Wellness, Recovery, and Marginal Gain

Roddy Millar interviews Steven MacGregor

Steven P. MacGregor is an expert in executive health and performance. He has a PhD in Engineering Design and has trained with Olympic athletes, Tour de France riders, and Ironman champions. Steven has five elements to his framework — Move, Recover, Focus, Fuel, and Train. Steven is here to explain how he uses this foundation to help executives’ health and improve the overall workforce of an enterprise. Steven, it’s great to be with you this morning.

Pleasure. Thanks for the invitation, Roddy.

Steven, we’ve known each other for a little while. I met you at IMD last year. You are, like myself, a Scotsman, but you’ve made the clever move down to Barcelona where the sun shines. Could you tell us about your career journey to doing that because, as I’ve just said, you are focused these days on executives’ performance and sustainability? So how did you get to focusing on that area?

It’s been 13 years in Spain now, which is hard to believe. The funny thing was I came looking for better weather but ended up in the rainy part of Spain in the Basque Country. After living there for a year and a half — I was doing my post doc in San Sebastian — I felt that I really had to look for sunshine or go home. So that’s when we came to Barcelona first of all in 2004, and then we spent several years in Girona. That helped also with the eventual focus on executive performance because I started doing a lot of sports there myself; I have a big background in sports. I’m actually forming now a sports dealers company in Girona.

At the same time I was riding my bike and training myself, I was teaching at different universities. I thought ‘why don’t I try and bring these things together?’ It was about the same time,around 2007. I found the corporate athlete article on Harvard Business Review and I felt that was the real opportunity to try and build on something that was already there.

You’ve been exploring and researching that area ever since, and published your book ‘Sustaining the Executive Performance’ last year. That’s based on a couple of solutions, major models or frameworks that you build around. The primary one is the Triple Lens of Sustainability. Do you want to explain a little bit about what that is and how that works?

My background is in design. I have a PhD in design and the sports side is a personal passion but then I started to really think ‘What are the linking points between executive performance and whether that be through the metaphor of sport?’, or not necessarily if you just regard health on a general level and also design within an organization. I have a background in design, and I think it encourages you to try and look for the connection points between different fields. It’s a very broad-­based education. You look for solutions on a breadth versus depth level, first of all, and because of that background in design I was really looking at the connection between health and design within the organization.

The third part of the equation was that I started doing a lot of research into corporate social responsibility which is where, I guess, sustainability has its most conventional home. If you were to ask many people what the word ‘sustainability’ means, they will conceive it in notions of sustainable development and responsibility for the environment and things like that. So because I started doing a lot of research and teaching in these three areas, I started thinking: ‘What is the link between them?’ Sustainability in the conventional sense at a societal level but, for me, health for executives was about a personal sustainability. Design was about actually being innovative within an organization so that organization could be sustainable over time in terms of its following generation. So, for me, it was with the three conceptions of sustainability that I actually thought, after really reflecting on them for several years, did fit quite well together.

That’s really interesting. Does that mean that one flows necessarily into the other, though? Do you need to start with that focus on the personal in order to affect the organizational or even the wider ecosystem, I suppose?

Yeah. I mean, there’s lots of great work out there; practitioner-­based, research-­based. They will look at the societal macro level or they will only look at the the organizational sustainability whether that be through design or innovation strategy in general. But, for me, it very much is a bottom-­up approach. It’s starting with the individual and it’s really looking at how we can make enterprises more human­-based and invest long ­term in the health of people which then gives that long­-term performance.

Personally speaking, looking a lot at health and well-­being programs around the world, they don’t always tend to be successful because I don’t think they strike the right tone. They look at health and well-­being as a very isolated thing but for me, I’ve always looked how can health and well-­being; investing in people, how can we look at the business case? We can improve their health, we can improve their well­-being, we can lower stress and things like that but, at the end of the day, we can really improve their performance which then links to the other two views of sustainability that we look at in our work.

Are you seeing that increasingly, then, in the clients that you work with? That there is a broader acceptance that that health element and the energy that goes with it, because I think energy is a significant part of it, that there’s a more holistic approach to how organizations are dealing with their employees, their staff and their senior executives.

Yeah, I think so. I think there’s more of an awareness of the importance of it. I don’t think any organization has the answer, so to speak. I’m not saying that we have the answer on our work either. I think it’s a very difficult topic to look at. How you can have that balance? Even the word ‘balance’ has been derided in the business press the last couple of years. It really has to be about a balance, right? How can you get a return on an employee within an organization? How can you move that organization forward, but have that balance that people still have their lives to lead and they’re not working too many hours during the week and they’re not all consumed by work?

So, organizations, they’re very aware of it. Even the technological revolution over the last several years, with the opportunity to be connected 24/7, where does work stop for all these things are often are here? It’s a very difficult topic. There is more interest, I think. There are lead users if I take that concept from design. There are companies who are lead users and I think of what the business schools in the last couple of years have put this topic into their core programs, even senior executive programs whereas, in the past, that wouldn’t have been the case. It’s a work in progress, certainly, but I think there’s much more interest now

It’s un-focused, isn’t it? Around the work not becoming all-­consuming I think is the critical part of it. In today’s world, we see people becoming entirely self­-defining around their work, perhaps, at the expense of outside interest and that narrows their horizons. I think that fits quite nicely in there with your five elements model which is: move, recover, focus, fuel, and train. Now, I’m sure we can speak for half an hour on each of those but I just wanted to pick up on the recovery one because I think that’s possibly an area that we fail to look at very much. In athletes, recovery is certainly a big part of the training regime and how they prepare themselves but, executives don’t necessarily tend to think of recovery as part of the strategy we should be using. What are you explaining to executives around recovery?

First of all, it’s not just about doing less that is a strong business case of performance case of recovery that is absolutely critical in sports and other fields. So that’s the first part, but I think it’s also saying to executives that ­­ there’s different forms of recovery. The big one recently, is there’s been a lot of interest in sleep and the importance of sleep for performance and for executive and critical thinking. That’s one of the main elements in the work that we do on recovery. But it’s also transmitting a message that recovery comes in different forms and it could come in different time periods. It’s actually about saying to executives, “Be clever with the use of your time.”

Another field of the study that has been very popular in the last couple of years is, of course, mindfulness. Even to give one example, we actually do mindfulness­-based exercises which may last just 60 seconds. So, if executives in a day that can last 10, 12, 14 hours, are a little bit more clever in periods of 60 seconds to be more mindful, or a couple of minutes to go for a short walk, or 5 minutes just to do a little bit more of meditation, this can make a big difference. Instead of checking emails for the hundredth time or repeating yourself to your team for the fiftieth time that day, it’s being a little more mindful of practice during a long day and recognizing that recovery isn’t just a golden 7-8 hours’ sleep that we should get at night. There’s also the short time periods within a busy day.

That’s something that is pretty manageable, presumably. It’s much more of a mindset issue whether people are prepared to do it or not. Are there models or strategies to get people to remember to be mindful?

Yeah, I’m an engineer. As I said, my background is in design but it’s engineering design and I take a very pragmatic approach to my research and to my teaching. Within the framework that we have within the program is asking people to do things that we think are very possible to take a change in mindset, but they also have a big impact and further also, is things that we do in the team ourselves. We read research, we look at what’s coming out and from the science base, we look at leading cases in business and we apply many of things ourselves before then putting that into the classroom or into the training context.

Does this work equally well across all the different types of organizations, or do you find that smaller organizations are more able to embrace it? Do you have a reflection on that?

A lot of the work that we did in corporate social responsibility is how we found that, for example that was more of a natural proposition for small companies. You still had the founder, the entrepreneur, the owner manager in charge and they were more aware of a broader range of stakeholders, for example, like the local community. So, that was more of a natural thing and I think health for employees in many small companies is more of a natural proposition.

Sometimes, smaller companies find it harder to attract the talent so that they know that when they have a good performer they know that they have to invest in that person in the longer term. So, that’s certainly the case. I think it depends with larger companies, I think they’re just being more convinced of a business case and, in general, I’d say that larger companies are probably a little bit ahead of the curve in terms of new trends and things like that. As the interest in health and performance is picking up speed the last couple of years then I think what I find is that the larger companies seem to be gaining speed and catching up and taking over the smaller companies.

Is there an infrastructure there, though, that needs to be put in place, do you think? Or is this kind of focused on personal health one that is essentially costless from the organization point of view?

Ideally, ­­ I think even if you look at other fields like innovation or even ­ when I was doing my PhD, ­ a lot of interest is in knowledge management. A lot of the literature at the time said that, eventually, the sign of maturity is that these things become invisible because everyone in the organization owns them, right? We don’t have an innovation department, we don’t have knowledge management department. Everyone contributes quality. Even if you go back to 1980s and the total quality management movement, everyone owns it so I think, ideally, that should be the case in a mature organization but I think, to get there, we need some sort of structure, we need some sort of champion within an organization.

HR is there for sure, but often it is then derailed when things get tough within the organization. I think one of the key points is that the senior people within the organization ­ the real senior directors, preferably CEO ­ they have to, if not through policy, they have to show an example through their small actions and their habits. How do they communicate on a weekend with their team? What is their culture on vacation during the year and things like that? I’m not saying that is about doing less work. It’s about making it fit for context. But what is the norm within the organization and who’s leading the charge, so to speak.

There’s a great piece at the end of your book about the COO of Telefonica who you had an interview with. He is an exemplar, I think, of that sort of frantically active business life, but with a consciousness of balancing that against his outside and external interests. Is that an unusual situation or are you seeing that in lots of senior leaders these days?

That was an interview that I did with Jose Maria Alvarez-­Pallete. He’s a marathon runner and he has a lot of balance in his life and some of the other things that he does on a daily basis. He pays a lot of attention to communication on the basic level. He places a lot of importance on reading and things like that. To see these messages in other leaders, at least just what I’m picking up on in the business press, a lot of leaders talk about the importance of sleep and how that changed their approach to life. Even if you look at a company like Amazon, which has been criticized a little in the past several months in terms of the culture of overwork and things like that, but also Jeff Bezos talked about the importance of sleep for him.

We talked about the most important thing in his life or his work which is the 12 hours of work that he does on a daily basis. He’s a real hard worker but the second most important thing is the 8 hours of sleep that he gets to support that. So, I think you’re seeing a lot more messages like that. Does it mean that these people are perfect? No. In our framework, we have these five elements but I guess it’s a little bit unrealistic to expect that people cover each of the bases of these five elements every single day of their lives. It could be that they compromise on one and they look at maximizing the other. So I think there are signs of senior leaders following these things but, I guess, ‘partially’ would be the answer to that.

Picking up on that 8 hours of sleep, 8 hours of work, 8 hours of rest, that, as you have highlighted, is not a new model at all. It’s been ­­ it was first, perhaps, highlighted by Robert Owen’s work at New Lanark outside Glasgow. When was that? In the 1860s, 70s?


So, this model has been around for a while. Why do you think it’s taken so long for it to get wide acceptance?

It was around for a while, I guess but was it ever really followed? I think I got into detail in the book that Ford Motor company were one of the first in the early 1900s to go towards the triple­8 model by reducing the amount of hours worked in a day and also improving conditions. It’s interesting, I think a lot of it is the technological revolution the last several years, which means that we’re always ‘on’.

I’ve reflected on this in the past also with other people that I’ve met who are so highly motivated within their work and if you can have that, your work is your passion and fantastic. For these people, play and work had no distinction. They were resting and then they were awake and when they were awake, their work was their play. For most of us, that’s not the case or there is some distinction, I think. What it now becomes, I think, is that it’s not simply a serial nature as is in the past. You would be in the office for 8 hours, more or less. You’d be at home or out of the office as your playtime, and then you’d be sleeping for 8 hours more or less. But I think what’s happening now is that because work is potentially 24/7, then that really takes over. The question is: how can play and rest come into the traditional domain that was previously exclusively only for work and I think you’re seeing some things like that: Google with their nap pods so that they expect their workers to be in the office for a long amount of time but they also expect, if they’re going to do that, they have the opportunity to go bowling and to ‘play’ within that environment and also to sleep or to nap within that environment. So, that three­8 or that triple­8 model is back on the agenda but it’s becoming more of this integrated­8 model where everything is at play at the same time.

I see that completely and we know, don’t we, that people tend to have their best ideas or they start to really truly make sense of things when they’ve stepped back from direct work. So, it’s when you’re taking a shower or when you’re walking the dog or things that, suddenly, you have your innovative thought and you go, “ah, yes,” and you see the pieces coming together. So, are you saying that there’s a real opportunity, particularly when trying to create innovative cultures, to allow that space and that sort of detachment from the frantic work to go on?

Absolutely. I mean, real opportunities, but with any big opportunities, there are big challenges as well. So I think, for certain people, that is such a difficult thing to manage, and even for a company, what is so difficult to manage also is the complexity which has increased by an amazing amount. I don’t know if I have the answer but that’s the world that we live in and it would increasingly be so, I think.

But you do training with some high quality athletes? You trained on the athletic side down at FC Barcelona and you’ve worked with top Olympic athletes too. Is that an approach that they take? How similar are their regimes, where they’re obviously at the pinnacle of their physical performance, compared to that of top executives?

I think it is the fact that they are always ‘on’ in a very similar fashion. ­­ I don’t know if it’s good or bad or a little bit of both, but what you’ll see with big athletes is that they’re probably required to be ‘on’ real performance mode possibly less than top executives, whether that be a competition for the real topic. For athletes, obviously, it’s competition mode every four years for the Olympics, for many other sports that’s maybe on an annual level, maybe 8 or 10 times where they’re expected to peak. So, the executives need to be ‘on’ or they need to be performing on a much more regular basis, I think.

There is a very similar dynamic at play with always being ‘on’ and the more they do it, the more it becomes part of human nature and it’s just the way that things are. So I think executives are ­­ or if you’re a CEO of a company, your life is very much dedicated to that mission for that time that you’re in that role and I think, for other people in the company, it’s getting used to that always ‘on’ mode. That’s then about how can you be smart to recover within these short time frames, which, normally, we’re not so good at doing.

Which is a perfect moment, perhaps, to ask: how do you personally do that? Do you have particular routines that helps you achieve that?

Sports has been a big part of my life since I was 13 years old. I’ve always been a runner, a cyclist, and things like that. So, that’s probably the big one for me and I’m lucky enough to live in a part of Barcelona which is very close to the mountain that overlooks the city. If I feel stressed or overworked or anything like that, then I just go for a run. It’s as simple as that and I think running is one of those things that’s very accessible. If I have a heavy travel period, then it’s also something that you can do very easily even if you’re traveling and you’re in an airport or something like that, there are generally gyms within airports and you can find those things, so I think running is the big thing.

Also, I guess, just being in the family, right? Taking my dog for a walk and being with my son and trying to disconnect from technology. I think that’s the big thing. Some little things that I do, I talk with marginal gain theory, which, obviously, was made very partly with British cycling so we talk about what are the marginal gains that you can put in your own life and even some little things that I’ve done in the last couple of years is turn email off my phone, for example, so that I’m not always reacting to emails that are coming in and, over the full weekend, maybe just don’t check email because it’s not in the phone but you can still use your phone for other things. So, little things like that and always just being aware of the power of small change is the way that I would recover, I think.

I think that two fascinating things come out of that. The bit about email is a powerful message to us all. I think I’m just intrigued. Do you, having now done that, think that you can now learn anything by having turned off email or is life exactly as it would have been even though you’ve answered those emails 48 hours later?

It’s the exact same. I think, with anything, you have those withdrawal symptoms. If you do it for the first time, you have that anxiety but then you quickly realize that things, more or less, stay the same time. I think it’s a big piece of evidence on many of the emails that you get, you create yourself. So, I personally found that the volume or the ability to manage the volume that’s probably even decreased with the less emails that I sent, personally.

You mentioned your young son. We all know that that affects our sleep patterns. You must be more consciously aware of the impact of that than most parents. Is that something you’ve had to manage particularly?

It’s funny because I came to the parenthood game pretty late in the game. My son is now coming up to 15 months; I just turned 39. It was like going into the field. I’ve done ethnographic field research and it was as if it’s an opportunity for me to really test all my theories in the field. It was an interesting period and it was exactly as I thought before, and a lot of papers that I’d read whereby it doesn’t matter the amount of time that you’re actually sleeping or in bed, it’s the importance of uninterrupted sleep. Sleep is a process, we go through a cycle and if that is interrupted and that is the big impact and then other things like short term memory is immensely affected by these interruptions and poor quality sleep and your ability to look for that high level of thinking or executive function thinking that is talked about in the literature. It was a challenging few months but it was something that I took an opportunity to put back in the classroom, so it was interesting.

I think that is something that all of us who had children are fully aware of. That recovery period can be longer or shorter depending on your children. A question I would like to ask also is ­ you mentioned that you’re 39 now ­ what advice would you give yourself, looking back to when you were 20 or 25?

I don’t know. It seems like that was yesterday, you know? 25 was an interesting age because I had just finished my PhD and I had moved to Spain to San Sebastian. One thing I was thinking about was make more mistakes, but I made plenty of mistakes. I think, maybe just have a little bit more fun. Maybe not take myself so seriously, just always thinking about what’s coming in the future and just be more mindful about just enjoying the journey, enjoying the ride, both the ups and downs. That may just be the one thing that I would say.

Fantastic. Steven, it’s been great speaking to you. Thank you very much, indeed. I think there are lots of really positive lessons that we can draw from there and, hopefully, our readers and myself, indeed, will be able to put some of those into action. I’m going to go and turn my email off very soon.


Steven MacGregor thank you very much.

Many thanks. Thanks, Roddy. Cheers.

But wait…there’s more?!

This post has been adapted from The Innovation Ecosystem podcast. Listen here for the full interview and the story of Steven MacGregor and to download a PDF version of this entire conversation.

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About Mark
Mark has spent much of his 20+ year career seeking out people and resources to help him innovate and grow businesses. He has worked at BP, The Hay Group , and most recently Syngenta, where he led the creation and development of a $2B Specialty Crops business unit. Wherever possible, he tries to learn from other people’s experience, especially if they bring a fresh perspective to a situation. Follow Mark on Twitter at @markehb.

About Roddy
Roddy Millar is the Co-Founder and Managing Editor of IEDP (International Executive Development) and has managed the editorial content and direction since its inception. He oversees the development of the website and has helped design and launch Developing Leaders magazine, as well as managing the financial aspects of the business. In 2000 Roddy took over as editor of the original International Executive Development Programs directory from Philip Sadler CBE, the former Chief Executive of Ashridge Business School. Follow Roddy on Twitter at @RoddyMillar.

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