Daniel: Alejandro, Alex Ouziel is an Executive Committee Level Business Leader that has worked in marketing, sales, and general management in FMCG, across Europe, Russia, Middle East, and Africa. Apart from his business career, Alex is also an avid runner. He’s completed a number of marathons and also a number of mountain races, for example, the Tor des Geants twice. In a time where there’s a debate about work-life balance or integration in the business world, I thought Alex would be the perfect guest as he’s been able to balance a great career in traditional big companies with his own family and personal goals.
Apart from your career, which has brought you to an executive committee level position, you’re also a keen runner. I understand. Can you tell us and our listeners how that happened?
Alex: First of all, it’s great to be here with you. Thank you for inviting me.
Daniel: Thank you for joining us.
Alex: Look, I think that today we live in a very, in a world and particularly in a business world that is very high paced, that requires us to be full on, to have a “full on” attitude and to really give it all … all of the time, right?
And Travel and technology are making it easier to stay connected to anywhere in the world and, at the same time, the amount of information that is available to us can sometimes be overwhelming. So it really becomes harder and harder to disconnect and perhaps that’s why we hear so much on TV, on magazines, newspapers, about the importance of home and work balance of personal and professional life. Right?
But I found that also when you leave the work and you dedicate to your family life, that in itself is also a full-time dedication process. And so about six years ago, I came to the conclusion that the equation that it was important to balance was actually the work, family, me equation.
And because I think it is the “Me” in all of us, that as we get emerged in the career wheel, we start to disregard. It is those personal interests that we used to have growing up, that we enjoyed doing and for which we have less and less time. So it was about getting this balance. Right?
As a student, I had been an active sportsperson, I had enjoyed many sports, and I was looking for one that I would be able to take on a regular basis and running was kind of like the obvious choice for many reasons. And at first, it was just a few kilometers in the running machine at the gym and that becomes boring eventually. There’s only so much hamstering around that we can do
Alex: And it’s important to get outside, you know, and do some running on the streets. One very beautiful sunny day in Istanbul, I was running around along the Bosphorus and lost kind of track of time, emerged in all this beautiful experience and then before I knew it, I had a run 12 kilometers. Being a somewhat, I would say competitive and competitive first of all with myself, I came to the conclusion that if I could do 12 kilometers, I could do a marathon and the next thing I knew, three days later, I had signed up for the Athens marathon
It was that crazy thing you do, hoping that is the one crazy thing that you do once in a lifetime and it hasn’t been. For me, it’s become a new way of life. Something that’s become part of who I am and part of what I do
Daniel: And how have you managed to integrate this running part of your live running marathons, which means a lot of preparation time into your work, well, into your life, which includes a lot of hours at work and with family, etc.?
Alex: I used to travel over 200 days, about 200 days a year. So obviously when you have that kind of lifestyle, it has some limitations to the things that you can do. It was important for me to find that sport that I could integrate into my daily life. I could not join a team sport, for example. I mean with that kind of schedule, it’s very difficult to always be present for the training sessions or even for the match day. So it would not have been fair on the team. At the same time, it’s not easy to travel with a bicycle or to even take swimming because the swimming pools in the hotels are very often not much bigger than a bath. So I had to find a sport that was easy and probably the easiest one of all is running because of you just… at the end of the day, you just need a pair of trainers.
If you really try hard, not even that. It’s something that can go in any suitcase; it doesn’t take much more space than it normally does. So you don’t even need to check it in all of a sudden and it’s very easy to do anywhere.
There is the only thing I really have had to do is perhaps change a little bit of my schedule. I was not much of a morning person, but the morning was really the only time or the day that I could control, that was not hijacked by meetings or dinners or so on. So it’s the, it really belonged to myself and I started to get up around two hours earlier every morning to really be able to train properly and this has come with the added advantages. On the one side, you get to see and enjoy some beautiful sunrises in many places around the world. And on the other, as we go into, as we travel and we business travel very often we just jet in, jet out and get to see the airport and maybe the meeting room is nice. This has allowed me to really visit some cities.
Daniel: That’s true.
Alex: If you are running eight or 10 kilometers a day or even five, you can cover actually quite surprisingly a lot of most of the cities in the world and you can try to organize your route around some of the sites and then get a feeling for the city at the time of day when there is not a lot of people, not a lot of tourists, so it is clearly actually quite enjoyable.
Daniel: Oh that’s great. And I know that you recently completed the Tor des Geants; do you think this achievement is the one that you feel proudest of the outside of work?
Alex: I would have to say, of course, yes and before I perhaps explain a little bit about Tor Des Geants
Daniel: That would be a good idea, yes.
Alex: Let me just tell you a little bit about it. Basically after completing a few marathons, I started running in the mountains. I used to live in Geneva. It was difficult when I was in the weekends in the mountains to find flat areas to run and I kind of like slowly transferred to a sport that is now called Trail Running.
And over time, I have evolved into trying to go further and trying to go higher rather than perhaps spending all of my energy in going faster. It is something that really touches one part of my character, which is an adventurous spirit and a hunger to discover new things that I constantly have.
So, Tor des Geants essentially is a race in the Italian house. It’s been called by many people one of the hardest race in the world, by some of the people, the hardest race in the world. It starts in the beautiful village of Courmayeur, the South side of the South face of Mont Blanc. At sometime in September, the beginning of September 900 runners stand at the start line and basically, they will cover over the course of around six days, 339 kilometers climbing over 21 mountains of over 2000 meters with a combined altitude equal to going up and down Everest three and a half times.
Daniel: Not bad.
Alex: So essentially this is what, a two years ago, in another moment of temporary craziness, I signed myself up for and a couple of weeks ago I completed the race for the second time.
Alex: It’s just something that is incredible. I mean the organization gives you 150 hours to complete it. Once you start in Courmayeur, the watch or the clock never stops. So it’s up to you to decide if you can take a rest, if you sleep, if you don’t. By the time that you reach Courmayeur, the last person bridges Courmayeur; about half of the 900 original entrance have had to give up either through exhaustion or through injury and eventually this is something that goes far beyond being a race.
In fact, two years ago, I approached it like a race. I just thought, oh, it’d be like a normal, a hundred kilometer race, just a little bit longer and it wasn’t. You know, it’s much more a kind of a life experience. It makes you, it takes you to limits that are very difficult to find. It really challenges you physically and mentally during the… I finished it this time in 134 hours, that’s just five and a half days and during this time, I slept 9 hours. So you not only, you get physically tired but you’re also getting mentally tired.
Daniel: Yeah, I imagine.
Alex: And this leaves you to a point that is… I would say close to breaking point, but actually probably breaking point was a long time ago. When you get to those points, it really makes you question why you do these things, and if you really want to continue and why you want to finish and finding the energy to do that, finding the motivation to not give up. It’s really something that makes a race like this, something completely different from certainly anything else that I have felt in sport.
Daniel: Yeah, because it’s a psychological and the physical battle at the same time. And then Alex, what impact, because of course you’ve talked about with the three different parts of life: work, family and also personal individual self, but we know that they’re not separate, they’re kind of interrelated. What impact have the physical activities, the running that you do have had on your business career if any?
Alex: Eventually when, whenever you dedicate a lot of time to do something, you learn new things and you, you start to find ways of integrating what you learned in other parts of your, of your life and so in this case, obviously between success in sports and success in business that are often very many parallelisms and these are areas that many people in books and in motivational speeches have always looked for similarities and for inspiration. You know, I think in my case, there’s always the feeling that if I’d been able to finish store, there’s nothing else like that I cannot do. You know, it gives you a sense of really being able to achieve anything but more important than that I would say is that when you move in a familiar territory, it’s quite easy. So it’s quite easy to wing it. You don’t need to prepare so hard to just pull a few tricks here and there and it’s relatively easy to get by. But when you push yourself to the limits when you really try to achieve something that seems too impossible or at least impossible at the beginning, it requires five things; five ingredients, five qualities, I would say that is the same. For me, are the same between sport and a business? The first one is really a dream or a vision. What is your reason for wanting to do this or wanting to achieve? The second one is to decide what are the things that you’re going to need to learn and the things that you’re going to need to prepare, the skills that you’re going to need to acquire in order to have a chance at being successful. The third one is to provide yourself with a plan; the height of how you’re going to progress there. This has been an area which for me has been very important. I traditionally have not spent a lot of time in planning and I had to really spend out of this, a lot of planning time for my training programs and this I say it’s more of a guide because it needs to be rigid enough to keep you focused, but at the same time flexible enough to change when the environment around you changes. The fourth one is to surround yourself with a passionate team that shares the dream and it’s not necessarily your dream, that’s their dream because it’s also their dream so is the team. And last but certainly not least is being able to never give up and in a way in the previous four, if you do have the dream, if you’ve gained the skills, if you have a plan, if you have a team around you, it will be harder to give up, but stay focused when things go well and be ready to improvise when they go wrong because they will go wrong.
In a way running and in specifically tour the Geon because as the biggest thing I have done in running, it has strengthened for me the belief that I have on how important all of these factors are for success. Personally, I never really had the ambition to run a 340-kilometer race. It’s not something that I thought that would do all of my life growing up but once I decided to go for it, it’s a little bit like master Yoda, right? Or do not. There is no try.
Daniel: Absolutely. And finally, today we’re here to how millennial and Gen z, what demand the work better work life, balance or integration. Do you think that companies have to adapt to these demands? Like flexible working, etc. Or with successful executives still wear them to the way that companies have been, let’s say more traditionally run?
Alex: It’s a very interesting area because obviously we’re going through perhaps through other, through a time of being going over the last few years, for a time when a new generation has been coming through and perhaps for we are living through with the millennial is not very different from when other generations had been knocking at the table, at similar times that there has been a significant change in the environment in which they live.
Daniel: That’s true.
Alex: The technological one. Right? But I would go even further because we tend to talk about companies as the kind of like metaphysical entities that exist and they don’t have a face, they don’t have a soul. Right? But at the end of the day, companies are made up of people and they are shaped by people and as such, companies will always over time above to represent the realities of these people and have the site they live in. Today in the west, and I think it’s important to make cultural differences because when we go to lawyers of the world, they don’t necessarily have the same attitudes to being in the workplace or at least they don’t have the same ones that we have now today. The levels of wellbeing are very advanced, the context even … even in the context of the economic crisis, you know, I mean and the people as the result of that, they value much more the free time or the personal time and the way we work and they want to feel changes in those respects. I often feel that technology; if we use it properly, should allow us to do that, it allows us to engage in more activities with a higher level of dedication of success beyond what we do in the world today.
Alex: I think there’s a lot of talks around should work rate should be shorter. Should we… should work weeks… should we go to a four-day working week? And then some things that might be a little bit more trivial. Like should we have ping pong tables in meeting rooms? You know?
Alex: But for me the essence of it all is that if companies are able to provide more time for the employees or the people who make up those companies to dedicate more time to things outside of the workplace, those will be the companies that will be the most successful going forward because it will be those people coming back and being able to bring what they learn outside of the workspace, the new skills, the new networks, the salvation of how society behaves, that will be able to bring much more ideas to the table.
Alex: And they will… and those will be the companies that will come up with the next things that a revolutionized and facilitate the work for us. So yes, I do. So to answer your question, the answer is yes, but it will not be the companies that change for the people, it will be the people who will change the companies.
Daniel: Okay, great. Well, that’s a great point to keep in mind, actually. Alex thanks so much for joining us. I know that you have a tight schedule, so I really appreciate it and thanks also to our listeners for joining us.
Alex: And I thank you. It’s been a lot of fun and thanks to you for giving me this space to share my passion and I look forward to continue to follow your, to follow your blog and your podcast.
Daniel: Thanks a lot.
Alex: Bye. Bye.