This is the second in March's 'Tales from Universitas' series to mark the start of 2016 programs and the fifth year that The LAB team are in-residence. After recounting the story of the Chinese Walk last week, we publish an interview with Telefónica COO José María Álvarez-Pallete. I first met José María at Universitas in early 2013. On discovering his marathon running exploits I was eager to interview him in order to advance the ideas that were formulating at the time, and which would subsequently become the book, Sustaining Executive Performance. The interview that we did in July 2014 was used to open the final chapter in the book published six months later but this is the first time that the full transcripted interview is published.
Thanks for your time today Jose Maria. The book is based on the Sustaining Executive Performance program we've ran here at Universitas the past few years. My idea is to develop an academically sound yet still practical guide for busy professionals and management students, who may improve and sustain their performance through improved health and habits.
Let's get started with your life as a runner. Can you tell me a little bit about your running story? When you started? What you get from it? You know, the benefits for you as a busy person?
Well, I started running at University. I was a middle distance runner, 800m, 1500m. But then I almost stopped because I like football, I like skiing and playing tennis. Then I started to work and I got married, and I started travelling. Most of all I started travelling a lot both in my previous job and then in Telefónica. So basically I think it was 1998, in my previous job, Cemex sent me to Indonesia, to Jakarta. There were a lot of riots and it was a tough political period there. Therefore we were very restricted about what we could do outside. I was basically going to the office and back to the hotel for a year. So I started running. The hotel had a small track and field place, so I started running again. And it was very hard at the beginning because you tend to think that you are still the student, and you try to run the same times you did at University, and then you suddenly realize that you are 10 years older. So I started little by little and I started 5K, 10K, and then progressively to half marathon and marathon. And I did it for several reasons. First, because it's very convenient and you don't need to prepare anything. You just need your running shoes and then you step out and you run. You don't need to prepare anything, you don't need to arrange any kind of partner to play with or whatever. And also when I was travelling to Latin America during my Latin American assignment, it's a very comfortable way of fighting against jet lag. Then, it helped me. It helped me to keep in shape, it helped me to relax, because it's fun enough. Most of the problems that I find when I'm working and I don't find a solution, and I'm so close to the problem that I don't have perspective, just by running you start to relax. So in many ways it has become a way of life.
So do you keep up the practice regardless of pressure? Even on your busiest weeks, your busiest days, you're still always trying to make space to keep it going because of those benefits?
Yes. It doesn't matter. I mean, it's part of the day so to say. You normally set a goal, say the New York marathon, or the Madrid half marathon, or a 10K, and then you prepare for that and it helps you to diversify your focus and your attention, but most of all it helps me to keep motivation very high. Because some of the most important decisions that I need to take, I find much more relaxing quality time while I'm running than sitting in my place and trying to find the solution.
So running is a key practice, or let’s say ritual, for you in your life. Do you have any other key practices or rituals that you follow? Or that you make part of your normal day like running?
In my opinion, the most important thing is to be balanced. For me, at least, all those so called rituals need to help you for something. It's not a kind of superstition, it needs to provide you with some positive feedback, with some positive contribution. So if you are asking what is the most important thing for me to help, to contribute to live in balance, it's my personal life: my family, my wife, my kids, my parents, my brothers... That's where I find my quiet spaces and where I can really feel that I'm also building something that is a project, a personal project. And in order to find that balance, running is also very important. Reading is also essential. I need good reading time of things that have nothing to do with my professional life. I'm talking about history. I love historical literature and I also love something that fires my imagination. Either because it takes me back to some previous time or because it piques my attention in some way that I have not been able to. And I think this is a kind of an input for personal and professional life because it provides me with experiences. I mean with different views. Early in the morning I love reading and exploring about technology, through Twitter or some other platform. So reading is important, both with things that have nothing to do with my job and things that are related to technology. If I don't do it one day, I miss it. I need to do it.
Yes, I follow you on Twitter and saw that interest in reading coming through. So how much time would you dedicate to reading in a day?
On a normal day, I get to the office around 8am and I devote 25 to 30 minutes to go through different posts, articles, blogs... And those that interest me the most, I program them to be tweeted. I try to tweet 12 tweets per day. And then at night, when I get home, a shower is something that helps relax me. Later before going to sleep I enjoy reading 10-20 minutes on things that have nothing to do with technology or with my job.
You mentioned balance and different facets of family life. Do you make a distinction between work and life? Is there such a thing as a line or is everything just integrated?
Theoretically there is a line, there is always a line. But at the end of the day it’s like pretending you are going home with your heart, not you head. And you are going to work with your head but not your heart. At the end of the day you are a person in both places. So for sure you need to distinguish, but unless you put some emotion and some passion in your work, you are not going to make a difference, in my opinion. At least that's my experience. And the same at home. I mean, it is hard for my wife, for my kids or my parents, to understand me without my surroundings, so to say. That doesn't mean that I need to share my pressure. I need to bring the things that are important, but I don't want to leave my wife or my kids apart so they cannot understand and I pretend that they are strangers to me. They are of course, an integral part of my life and vice versa. I think that if you don't put some passion and some feelings and some emotions in your work, you are not you.
Absolutely. A couple of quick questions next. So for the following simple activities, in a normal day, please answer high, medium or low.
Anything else I missed that comes to mind? in terms of the basic activities that make up your day?
Quality time: low. I'd like to have more quality time. For all those purposes. Quality time, meaning to put in order your thoughts... I think that having an order on your files, on previous experiences, so to say. I miss more quality time.
Your typical view on getting things done, on spending time with family... Do you have a view which is very daily, or in a week, or a month, or just a mixture of all? What's the most appropriate view or measure?
You need to adapt, because this is not a continuous function.
Things happen, yes?
So if you feel that one of your kids, or your wife, for whatever reasons, are going through some issue that you need to dedicate more time, then you need to unbalance a little bit. You need to adjust. And vice versa. At some point, there are projects or there are some specific transactions or decisions that require more time at your job, then you need to explain to your family that for a while you are going to have to spend that time. So one thing is theory and another thing is day-to-day practice. So in average, I love to spend Saturday and Sunday full time, quality time with my family, because I understand that during the week its tougher to do that. But I want quality time at least Saturday and Sunday with my family. But if for some reasons I need to work, then I explain and vice versa. If I feel that some of my kids are going through some problems, or my wife, or my parents, I need to step out of the job earlier. I adjust because it's a question of priorities. You need to adjust priorities.
Absolutely. So that was one my questions for later -- do you have a day off in the week? Or is it just a matter of you try to keep Saturday and Sunday open, but you're contactable in case anything is a real mess?
Yes, and the fact is that there is no pure Saturday and Sunday. You are either responding to some e-mails or somebody calls you and it creates a little bit of tension. There are some calls that you are taking on Saturdays and Sundays that you try to hide from your family, so they get the impression that you don’t care. So it's always adjusting, there is no pure family time, there is no pure professional time. It's a mixture.
How would you describe your job in just a couple of simple words?
The things that I have been mandated for is to make things happen basically. Participate on the vision and strategy, but mostly what my CEO is expecting from me is that I make things happen.
And how do you feel physically? Normally, and right now?
(laughing) I feel OK. I feel OK. I feel good. For me, you have ups and downs, but I basically have found out that motivation is amazingly helpful. You might sleep, for some periods of time, 3 hours, or 2 hours, or 4 hours, but its OK, you are not tired, because you are so involved in something, you are so committed about something. I don't know if it's adrenaline or motivation, or passion, but it helps you get through, keep calm. So, for me, it's this balance thing. I need to feel... I'm OK if I feel that things are going in the right direction at work. And maybe successful in some projects and not successful in others, but motivation is very important. So I'm feeling OK, I'm feeling OK.
Yes. So, the next part of that question is where does your energy come from? So I guess it's the motivation, the buzz of the job if things are going well and also family?
It's most of all the feeling that I'm participating in a project, that I'm building something, that I'm happy to do something. I mean I know that personally I'm building a family and I'm very proud of where I'm coming from. I'm very proud of what we are building together, my wife and I. So I feel that that part of my life is rich. My kids are growing up, I am investing in their education. I feel that they are growing up as decent human beings, with values. So I feel that I'm building something, personally. And then, professionally, I'm part of an amazing project. I love my company and I'm so thankful for what they have done for me. So I feel that we are amazingly fortunate to be in this kind of company, because the good thing about a company like Telefónica is that if you are there to take the responsibility of your decisions, of your acts, your basically entitled to do whatever you want. They give you a lot of freedom of action. So the feeling that I'm building something, that I'm participating in building something is so exciting.
Yes, I see that excitement. We've talked a couple of times about your mission, and I see that excitement coming through. How do you recharge? When you are feeling tired and things are going to happen, how do you recharge? Go for a run, just have a nap? Anything like that?
Naps and runs are good for short-term remedies, though it depends on whether there is a structural issue to be addressed. I mean if something is wrong..., then you need to reset the structure. For me, resetting the structure means that when I'm not feeling OK professionally I tend to share it with my boss, with my colleagues. Even if it is hard, because I’d rather have a hard decision even if that affects me than maintaining a structure that creates negative energy all around. Because hiding a problem is not going to solve it. The same personally. If I have had a discussion with my wife or with my father or whatever, I need to solve it. A good nap is not going to solve it. It's going to help for a moment but it's not going to solve it. So I need to reset things. Even if it is hard. And it depends on your personality, but for me, facing a new situation doesn't scare me. I rather face a new situation because the previous one is no longer valid. Sticking to the previous system will just erode. I'm very lucky because I'm not scared of what's going to come. I tend to be very positive about what's next.
Looking at decisions again, you said that running helps you to gain perspective, to get distance from a decision. Anything else on your decision making process? When do you normally take them? How do you take them? Even how many?
Given that my job is to make things happen I think that taking decisions quickly is important. The balance between execution, agility and a good logical reflection is important. But, you know, I rather do it quickly and then try to adapt, than to delay things. Because delaying things has a multiplying effect on the organization. When things get to your desk, they normally have gone through a lot of processes, and a lot of committees, and a lot of discussions, and therefore, if we perpetually do that, even if it is just one time, it goes back through the organization, and it takes another cycle. So I have always felt that the higher you get into the organization, the sooner you need to take your decisions, because if not, you are delaying the whole organization. Having said that, when I need to take a decision, a strong decision, I try to listen to more than one side. Because there are always different perspectives. Everyone means well, but most of the viewpoints they present are subjective to an extent. So I always try to listen to more than one opinion. And the more diversified they are, the better. Even if I don't like the second opinion, it helps me calibrate the impacts of the decisions on the organization. I need to take lots of decisions on a daily basis. Important, relevant ones, two, three, four of them per day. If I need to delay that one or two days, I will, but I try no to do more than that because if I do, I'm collapsing the organization. So, to make a long story short, trying to listen to more than one source of information, rebounding that with people I trust, and then executing them very fast.
Great. A couple of quick-fire questions again. Hours of sleep? Does it change?
Six, six thirty.
Working hours a day?
(laughing) I would say 13-14.
Vacation? Do you get a vacation?
Yes. Two weeks.
Are you always contactable during that vacation?
It's almost three weeks effectively, because it is 3-4 days in Christmas, 3-4 days in Easter and then two weeks... But always contactable, for sure. Always, always.
E-mails per day? Do you manage your own e-mails?
Yes, I manage them. I cannot tell you how many exactly, but... sixty, seventy...
Is that tough? Do you feel overwhelmed?
No. I tend to read them. The most relevant ones, if I don't have quality time to read them, I have what I call a "pending file". Whenever I have some quality time I go deeply through them. There are shorter e-mails which are very quick to process and there are quality time e-mails that require some time.
Final question. The future. Have you thought about what you want, how long you think you can sustain this role, or are you just enjoying yourself?
I was thinking about this recently, this year I have been doing closing speeches for graduation ceremonies. Three this year actually. When I was preparing one of them, I was thinking "I have never planned my career". And, in fact, if I would have done that, I would have been totally wrong! I don’t think I’m good at that, I mean I never thought I was going to be COO of Telefónica. That was not even in my plans when I was at University. Life takes you. Life drives you. So the only important thing, in my opinion, is the feeling that you are building something, that you are participating in something. So if you ask me what's next, I enjoy so much what I am doing now that I'm not necessarily planning for the next step. I'm so thankful, I'm so joyful of what I am doing... it might seem very naive, I don’t know but it’s absolutely true. I enjoyed very much when I was an auditor counting trucks for an inventory, because I felt I was part of it. My boss took the time to explain why the job I was doing was so important. I was very thankful working for an investment bank. I enjoyed working for a cement company. I'm enjoying so much working for Telefónica that, personally speaking, I don't think it can be planned. Life takes you.
Fantastic. Many thanks.
(c) The Leadership Academy of Barcelona 2014-2016. No part of this interview may be reproduced without permission. firstname.lastname@example.org