In our new Work Smart interview series, we ask top industry leaders to share advice for taking your career to the next level. We kick it off with former Equinox president Sarah Robb O’Hagan.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a much more impressive—or diverse—résumé than Sarah Robb O’Hagan’s. At 43, the New Zealander and mom of three has held marketing management positions for industry giants like Virgin Atlantic, Atari, Nike, Gatorade and, most recently, served as president of Equinox Holdings, overseeing brands including SoulCycle and Pure Yoga.
But it’s her latest career move that she considers the biggest challenge of all: In February, Robb O’Hagan left the corporate world to try her hand at entrepreneurship, founding EXTREMEYOU, a content platform dedicated to helping people reach their full, “extreme” potential.
We spoke with Robb O’Hagan about lessons learned throughout her 20-year career, the importance of taking risks and her advice for people just starting out.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
Originally, I wanted to be a vet. I loved animals and thought it would be so fun to look after them. But the experience of my dog having an operation on his leg—and me nearly barfing at the sight of his stitches—made me realize I probably needed to think of other ideas for my future.
What’s the best career advice you ever got, and who gave it to you?
It probably came from my old man, who believed “without risk does not come great reward.” It seems so simple, but it’s absolutely the truth.
So many times in my career, I have stood at that fork in the road, where I had a very comfortable option and a much riskier one. [Whenever] I made the choice to take a bigger risk and get out of my comfort zone, I found it so much more rewarding.
Can you think of a specific time you followed your dad’s advice?
My career has involved a wide variety of industries, roles and experiences. People often ask how I got from airlines to music to video games and then ultimately sports and fitness. My answer is that I pushed really hard to get into new industries, even though most recruiters wanted to keep me in the area that my prior experience lay. I realized that waiting for others to open doors for me was not going to get me anywhere.
I’d subscribe to marketing industry publications to figure out who the key executives were in the companies I wanted to get to, and then figure out how I could meet them. When I realized that the CMO for Virgin Atlantic was attending an upcoming marketing conference, for example, I used my vacation time and my own dollars to attend that conference in hopes I could meet her personally. And it worked!
Now I want to caution something here: I was not randomly stalking people. I was careful to ensure I had the right experiences that made a relationship possible and meaningful. I often find today that people will approach me in person or over Twitter or LinkedIn and ask to connect. Nine times out of 10, that person has no logical reason for a connection with me, so it doesn’t make sense. In my example, I had a huge amount of mutual interest with the CMO of Virgin Atlantic from my role as a junior executive at another airline.
What’s been the biggest surprise along your career path?
I don’t know if it’s a surprise, so much as something I never knew to be aiming for, but what I have come to love is seeing people I work with take their performance to the next level.
My greatest moments at Equinox were seeing my teams totally blow me away with their own innovative ideas—everything from creating a breakthrough indoor cycling class that was inspired by video-gaming, to the launch of Furthermore, the content platform, which was the absolute passion and vision of a small, high-energy team.
When you start your career, you’re so focused on your destination that you don’t realize the most fulfilling part is going to be seeing other people reach theirs.
Almost every career has ups and downs. Can you describe some of your downs, and what you learned from them?
One that sticks with me so clearly is when I first arrived at Gatorade, the business had stalled. My team and I worked hard to jumpstart the momentum with a big rebranding, and it rolled out to a very mixed reaction in the marketplace—at the exact same time as I gave birth to my third child.
So there I was, trying to deal with a newborn, participating full-time in conference calls and work—letting everyone, including myself, down. I wasn’t doing anything well, and I felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff on my plate. In the end, I had to really dig deep to tap into my sense of resilience.
I also learned an incredibly important lesson, which was to be willing to ask for help. I remember one of my great mentors, Phil Sanfilippo, who was leading project management at Gatorade, saying to me: “Sarah, individual heroics are not going to turn this business around.”
He was spot-on. It was his support and encouragement that helped me realize I needed to ask for help—both personally and professionally.
What’s been your gutsiest career move, and would you do it again?
It’s definitely the move I just made: starting my own venture with EXTREMEYOU. It’s gutsy because it’s going against the direction my career has been going for more than 20 years now—to lead bigger, broader, scaled businesses and teams.
But you know what? As I look around me at the sheer pace and scale of innovation today, I think one of the greatest experiences I can have as a leader is to lead my own startup and to have gone through the entire process of creating something from scratch. I really believe this is the culmination of all of my experiences landing in one place.
What’s your definition of success?
There’s this wonderful quote from one of my heroes, fellow New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary, who was the first man to summit Everest. He said, “It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”
This speaks to the fact that the accolades, the trophies, the prizes—none of that is what success is about. What matters is that I got the most out of my own personal potential that I could. That’s what drives me every day.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone just starting their career, what would you say?
Exactly what my dad said to me: Without risk does not come great reward. I’d say that you should not be afraid of failure, disappointment and all of those ‘downsides’ of taking risks. Any successful person in the world will tell you that the failures and losses are the moments in their career that they grew the most.