Business leaders: Good sports lead by example

They've got the competitive instinct, so it should be no surprise that business leaders have embraced Sport Relief

Business is backing Sport Relief in a big way. Staff from thousands of companies big and small will be taking part in charitable sports events this weekend and over the coming months.

Chief executives are trying to lead by example. Sainsbury's chief executive, Justin King, Cisco UK chief executive Phil Smith and more than 30 other bosses will take part in the Sport Relief Mile on the Mall in London this Sunday.

Mr King has already been admirably dynamic. Last week, he ran the mile a remarkable 32 times over four days as he made a tour around different sites in the UK. He was joined on each run by Sainsbury's staff from the local store and more than 1,000 took part.

Mr Smith is also aiming for an epic challenge of a different sort. The Cisco UK boss has managed to persuade more than 30 fellow chief executives to take part in an initiative called the Leaderboard Challenge For Sport Relief. This Sunday's Sport Relief Mile is just a part. There will be a variety of endurance tests, culminating in the Blenheim triathlon on 9 and 10 June.

Among the bosses who have signed up to take part are Adecco's Peter Searle, Oracle's David Callaghan, Monitise Group's Alastair Lukies and, appropriately, Kevin Cahill, the chief executive of Comic Relief. Each hopes to raise about £20,000 – or upwards of £600,000 in total.

Some of them, including Mr Smith, have already swum in the Thames as part of their preparations. The former top runner Roger Black and rugby player Austin Healey are also taking part in the Leaderboard Challenge, to join in the fun and hopefully improve the bosses' sporting prowess.

Many companies have embraced Sport Relief in the past decade because they recognise that it is good for internal morale as well as being popular with customers. As Mr King of Sainsbury's says: "We want to be involved and active in the communities we trade in. Our customers love it because it's a really fun, healthy thing to do, and they support it generously because they know it's for a great cause."

Having a higher purpose beyond mere profit can have a galvanising effect. And, of course, sport appeals to the competitive instinct of people in business.

Mr Smith said he was inspired to launch the Leaderboard Challenge after he did his first triathlon for charity three years ago.

"Something interesting happened," recalls the Cisco boss, who is in charge of 4,000 staff in Britain and Ireland. "I got a lot fitter. But there was a very consequential reaction from within the company. Lots of people started saying, 'If my CEO is so busy and he can can do this, then I can do this too.' Lots of people did. They took up half-marathons and bike rides and a general interest in health and wellbeing."

As Sport Relief came around again this year, and with the Olympics in mind, Mr Smith then decided that if he could prompt his own staff to be more active, maybe he could encourage other bosses at other companies to follow his lead.

"I thought, why don't I get a bunch of other CEOs to do something similar?" Many bosses have responded positively, of course, to the delight of Comic Relief's organisers.

Cilla Snowball, the chairman and chief executive of the advertising agency Abbott Mead Vickers, is a long-time supporter of Comic Relief and is now a trustee on the board. "For me it absolutely defines the modern 'mass participation' event because it is a truly mass celebration of fun and fund-raising, appealing to millions of people of all ages," she says.

Within the agency, whose clients include Sainsbury's and BT, both Sport Relief sponsors, it has made a big difference.

"There is huge personal and professional satisfaction in taking part in something as worthwhile and important as Sport Relief," Ms Snowball says. "We know that we can make a difference and it's important to us individually and collectively."

Cisco's Mr Smith agrees the "mass participation" theme is key internally because it brings staff together. "When people look back at work on the last ten years, yes, they'll look back on the deals they did, but they'll probably remember a Red Nose Day or Sport Relief more. They are things that make life special and reinforce the culture."

We live in an age where businesses have come under greater scrutiny than ever in the wake of the credit crunch. The Occupy Movement may be aimed chiefly at the big banks but there is a more general suspicion of the corporate world.

As Mr Smith says: "Companies are realising they don't live in an ivory tower with no effect on anyone else. They have an effect on communities, and people doing things for the community or society have a responsibility."

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