A Healthy CEO Who Leads By Example

An interview with Hoby Darling, former CEO of Skullcandy

Hoby Darling

If you want evidence of the transformative impact that fitness can have on an individual and an organization, you need look no further than Hoby Darling, a former GM for Nike and the former CEO of Skullcandy, the Utah-based company which creates world-class audio and gaming products.

As part of my ongoing series of interviews with leaders who attribute a large part of their success to their healthy, active lifestyles, I reached out to Hoby to get his perspective on a variety of topics related to wellbeing and high-performance.

From the moment our interview began, Hoby’s energy was completely contagious. I was getting so pumped up talking to him that I joked during our conversation that I might have to work out again that day, even though I had just finished a tough workout right before we spoke.

Among other topics, we talked about his relentless quest to challenge himself and the people around him, why he loves getting up before 5 am to workout, what he learned by attending an extreme training event modeled after Navy Seal Hell Week, and how he thinks that companies can benefit from bringing fitness into the workplace. Here are some highlights from our chat:

Pete Leibman (PL): “Hoby, how did your interest in fitness first develop?”

Hoby Darling (HD): “My parents were always running, working out, playing tennis, and being active. Early on, I had a connection to exercise and fitness and how it makes you feel. When I went to college, I got a job as a personal trainer. People ask me all the time what my favorite job was, since I’ve worked at Volcom, Nike, Converse, and Skullcandy. I always go back to my job as a personal trainer in college and seeing people completely transform their lives and being part of that. Fitness has always been part of my life and my identity and part of how I’ve loved helping people.”

PL: “You were featured in a Wall Street Journal article a few years ago. The article talked about how you got into Crossfit after feeling like triathlons weren’t really helping you get into great shape. What was your thought process around that?”

HD: “Initially, I was more of a power athlete. I ran track and played basketball and football in high school and I also played football for a bit in college. I was more into lifting heavy at that point. When I stopped playing football, I had to rehab my knee and I started swimming a ton, and that’s what got me into triathlons initially. I said if I’m going to do this, I want to go big, so I did an Ironman and some half Ironmans too. After the last half Ironman, I thought that it had been cool to push myself in ways I hadn’t before, but I didn’t feel like I was really in great shape. I just felt like I could run and bike all day. I was an SVP at Volcom at the time and I went online and typed in “world’s hardest workout.” The first thing that popped up was the training involved for the guys who appeared in the movie 300. I also learned about Crossfit, which was just getting going at the time. I went down to the local box [Crossfit terminology for one of their gyms], and I got my ass kicked. Early on, I would finish the workouts and I wouldn’t even be able to move the next day. I said this is for me. This is really hard. This is amazing.”

PL: “I love your mindset and your comment that Crossfit kicked your ass and it was amazing. A lot of people would think that something that kicked their ass was terrible. Are you still into Crossfit or have you moved on to something else these days?”

HD: “I still do Crossfit for building full-body, general physical preparedness. Every year, I also pick something I call a ‘crucible event,’ an idea I got from a friend of mine who is an old Navy Seal commander. The idea is to pick something that’s gonna push me beyond what I can do right now, something scary that I’m really gonna have to train for. My training changes depending on what the crucible event is. Two years ago, it was to go to Kokorro, which is like a Navy Seal Hell Week. You had to be able to do 20–30 miles of rucking, lots of swimming, and lots of mental challenges, like holding your breath under water, so I did more long distance running and swimming and mental training to get ready for that. Last year, I decided I wanted to train for a 50-mile trail race, which was way beyond anything I had done, so I did a lot more long runs. I tailor my program around whatever my crucible event is for the year, so I’m always learning new skills and completing something I didn’t think I could do.”

Hoby running some stairs during a relay race with a team from Skullcandy

PL: “What is your approach to nutrition?”

HD: “What you put in your body affects you drastically. I hear the word diet a lot, and I view that as something you do for a while until you drop out and do something else. I look at the way I fuel my body as a lifestyle, a consistent approach to follow every day, every week, every year. It’s always in the back of my head that I’m gonna be up at 445, and I’m gonna do a really hard workout. And, I really like to beat the people I work out with and they really like to beat me, so I’m gonna have to bring my ‘A’ game. I like to run fast, I like to lift heavy, I like to push myself to the point right before I’m about to puke. Rather than thinking I really want to eat something, I think about how I want to perform tomorrow. I don’t even want to eat junk. I probably eat Paleo 80–85% of the time, but I don’t obsess over it. If my friends are going out to grab a beer, no problem. I’ll grab a beer too and eat popcorn or whatever and not even think twice.”

PL: “What role do your family and friends play in helping you maintain a healthy, active lifestyle?”

HD: “I’m a big believer in the saying that you become the sum of the five people you spend the most time with. You need to be very deliberate about surrounding yourself with people who are gonna make you better and people that you are going to help to be better too. One of the guys I work out with now is a Green Beret. I can’t tell you how many times we are in a workout and I think to myself that I want to push him because I know his life is on the line when he is out on an ops mission. I know he wants to push me too because we both want to kick ass. I love having him as a friend and having him during workouts. We’ve got a group of people who want to be there in the gym every morning, even if it’s 15 degrees below zero, and there is snow and hail in Park City, Utah, where we are. It’s like a brotherhood and sisterhood, whatever you want to call it. We all sort of vibe off each other.”

Hoby with his wife and daughters on a hiking trip at Victoria Falls in Africa

PL: “How do you feel that your active, healthy lifestyle has helped you in your career?”

HD: “When I’m working out in the gym or trail running or skiing, that’s when I get my best ideas. Without that time, I would not be as effective or creative and I would be a lot more stressed. When I’m staying active, I always have energy. I think that’s inspiring to the people around me, and I believe that a big part of my job is to inspire other people to be great both in their personal and professional lives. I also can’t remember a day I’ve been sick or missed a day of work since I finished grad school [over 15 years ago].”

PL: “What would you say to a leader who believes that he/she is too busy to make their health and fitness a priority?”

HD: “This is super important. It makes you a better leader, it makes you a better parent, it makes you a better friend. When you look at it that way, you think ‘how could you not find time for this?’ As a leader, there are no bad days. Everyone is looking at you. You set the tone. I work out for an hour to an hour and a half six days a week. That’s the total amount of time I devote to general physical preparedness. That’s just 7–10 hours a week. We can all find 7–10 hours in a week. If you want to go faster, you can get a great workout done in 30–45 minutes. You have to have time in the day that you can control. Once you hit the office, your control is gone to some degree. My workout time is when I am in complete control. I’m gonna blow off lots of steam. I’m going to be in the zone. I’m going to be too focused to think about anything else that’s going on. I like getting up before 5 and working out in the morning because it sets the tone for my day.”

PL: “What advice would you give to companies and leaders who want to build healthier cultures and aren’t sure where to begin?”

HD:I’ve always thought that I’m going to be an example first. Then, I have also tried to present healthy opportunities for people who want to participate. Earlier in my career, I really tried to push it on people. I learned that you can’t force this on people or they will rebel against it. Instead, make it fun, and focus on building camaraderie. I deeply believe that people who go through strenuous things together will bond. Whether that’s a hard workout or a tough time, you bond. At Skullcandy, we had powder days, mountain bike nights, Thursday morning workouts, and other activities. Different people latched onto different things. It’s important for leaders to show that they support this and that no one is going to think of less of you for taking time to work out, as long as you are getting your work done.”

A Friday lunch run with Hoby and some members of his team at Skullcandy

PL: “What is your philosophy on sleep?”

HD: “I’m pretty religious about this. I’m in bed by 9 o’clock almost every night, or by 930 at the latest, unless I have an event. I know that I perform better, and I’m a better leader and a better dad when I get at least 7 hours of sleep. I’ll read for 15–20 minutes when I get into bed and then usually fall asleep within 15 seconds.”

PL: “Who is your favorite athlete?”

HD: “I live in Park City, Utah, and The Center of Excellence for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard teams is here. There are a ton of pro athletes that inspire me, but the ones who bring a tear to your eye are the Olympic and World Cup athletes making no money, waiting tables to get by. They are the best in the world in their sport and just doing it out of passion and because it’s their dream. They are the ones who inspire me more than anyone else.

PL: “What is your favorite strength training exercise?”

HD: “If I have to pick one, I’d probably say power cleans.”

PL: “What’s your favorite song or musical artist to workout to?”

HD: “This might surprise you, but it’s Eminem.”

PL: “Favorite healthy meal or snack?”

HD: “Omelettes.”

PL: “What’s the toughest event or workout that you have ever done?”

HD: “Definitely Kokorro Navy Seal Hell Week in San Diego. It was 3 days of no sleep, very little food, just getting crushed. There is a Navy Seal saying that says that when you think you are done, you are actually only at about 40% of what you are capable of. Kokorro showed me that over and over again. I had moments when I thought I couldn’t take another step, but then I was able to keep going for another 10 miles, despite feeling terrible.”

Pete Leibman at work (left) and participating in a Tough Mudder obstacle race(right)

About the Author: Pete Leibman is an executive recruiter, author, and high-performance coach whose career advice has been featured on Fox News, CBS Radio, and CNNMoney.com. As a leading authority on high-performance, Pete’s currently writing his next book, titled Work Stronger: Habits for High-Performing People and Organizations. Click here for a free report from Pete on “The 5 Keys for Your Strongest, Healthiest Year Ever.”