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How Muay Thai made me better at business

Ken Wong
Ken WongAP Senior Vice President and President
I lead a fortune 500 tech company's rapid growth markets in Asia Pacific across PCs, mobile devices, and data centre infrastructure. I have extensive experience over the last two decades managing complex geographies in technology leadership roles at global, regional and country levels. I enjoy turning data insights and analysis into a powerful strategic direction that has seen us deliver exceptional innovation.

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It may be a cliché but the concept of ‘healthy body, healthy mind’ is a truism for a reason. Easy to say but harder to achieve, it embodies a worthwhile, desirable human state with far reaching positive consequences. And it does this using four simple words.

How can we apply the concept to our professional lives?

My role leading Lenovo in Asia Pacific is interesting, fulfilling and exciting. Dull moments are few and far between.

Any of us can achieve better performance at work via a simple focus on achieving greater physical fitness.

At times the job is also challenging and demanding, requiring physical stamina as well as mental toughness and focus. Which, to be fair, is exactly as I expect it to be. Whether I’m contending with long flights and jetlag, participating in three-day public trade shows, or leading long strategic planning sessions for the business, I need and want to bring my A-game to the table at all times if possible.

With that, I’ve come to a conclusion: any of us can achieve better performance at work via a simple focus on achieving greater physical fitness.

Fortunately – and perhaps this is the greatest consequence of all – the by-product of increasing fitness tends to be a better balance overall, with happier and healthier outcomes outside of work too.

 

Falling asleep in meetings – don’t try this at work

An admission: I was really not that sporty or fitness-minded at school. In fact, I did not walk into a gym until I had turned 35 years old.

But I had a pretty good reason to change my habits. Around that time, I was shocked to find myself falling asleep during a business meeting. How did this happen? Clearly my energy levels and stamina at the time were missing in action. This spurred me into action. I realised I needed to be physically fitter to cope with the regular challenges of the business.

I found that size and power in itself was not the ultimate factor determining whether I could win in the ring. Instead, the outcome was affected more by strategy, stamina, and speed.

So I joined a gym, and discovered a couple of new passions. I picked up CrossFit which has been fantastic for business travel as there are locations or “boxes” you can drop into all over the world. CrossFit began in the US and has since spread to Asia, becoming very popular in China over the past 18 months. I noticed the benefits quite quickly: as my physical self was honed, my mind also sharpened so I could focus better and I felt more energised, which assisted me in day-to-day business performance and decision-making.

I also started Muay Thai, a blend of traditional Thai martial arts and kickboxing, which has been a real game changer for me. You’re in a controlled environment, of course, but the feeling of fighting is actually quite scary and challenging. It’s not for everyone, certainly, but I made an interesting discovery. I found that size and power in itself was not the ultimate factor determining whether I could win in the ring. Instead, the outcome was affected more by strategy, stamina, and speed. There’s a bigger picture at play in this sport, and succeeding is more about how you strategise the whole game. And with that, a revelation. This is precisely how we manage the business!

There are several lessons sport and fitness has taught me, both for life in general, and applicable to how we run the business in Asia:

 

Plan – Execute – Adjust – Plan – Execute – Adjust

This cycle sounds simple but it works as there is no shortcut to actually trying things, and you should never assume you will execute successfully every time upfront. For example, when I first tried double under rope skipping, it seemed easy and just about rhythm. But I realised there is a lot to it – how to hold your core, relax your shoulders, flip your wrists, rope selection and so on. Just like any business endeavour, it needed hours of practice and adjustment to make it work.

 

There is more than ONE way to become successful

In Muay Thai sparring, one has to know one’s own strengths and weaknesses. Are you good at long reach? Heavy kicks? Swift movements? Do you have strong cardio? Once you figure out your strengths, you can then decide on the right strategy. Hence, the tactics that work for Anderson Silva (a famous UFC fighter ) might not work you.

 

Don’t be the limit of yourself

You’d be surprised at what you can actually achieve. I’ll always remember working alongside a couple of older but very strong crossfitters in their 70s, who were able to do amazing weights in crossfit. This is a great example to illustrate the point that nothing is impossible.

 

Where’s the evidence?

I’ve given you my personal take, but the science is compelling too. The benefits of being fit are well understood by society these days. Both anecdotal and scientific evidence is available about the power of a healthier lifestyle to transform people’s well being. Naturally, this will also affect the professional aspects of our lives.

Both anecdotal and scientific evidence is available about the power of a healthier lifestyle to transform people’s well being.

However, I’m a big proponent of using analytics and data. So I re-investigated the topic with regard to workplace performance and the scientific benefits were not hard to come by.

A now well-renowned article called The Making of a Corporate Athlete published by the Harvard Business Review offers substantial evidence on the topic. The authors amassed two decades of data working with world-class athletes before applying their research and techniques for busy corporate executives.

They surmised that an ideal performance state could be achieved by oscillating between regular periods of energy expenditure and recovery. Stress is not the enemy, a failure to oscillate is – by applying these techniques (namely, regular exercise) one can achieve better levels of endurance, strength, flexibility, self-control, and focus at work. Not only that, regular workouts help us create what the authors call a performance pyramid – which is a paradigm including four dimensions – the body, the emotions, the mind, and the spirit.

Stress is not the enemy, a failure to oscillate is!

Some may say these theories are all well and good but how do we overcome an actual lack of motivation to become physically fitter? I believe it is all in the mind.

There’s a useful quote from the classic 1903 literary essay ‘As A Man Thinketh’ by James Allen: “As the physically weak man can make himself strong by careful and patient training, so the man of weak thoughts, can make them strong by exercising himself in right thinking.”

We just have to decide to address our own fitness; it is simply a matter of training or retraining our minds.

As I pointed out, I was not a strong athlete in my youth, and although I now train, I’m still not an athlete. So if I can transform my physical state, anyone can. Moreover, we owe it to ourselves to be the best we can be in our personal and professional lives. In business, companies should do all they can to encourage regular energy expenditure and recovery for their employees. When people feel stronger, happier and more resilient – they perform better – a win-win for everyone.

I look forward to your comments. Please tag me below or find me on Twitter.

 

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