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Benjamin Lakatos: ‘Walking the Camino was the reset I needed as a CEO’
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Benjamin Lakatos: ‘Walking the Camino was the reset I needed as a CEO’

December 22, 2023
For the CEO of MET Group, the month spent trekking across northern Spain on the famous religious pilgrimage route brought personal healing and a professional refresh.

Source: The CEO Magazine

Just before setting off on a one-month Camino de Santiago pilgrimage walk, Benjamin Lakatos chaired a board of directors meeting. “I did not have much time to prepare for El Camino, so I overpacked my luggage,” the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Swiss-based energy company MET Group recalls about the busy period leading up to his departure.

Not long into the walk, he started to leave some of those belongings behind as he pushed further into his journey. “I did the same mentally, too,” he says. “Every day, I felt like I was discarding unnecessary emotional burdens.”

This was not the first time Lakatos had walked the famous pilgrimage route across northern Spain: in October 2022 he did a shorter 200 kilometer version of the epic trek with his father.

“My father is a very religious man, and El Camino was one of the last remaining items on his bucket list,” he explains. “As a birthday gift, we did El Camino together, just the two of us.”

The experience proved to be a teaser, as Lakatos began to grasp the powerful way in which El Camino can transform your mindset. “I realized that I could finally ask myself some really fundamental questions,” he reflects.

Soon after the pair’s return, he decided to return for a longer walk so he could find the answers he was seeking.

Walking back to happiness

Not long before he set off on this second walk in September 2023, Lakatos’ mother sadly passed away. “Although I had a very rough time, the loss of my mother wasn’t the reason I set off on El Camino. I had been planning it anyway,” he explains.

“The loss did push me out of my comfort zone in many ways, of course.”

He acknowledges that he was in an emotionally confused state when he started his journey on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees.

For the first 22 days of the route, Lakatos walked alone. “There was time for a lot of thinking,” he says. “I was disconnected from the world, barely seeing anyone, sometimes not talking to anyone for a whole day.”

“I was thinking so much about myself, something that I normally don’t have time to do. I was smiling for three days when I realized this.”

This solitude allowed him to focus on himself and how he was feeling. “My thoughts were about concerns such as whether my leg hurt and where I was going to find food and sleep,” Lakatos says.

For the busy executive, this was a whole new experience. “I was thinking so much about myself, something that I normally don’t have time to do,” he says. “I was smiling for three days when I realized this.”

Then, for the last 11 days, his father joined him, and later, some close friends as well. “I had told them that I couldn’t explain the walk to them and they just had to come and experience it for themselves,” he says.

On completing the thirty-three-day trip, he knew he had found happiness again. “I posted on LinkedIn that I had ‘walked back to happiness’ and that sentence summarizes the whole experience for me,” he says. “That was the true essence of that month. Those words were carefully chosen, as I really meant them.”

A renewed balance

After the loss of his mother, Lakatos knew that if he could not overcome the deep, natural grief, he would not be able to continue to properly fulfil his functions as CEO. “The sadness will never go away, but thanks to El Camino, I was able to find a certain balance,” he says.

It’s a sense of equilibrium he says he last felt at university before he had established a business. “I feel extremely balanced inside, but that hasn’t significantly changed who I am. I just have the impression that I have turned back into the person I was before,” he says, adding that of course, once you get back to work, the same pressures are still there — “but this feeling remains for the time being”.

The Camino de Santiago experience did provide him with new objectives, however. He is now trying to achieve a proper work–life balance, something he feels he has always failed at before. “My family can confirm this,” he says.

“It does not necessarily mean less work, but once you are mentally relaxed, you can think through topics and make decisions far more efficiently and quickly.”

“Even if I did not find the answer to everything, I was able to zoom out, and find a way to continue to lead an efficient and happy life without answering those questions.”

Lakatos adds that, having learnt to discard physical objects during his trip, he is trying to do the same in the office as well and concentrate on what is truly essential. “I don’t feel that I have changed, but I can now just push aside a lot of noise that impacts my inner core,” he explains. “I feel free”.

Freedom and happiness, he believes, are very closely related to each other, although he cautions to add that over happiness isn’t the right attitude for a company that wishes to continue to grow. “This personal attitude is separate from that of the business,” he says.

As for the questions Lakatos wanted to ask himself, he admits he did not find all the answers he was seeking along the route. “But this doesn’t feel like failure,” he says. “You realize that, maybe, you do not have an answer to all of the questions and you just keep walking on.”

“Even if I did not find the answer to everything, I was able to zoom out, and find a way to continue to lead an efficient and happy life without answering those questions.”

Business learnings

The possibility of not returning to his job as a CEO did cross Lakatos’ mind at a certain point, too. “But as I walked further, this idea completely disappeared from my mind,” he says.

The other positive impact of El Camino was the realization that he did not want to change MET Group’s business strategy. “I would not come back to work if I did not believe that the current strategy is good for MET, that it is realistically achievable and the market conditions are there,” Lakatos, who is the majority owner of the company, emphasizes.

“My colleagues did a great job while I was off and took over all of my duties and responsibilities. I am very grateful for this.”

What also emerged from Lakatos’ time away was that, in the normal course of business, the company can function without him at the helm. While he followed what was happening during his absence, keeping up to date with the most important executive board materials, as well as sending off a few emails, “that was it”, he says.

“I truly felt that MET was in very good shape,” he says. “My colleagues did a great job while I was off and took over all of my duties and responsibilities. I am very grateful for this.”

Even if Lakatos walked more than 900 kilometers in total (755 kilometers on the official Camino de Santiago trail), he is convinced that the whole trip is more challenging mentally than physically.

“You have to wake up and start walking every single day, even if you are in pain,” he says. “It is a feeling that you cannot compare to the daily grind of working life, even though we need to get up early on many workdays, too.”

When Lakatos completed El Camino, his first thoughts were how brilliant and overdue the experience was for him. “But next time, I wouldn’t do it alone.”