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  • Carl Cederström and Torkild Thanem

The Swedish CEO Who Runs His Company Like a CrossFit Gym

Work hard and you’ll see results. For many in today’s knowledge economy, this feeling is elusive. They struggle to see how their labor contributes directly to the performance of the corporation, or how it helps the progress of their career. While there’s often increased pressure to be more productive in the office, it’s sometimes hard not to wonder, “What’s the point?” Whether in marketing or sales, it often feels like jobs are contingent on external circumstances, the whims of executives, strategic pivots, and shareholder demands. What happened to being rewarded for consistent, quality work over the long-term?

There is perhaps one place where this paradigm still exists: the gym. Here, all are equal before the law of the squat rack. There is a straightforward relationship between input and output: Those who put in the hours are handsomely rewarded, and progress can be neatly tracked through the kind of upward-sloping curves that companies and executives can only dream of. No wonder that the simple rules (but not the simple acronyms) of CrossFit or SoulCycle have become so appealing and satisfying to many.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed by some leaders, and a new generation of CEOs taking a cue from this last bastion of the Protestant work ethic. In contrast to “transformational” and “authentic” leadership, which has been criticized for being fuzzy and wishy-washy, “fitness leadership,” as we refer to it, offers a more concrete approach. As a hard-working employee, you will be measured by and rewarded for the long hours you put in at the office and the gym. In exchange, a fitness leader can offer a sense certainty, justice, and camaraderie in a time where employees are otherwise plagued by uncertainty, injustice, and isolation.

Henrik Bunge is one such leader. He’s the CEO and self-titled “Head Coach” of Björn Borg, the Swedish sports fashion company named after the tennis star.

Last fall, we joined Bunge and his employees for “sports hour,” a mandatory fitness class for all employees every Friday between 11 and noon. In pairs, we were throwing kicks and punches at each other, with the kickboxing instructor yelling, “C’mon, harder!” from the podium.

After class, Bunge explained his sports-meets-work philosophy when we met for lunch at an elegant Thai restaurant. “Take a football player. He will always know how he performs. But if you go to the marketing department and ask them, they’re usually clueless.”

“We have so much to learn from sports culture”, Bunge continued. His biceps were visible under his t-shirt and his short hair was still wet from exercise. He was born in 1973, but according to his most recent fitness test (which all 60 employees at the Björn Borg headquarters have to take twice a year), his physical age is 21.

In many ways, working for Henrik Bunge is like working with a personal trainer. When he was brought in as CEO in August 2014, the company wasn’t in great shape. The brand lacked identity and the books for the previous year showed a decline in net sales and a dive in profits. Bunge launched a new strategy, aiming to reinvent Björn Borg as a notable premium brand in sports fashion. The ambition was to double sales and have a 90% employee engagement rate within five years. As a start, staff members had to become stronger, in more ways than one. “We had to train harder, measure our goals better, and become a better team,” Bunge said. “If we were going to do this, everybody had to be part of it. Everybody had to do the sports hour. I refused to compromise on that.”

In other words, Bunge views success as the result of exercise and work going hand-in-hand. Personally, he told us that the more deadlines he has, the more he works out. And for the company as a whole, he believes that sweating together is not just about staying healthy, or being fit enough to endure intense periods of work. It is also a matter of having fun and fostering strong bonds between team members to help them reach their goals.

Intrigued by our lunch meeting with Bunge, one of us embarked on an ethnographic study of the company which has now lasted for over a year. Since September 2016, Torkild has spent a couple of days a week at the Björn Borg headquarters, attending workshops, meetings, and fitness tests; having lunch with and talking with employees; and participating in sports hours (25 to date). As part of this research, we have learned that team leaders run wall squat competitions with their teams, that staff members measure their physical strength through push-up competitions, and that many break the monotony of work with a game of ping pong. One Friday morning, a male employee walked into the kitchen area, topless, to show that he had achieved his physical target: a six-pack abdomen.

Life at Björn Borg, and Bunge’s style of leadership, may seem jarring if not extreme, but he is only one of a growing number of fitness-focused leaders. The Ironman triathlon venture has grown so popular among executives over the past decade that they have launched a separate contest called the Ironman Executive Challenge. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of CEOs finishing at least one marathon doubled, and in a Swedish survey of nearly 3,000 managers, more than 90% said that physical exercise had a positive impact on their leadership skills.

But are Bunge and other like-minded fitness executives really correct to assume that office work is comparable to sports, or that they can positively influence one another? It is true that numerousstudies have established a positive link between physical exercise and cognitive performance. And at Björn Borg, their key performance indicators have improved after Bunge was brought in as CEO: net sales increased by 27% between 2013 and 2016, and operating profits tripled. During 2016, employee engagement increased by 3%, to 75%. Bunge also points out that investments in general health and work-life balance, including workshops on stress management and sleep, have made a positive impact on the lives of his employees. However, while the CEO takes pride in these figures and workplace changes, they will still need to grow sales by another 56% and boost employee engagement by another 15% in three years if they are to reach their 2019 goals.

There’s more on the less-than-positive end of things: There is still no peer-reviewed evidence suggesting a correlation between CEO physical fitness and firm value. And it’s unclear if a person’s athletic progress can do anything to mitigate the effects of short-termism (i.e. layoffs or restructurings) or make someone happier in their job (even if it makes their lives, on a whole, more pleasant).

While the majority of Björn Borg employees Torkild has talked with seem pretty much all-in on the fitness-as-work concept, there are dissenters. A few shared critical comments about Bunge’s leadership, from his penchant for motivating staff by yelling “let’s go guys!” to the fact that fitness is mandatory and sometimes a bit on the extreme side (for example, ending an outdoor team building exercise by rope-crossing an inlet with water up to the chest).

A number of employees have also made comments about staff turnover: according to figures provided by the company, the employee exit rate as a whole increased from 8% to 25% between 2014 and 2016. Management has admitted that turnover during Bunge’s first couple of years was high, but viewed it as a plus, since it enabled them to handpick new staff.

So are CEOs on to something in thinking lessons from the gym can be seamlessly transferred into their companies? Or is this leap a mere fantasy?

Bunge, for his part, is not worried. When we asked him if physical exercise makes us better at our jobs, he doesn’t hesitate for a second: “Absolutely!”

But in his defense, the CEO is not entirely trapped in a bubble. Cautiously we ask what he makes of famous leaders, such as Winston Churchill and Angela Merkel, who fail to meet today’s fitness standards. “Churchill was a leader of his time,” Bunge says as he wiped his plate after our lunch. “He was a genius. But I don’t think he’d join the sports hour. He’d probably tell me to go to hell.”

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