.

Virgin HealthMiles provides employee health programs that pay people to get active and make measurable improvements to their health. Company CEO Chris Boyce has smartly figured out incentives for himself and the whole company by challenging everyone to competitions. In one version, anyone who could rack up more pedometer miles than Boyce in a day got a free day off. That not only set an example and a challenge to other staffers but also kept him stepping hard, too (otherwise, his workforce would be getting too many extra vacation days). In another competition, he challenged the CEO of a client company, plus the two respective workforces, to burn more calories than he did over two weeks. Boyce won with a count of 58,951 calories.

CEOs who like the burn and relish the challenge will probably get around to a marathon sooner or later. Take inspiration from them. India’s fourth-richest billionaire, Reliance Group CEO Anil Ambani, is not only a much-admired CEO but also an inspiring runner. He first trained for the Boston Marathon in 2003 after someone questioned his weight at an investor’s conference in New York. Now he goes on early morning runs in Bombay with his bodyguards, routinely runs marathons and is even the subject of a Bollywood movie tracking his transformation from flabby to front runner.

Of course, running is just one outlet. The CEO Challenges organization (motto: “When business competition is not enough…”) arranges a slew of activities including triathlon, cycling, baseball, basketball, hockey, skiing, tennis, golf and sailing. It’s serious stuff but designed with the standards and needs of CEOs in mind—five-star accommodations and networking events with fellow CEOs, plus a bio of each CEO on its website.

For CEOs who prefer less blood, sweat and tears in their approach to fitness and well-being, yoga is an attractive option that’s totally aligned with the growing mindfulness trend that is making gentle waves at places such as Google. Yoga is famously linked to top CEOs such as hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, who credits the practice with allowing one to “slow your life down so you can see the world.” Writing in Forbes, Stanton Kawer, CEO and chairman of Blue Chip Marketing Worldwide, described how doing yoga regularly helped him realize the importance of setting intentions each day and recalibrated his outlook on life to make him a happier person—and thus a happier CEO.

[photo: creativecommons.org/Nick-Matthews]