When I found out I had the chance to interview Sarah Robb O’Hagan before she gave a keynote speech at the recent ACG Annual Women of Leadership Summit, I knew it would be a captivating interview. Sarah has an impressive resume: She is currently the CEO of Flywheel Sports and was previously president of Equinox Fitness Clubs and Gatorade, where she led a reinvention and turnaround of the $5 billion sports drink business, and has held senior leadership positions at Nike and Virgin Atlantic Airways. She is also the author of “Extreme You,” a book and movement which encourages people to take risks, play to their strengths, learn from failure and reach their potential.
Although Sarah has risen to the top of her career, she has been honest and open about her weaknesses, mistakes and even what she learned from being fired twice at the start of her career. In fact, she was inspired to write Extreme You: Step Up. Stand Out. Kick Ass. Repeat. when someone introduced her before a speech and she realized that, although the accomplishments were true, it wasn’t the full story. So she decided to start discussing the vulnerable, real and messy moments that exist behind the polished and carefully curated resume — that’s what I wanted to discuss.
You have been honest about being fired from two high-profile jobs in your twenties. What advice would you give to someone who has recently been fired and is figuring out her next step?
The first thing I would say is that it’s a very traumatizing experience and you have to actually acknowledge that it’s going to feel bad, and it should feel bad, for a period of time. If it doesn’t, chances are you’re probably dodging the growth opportunity.
In terms of actionable insights, I definitely think for the first 24 hours, including a lot of Ben & Jerry’s is totally fine. You have to mourn and allow yourself to indulge in the sadness so you can start to process it. It’s tempting to want to skip the step but, if you do, chances are you’re not going to learn from it and ask questions like, “Why did this happen?” So number one is taking the time to mourn, but you have to get out of that. You know the classic saying, “Everybody loves a pity party,” but then you have to get out of it.
Once you move on, have an honest conversation with yourself about what you could have done differently. In any situation where there is a separation, there are causes on both sides. A lot of times when people get fired they think “This is happening to me. I had no control,” but in terms of moving forward and growing, you have to think about what you did have control of because that’s what you can work on.
I can remember with me, the first time it happened, people would say, “You got fired what happened,” and I would blame it on the company and you’d see this look in the person’s eye that they didn’t believe me. And I didn’t believe me. It wasn’t until I took the step back and said, “Yes, I was in a difficult company with issues, in a difficult area. But I was arrogant and a bunch of things.” And once I realized that, I said, “Okay well, I’m going to work on that,” and it gave me something to move forward with.
You’ve spoken and written about inspiring people to have the confidence to take risks, fail and develop resilience. The fear of failure often keeps people from trying something new and taking big risks. What’s your advice for someone who is afraid to take a risk in her career, whether it’s quitting a job to start a company, taking on a high-profile project or taking a job she doesn’t feel 100% qualified for?
My biggest advice is that fear and not taking risks is a far greater reason that people don’t reach their potential then failing. When you reframe it in your mind that way [you see] that the people who really get to the top of their game are generally the ones that took risks and took the consequences, good and bad. It’s the ones that are too fearful to take the risks that don’t progress at the same rate. When you reframe it that way in your mind and think, “Even if the worst thing happens and I take on this high-profile assignment and totally bombs, the learnings that you will get out of that will make you so much stronger next time. It will propel you forward in the end.” It’s not going to feel like that at the time, but if you don’t take risks there is no chance. You have to say to yourself, “Failure is a part of growth; it's going to happen. Click To TweetDon’t be scared of it because if you hold back you aren’t going to get to the places that actually give you new skills and new experiences.”
Speaking of pivots and career transitions, you left your role as president of Equinox Fitness Clubs, which is the parent company for Soul Cycle, Equinox, and Pure Yoga, to write your book Extreme You: Step Up. Stand Out. Kick Ass. Repeat and start the Extreme You movement. How did you develop the confidence to leave something familiar to do something you’ve never done before?
I’m lucky to have had a career where I’ve been fired a few times so I’ve been pushed out of my comfort zone in a very big way. By the time I left Equinox, I had been there four years and had an amazing, amazing run. I enjoyed it. I loved the team I was working with and the business was going well. But I wasn’t challenged anymore, and I knew there weren’t going to be assignments that were going to push me out of my comfort zone. And I remember distinctly thinking to myself, “If I sit around and wait too long, there’s a chance it will get done to me.” If you stop progressing, that’s eventually what leads to layoffs or whatever. So I decided I could either wait or, and I wrote about this in the book, I could break myself to make myself and take that scary risk. If you do it yourself, at least you are in control of your own destiny as you are making that transition.
Listen, it was unbelievably scary. I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t. I have three kids that I’m going to have to put through college and there are a lot of risks that go with it. I think people who are further along in their careers do get more risk-averse because of all of the things like the mortgage you have to pay, the kids and all of the pressures that are on you. But what was extraordinary to me was that I remember in one day, I went from all the back-to-back meetings and everyone needing me to nothing. Silence. Like I don’t have a business card, I don’t have an office, if people want to have a meeting, I’d say “Yeah, I’ll meet you at Starbucks.” Your first reaction is “Oh my God, I feel so uncomfortable, I feel naked,” but then you go “Holy shit, it’s so invigorating.” You feel like you did when you were 25-years-old and trying to make it. You connect with a side of you that you haven’t seen because you’ve been progressing up and getting comfortable. You quickly fight to succeed because you made the decision.
I see a lot of people in corporate America standing around the water cooler feeling frustrated with management and frustrated that they aren’t progressing fast enough. Especially in this economy, the ability to work in flexible ways has never been easier. I think the risks are a bit lower.
I went to a sleepaway camp where they didn’t keep score in games because they didn’t want us to be competitive. I also always got a participation medal for swim meets even though I never actually won a medal and was never a strong swimmer. So let’s just say that your theory about kids not learning that there is such a thing as being the best resonated with me. How do you think the “everyone wins a medal” culture translates into how people act when they get into the workforce?
I have done a ton of research on this, and the “everyone is a winner” culture came out of the self-empowerment movement, which started about 30 years ago. It came from a very good place. Psychologists believed that if you shield a child from bad things happening, it would develop their confidence to a greater level and you can see why logically that makes sense.
What ended up happening when people got to the workforce is that we didn’t equip a generation with [the skills for] this dog-eat-dog competitive landscape. And it’s really unfair when you have been told all along that just participating is enough to win and then suddenly everyone is competing for the same promotion. That’s tough.
One of my biggest messages that I am trying really hard to help people understand is that this generation that was raised with participation trophies is significantly more risk-averse then generation X and the boomers. Each generation has become more scared of risks, and if you don’t take risks you’re not learning and growing, and if you’re not learning and growing, you’re not reaching your potential. It’s all connected. I think it’s about dispelling the myths that were culturally ingrained so they can realize it is okay to fail and to win and lose. They are all important in terms of developing your potential.
Now you are the CEO of Flywheel Sports, how did you decide to take the job when you weren’t looking for one? (Other than that they kept asking you to take the job!)
One of the things that was a benefit of quitting my job, and obviously I was writing my book, but most of us in our careers tend to go straight from one thing to the next. You’ve been at a company for a number of years and an opportunity comes along and you move and very rarely do you have the time to stop and pause and think about what you have achieved. You are in a different mindset when someone offers you a job and you are in a current job. You are weighing up these two things as opposed to when you have nothing the landscape is: “What do I care about? What blows my hair back? What am I good at? What do I love doing?” And I think that I had fine-tuned that filter by the time the Flywheel opportunity came along.
I tell people, especially women because we have families and work and so on, we spend our days with our heads down on our to-do list. When you quit a job your head moves up and you suddenly look at the horizon. I think that because of that, I was much more attuned to where I could really make a difference. I had a number of job opportunities that year and I kept having discussions and was like “No, no, no,” but with this one I was like “Damn, this is exactly what I love and it fits with my own values,” and I think when those opportunities come along you have to take them.
Is there anything else you want to share?
There’s a lot of fear in the world about getting fired—that’s why I am so public about it. It’s extraordinary to me how much people are ashamed when it’s happened or scared of it happening. Yet it’s a really big club of really cool people. When I do speeches, I’ll often ask people to raise their hand if they’ve been fired before and you’d be amazed at how many people raise their hands. But they have been too ashamed to connect or talk about it and I think that knowing that there are so many people, there is safety in numbers, so don’t be fearful of it. It’s not unusual to go through your career and, at some point, whether the business downturns or there is a cultural disconnect, or whatever, it will happen. It’s so normal and it is part of learning and growing. So that’s one of my biggest messages: Getting fired is not something to be ashamed of.
Photo courtesy of Sarah Robb O’Hagan and photographed by Dylan Coulter.