Sarah Robb O’Hagan isn’t happy with the search results when she googles her name. Which is surprising, considering the accolades that show up immediately, including being named to such lists as “Most Creative People in Business” (Fast Company), “Most Powerful Women in Sports” (Forbes), and “Women to Watch” (Ad Age). “I just started feeling super uncomfortable about it,” Robb O’Hagan told Convene. “I was like, ‘Well, that’s ﬁne, but you’re missing the big pieces of the story where I was a train wreck and having to deal with some really, really tough experiences.’”
So last year, the former leader of global brands including Virgin, Nike, and Gatorade resigned as president of ﬁtness-chain company Equinox Holdings to devote herself to writing and speaking about how those tough experiences led to her “Extreme You” philosophy. She wrote her new book, Extreme You: Step Up. Stand Out. Kick Ass. Repeat., “to ﬂip” the rosy narrative of her career trajectory. “Yes, I led the turnaround of a $5-billion sports-drink business when I was 38,” she said, “but had I not been ﬁred twice back-to-back in my 20s and recovered from that experience, I actually don’t think I could have led such a difficult corporate turnaround.”
During a Main Stage presentation at PCMA Education Conference 2017 in New York City in June, Robb O’Hagan — who was recently named CEO of ﬁtness studio Flywheel Sports — will talk about the countercultural revolution she hopes her Extreme You platform starts in the workplace, and what she’s learned about failure and leading extreme teams.
Some people perceive “extreme” as a negative. How do you define it?
That’s a great question. I deﬁne being “Extreme You” as operating at the edge of your potential. What I mean by that is at any moment in time — when you take on a new project or task or client, or an event that you’re putting on — you may be doing it for the ﬁrst time, which means you’re learning and growing. Or you may have achieved mastery, which means you already know what you’re doing and you’re comfortable. If you’re living at your extreme, you’re aware of where you are on that spectrum, and you’re pushing yourself to learn and grow.
For my book, I interviewed 25 people across all different career spectrums, from Condoleezza Rice to skier Bode Miller to tattoo artist Mister Cartoon. All manner of highly successful people. What they all had in common is self-awareness and humility. They never act like they’re “all that.” They always believe that they have more to learn and they’re curious to push themselves to learn more — I think that’s the deﬁnition of being extreme. It deﬁnitely is not an extreme-sports addict or an extroverted, big personality. It could be Susan Cain, who’s leading the introverts revolution. She’s a great example of being extreme, because she’s found something that she’s uniquely brilliant at in the world and she’s continuously pushing the boundaries on what that movement can be.
What audience do you hope to reach with your Extreme You platform?
What I’m trying to do is help young people see that a lot of the way they have been raised is a little bit ﬂawed in terms of helping them achieve the extreme of their own potential. What I mean by that is that I feel as a leader in the workplace and a parent of young children, in the last 20 years or so, we’ve shifted our whole perspective to giving kids participation trophies and a whole generation started showing up to the workplace asking, “I’m here now, why am I not getting promoted?”
I think of it as a generation raised very differently than us, and that wasn’t their fault. It’s not so much an entitled attitude. I think therefore it’s incumbent upon us as leaders to help them under-stand, “Here’s where thinking things are going to happen [by themselves] can lead you astray. You actually have to make them happen, and here’s some great examples of how you can do it.”
How that ties to me personally is that I come from New Zealand, this country at the bottom of the world. We have, I always joke, 4 million people and 50 million sheep. It’s not exactly a world-leading, -dominating country, but what I can tell you is that we, as a country, punch above our weight in terms of achievements. And a lot of that came from the fact that we very much had an underdog culture — like, if you’re going to succeed, you’re going to have to swing much harder than the person next to you. I think that cultural upbringing has shaped a lot of the work I’m doing now.
How did you begin working in the United States?
Coming out of college, I wanted to work for the airlines simply because they would ﬂy me out of the country. It was nothing more strategic than that. But I did feel like, obviously, that there’s a big world out there, and I wanted to try and go work in a bigger environment than New Zealand. I also, for some reason, was ﬁxated on the United States. I guess as a marketing student in college during the era of Nike and [Air] Jordan and all of those great brands that were emerging, I was obsessed with the culture of America and wanting to come here professionally.
I worked for Air New Zealand for six years, and [after three years] they moved me to Los Angeles. I thought I would be just on a two-year transfer and I’d go home, but I loved it here. Then I managed to get [hired] at Virgin Atlantic Airways, which was a huge game changer, because by then I had decided I wanted to stay in America.
Why did you take a warts-and-all approach to discussing your career in your book?
Failure is one of my favorite, favorite topics and something that I explored deeply in my book because, what I found in the process of writing my book was a ton of research [that indicated] that every generation in America since the Boomers has become more and more risk-averse, from Gen X, to the Millennials, to my kids’ generation. When you don’t take risks, it’s because you’re scared of failing. But if you don’t fail, you can’t grow and certainly develop the self-awareness and resilience that is needed to be a strong leader in the workplace.
That’s when I got to the point of thinking that it’s high time people started talking more openly about their failures. I actually take delight now in talking about my experiences, [like] when I got ﬁred from Virgin Mega-stores, back in the late ’90s. I joined the business right when Napster had come along, so the whole music industry was in disarray, trying to ﬁgure out what was happening with digitized music. When a business is in crisis, what often happens is they bring in all these new outside thinkers to come up with new thinking. When you put those people together with a bunch of players who have been around for a long time, you can’t expect them to suddenly know how to work together.
I was weighing way too heavily on my strengths as a marketer, which had served me well in the airline industry but had no relevance in this business. And I was totally ignoring my glaring weaknesses. When I got ﬁred, it wasn’t like a bunch of people were laid off. It was one person. It was me. To the day I die, I will never forget the humiliation of being singled out, told that I was not only getting ﬁred but I lost my green-card application, my visa. They gave me a one-way ticket back to New Zealand. That was my severance. I had three months to not get deported, basically. It was pretty bad, and while it took me a number of years to fully recover and develop the learnings and strengths that come after something like that, there’s no question, when I look back now, that I would not have had some of the latest successes in my career had I not gone through that.
Once you’ve survived getting ﬁred, you have a lot more basic conﬁdence and willingness to take risks because you know you will survive. For example, later on when I was leading the Gatorade turnaround and things were going incredibly badly to start with, I actually did say to my boss, “Either ﬁre me now or let me do what I know to be true.” The self-awareness piece, to me, is by far the biggest [thing].
I think it just brought me down 100 notches and made me realize I’m really good at some things and I’m terrible at others, and some of those skills I have, over the years, really pushed myself to develop and acquire. Some of them I recognize I’m never going to be good at, but I’ve become much better at partnering with others that can help me understand where my deﬁcits are. I think that’s a really important output of it: recognizing you can’t be great at everything, and that’s ﬁne, but as long as you’re aware of where you might trip up, you can ﬁnd the other people to sup-port you and you support them.
You’re credited with turning Gatorade from a stagnant brand into a power-house. What connection can you make between the process behind that achievement and how meeting organizers can inject new life into their events?
I think a challenging piece of advice would be this: Don’t be afraid, when you’re thinking of creating agendas and experiences, to be exclusive. What I mean by that is sometimes I think when we’re creating marketing ideas — certainly employee events or consumer events — it’s easy to want to appeal to everyone and make sure everyone has a great time. But sometimes when you do that, you make the experience less memorable because you’re trying to appeal to everyone.
Using the Gatorade example, when it was founded 40 or 50 years ago, it was a tonic to help athletes achieve greater performance. Fast-forward to the late 2010s and it’s being sold in Walmart, stacked high with potato chips, to anyone who has a throat. I remember what led to the turnaround, and it was incredibly hard to convince people — the board, the analysts, administrators — because we kept saying, “We have to walk away from trying to be all things to all people and go really narrow again. Instead of targeting 18-to-49-year-olds who have a throat, let’s go out to 13-to-17-year-old female and male athletes,” which is a completely different approach.
Everyone kept saying we’d lose a whole bunch of the audience and people are going to walk away from Gatorade because we’re not appealing to them anymore, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. When you design something with such speciﬁcity, it has a much stronger and more breakthrough point of view that brings others along than when you try and appeal to every-body. I would say that I think it’s a great philosophy that you could deﬁnitely apply to thinking about being more disruptive in your event planning.
Speaking of disruptive, how do you define an extreme team?
In terms of building cultures that are very innovative and disruptive and all those good things — which we all need to be in today’s fast-moving world — you beneﬁt from having what I like to call spiky individuals. Those are the extremers that are really, really good at one thing or a collection of things, but they may also have glaring weaknesses. By deﬁnition, they will not be well-rounded. Those individuals can perform incredibly well in a team if you are very diligent about combining strengths and weaknesses and opposing points of view, which is really what the extreme team looks like.
I always encourage people to not be afraid of those people that have a very strong, dominant skillset or set of interests, because they will bring a lot of thinking to the table. You just have to make sure that when you put them into a team, you’re thinking through how to counterbalance them with people who are strong in other areas.
How would you define extreme leadership?
In terms of great qualities that we all need to see more of, deﬁnitely, I think, proactivity is an important one. And that sounds so obvious, but it’s remarkably not. What I mean by that is think about the number of organizations that we all participate in today where we know that things can be better, but we don’t step out of line to make it happen, whether from fear of retribution or whatever it may be. I think great leaders — certainly from the research I did with my book — are the people that have the willingness to get out of line and drive change when it needs to be driven. I think that’s a really important quality. And, like I said earlier, willing-ness to take risks, willingness to support a team of people through circumstances where the outcome is not known.
I talk a lot when I’m doing my speeches about how in business 15 years ago you could run pretty certain ROI models when you were doing a big investment in something new because the world wasn’t moving so fast. Today, there’s no certainty that a big investment into a new category is going to pay off, but you have to have the courage and willingness to take the risks and support your team and create an environment for them to thrive in a landscape where nothing is necessarily known.
What is one takeaway you’d like to leave with the Education Conference audience?
As someone who speaks at tons of conferences, I see a lot that’s out there. I think your industry is like every single industry. We’re all suffering from the sheer quantity of material, and we’ve got to all ﬁgure out how do you break through and have more unique, quality experiences — so that your participants coming to your conference are going to sit in every session and feel like they’re hearing something they haven’t heard before. That’s hard. My overall message, which ties into everything I believe in, is this: Don’t be scared to really push yourself out of your comfort zone in pursuit of new ideas. I don’t think you’ll ever lose by trying.