Sarah Robb O'Hagan On Unleashing The Ability Of Others

Sarah Robb O'Hagan is President of Equinox Holdings, the company that owns Equinox Fitness Clubs, Pure Yoga Studios and Soul Cycle. Her storied career includes working in the airline industry, landing a dream job at Nike, launching one of the biggest sports brands in US history (the Gatorade G Series) and disrupting the fitness industry with breakthrough innovation and provocative marketing. Sarah is energetic (she works out everyday), humble and passionate for bringing out the best in others. 

What did you want to be when you grew up?
I was one of those kids who loved animals. I rode horses, had a dog and had my heart set on being a vet but then my teachers in High School said I’d have to study the sciences, of which I was not very good at.

Who would you most like to be stuck on a desert island with? Why?
I would have to say my family. From the perspective of someone who travels as much as I do in my job, to be stuck with my family and not be able to get away would be amazing because I don't get that 24/7 time very often.

What single book has had the greatest impact on you? Why?
Long Walk To Freedom by Nelson Mandela. I read it in the early 90s when he released it after coming out of prison. There are so many ideas in there that shaped how I think about leadership, courage and resilience.  You read a book like that and it brings you back to earth. For what us mere mortals do everyday, it makes you realize there's nothing that stressful and you can always get through a tough challenge.

One thing in particular sticks with me is his point of view on leadership. He likens it to shepherding. To quote the book: “He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind." I love that because as a leader that’s how I've always thought about it. It's not about you telling people what to do, it's about unleashing what's in them, then protecting them from behind and keeping them going in the right direction.

When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
This is a great story because before I worked at Equinox I was the classic "to bed at 11:30pm and up at 5am." I was exhausted all the time but, like most executives, I thought that was normal.

Once I got to Equinox I wanted them to tell me what we, as a company, believe in for optimal health and fitness. One area that we're studying is the importance of sleep and how much you need to affect mental and physical performance. The first thing I was told was that you have to get at least seven, if not eight, hours a night. I thought that was impossible!

Now I'm really disciplined and I get to bed by 10pm and get up between 5 and 5:30am. I’m really good at not only getting to bed but all my devices are shut off, nothing is near me. I make a huge effort to not be distracted and it has made a big difference to my energy levels. I tell people all the time, when you get stuck on that train of not getting enough sleep because you're doing emails late at night, actually if you get to bed and get a good nights sleep, the next day you will be so much sharper and more productive.

Can you briefly explain your career path to date?

I started my career in the airline business. The single reason I wanted to work for Air New Zealand was because I wanted to fly outside the country! When you come from that far away there’s definitely a sense of wanting to explore further afield and I was set on getting relocated to either London or America – preferably America because I'd been watching Melrose Place and I wanted to live in that apartment building in LA and go to the beach. It looked so cool!

I wasn’t initially accepted into the graduate training program at Air New Zealand. I was offered a job at Mobil Oil but knew it was the wrong fit for me so I went back to Air New Zealand and basically stalked and begged until they gave me a job. I started there in marketing and three years later they moved me to Los Angeles.

From Air New Zealand I moved across to Virgin Atlantic. The headhunters are always trying to keep you in one category and I didn't want to be an airline person forever but I figured if I could get to Virgin it would open up other opportunities in their other businesses.

After about 8-10 years of service, they shifted me to Virgin Mega Stores, so I finally made the break. It was so much harder than I expected. I was used to airlines which is a service business and found it so different to retail and product selling. It was a completely different business model and it was a tough learning experience. I also joined Virgin right at the time when Napster had come along so music retail was struggling. It didn't end well and I actually ended up getting fired. It was a huge blow. I was in the middle of applying for a Greencard, lost my citizenship application and my VISA, and all they gave me was a one-way ticket back to New Zealand and two weeks pay. It was not a good scene.

I gathered myself together and quickly ended up taking a job at a video game business called Atari. I never would have done it if I hadn't been desperate but I convinced myself it was a really good idea. In reality it was awful. It was just me and all these unhealthy men playing video games 24 hours a day. I absolutely didn't fit in and it was another company going through a lot of stress. They'd acquired some companies and the business was on a downturn. It was a bad experience and I got laid off as a consequence of the office closing down. Needless to say it was an awful four year period of everything being really tough and honestly, I nearly packed it all in and went back to New Zealand because I thought I wasn’t cut out for the world stage.

I persevered and after a very long interview process I landed a job at Nike, which I'd wanted to do since I'd been in college. I remember when I finally got the job I took a pay cut and a smaller title. I was so down trodden having had these two bad experiences that I remember going into work everyday and just focusing on not getting fired! It had really affected my confidence. Looking back now, in a weird way I think that's why everything worked out so well because not only was I incredibly humble but I found myself going from environments that just didn't suit me to a business that was aligned to who I was as a person. Nike is all about teamwork and sports – the stuff I'm super passionate about. I always tell younger women, just because you have a really bad experience somewhere, whether it's a job or a company, sometimes it's just that the environment is not a good fit. It doesn't mean that you're bad – you might just have to find a better environment where you're able to play more to your strengths. 

I hit my groove and had an incredible run at Nike. It was an amazing time. I kept getting promoted, kept having babies, and getting promoted at the same time! I had no intention to leave Nike because it was the dream-come-true job but there came a point where they wanted to relocate me from LA to Portland. So I was going to have to move my family anyway when a call came in with a job in Chicago, which was to lead the marketing team at Gatorade. I just thought if I was going to take the risk, then now was the time to do it. It was a very hard decision to leave Nike because I knew I probably wouldn't ever get a chance to go back but I also knew that Gatorade was a real opportunity to see what I was made of because it was a business in distress. I was going to be the CMO, which meant I was going to be leading the charge and either it was going to be a great success or a big failure – there was probably no middle ground. I was up for the challenge. It was a hard road and a hard turn around but we were very successful in the end.

What was difficult about the decision to leave Gatorade was that I was deeply passionate and loved the brand and the team that I had built. Gatorade is owned by a giant holding company – PepsiCo – so in the end they're always going to want executives to move into other divisions but chips and soda are just not me on any level. It was a difficult conundrum of wanting to be there but knowing that it probably wasn't going to sustain me for the long-term.

I happened to have the opportunity to meet Harvey Spevak who is my boss here at Equinox, the CEO. We got to know each other and the more I heard about what this great little company was doing, the more I was intrigued. It's got all this upside and an incredible track record of performance. It just sounded like a great fit for me. When I chose to come here people were shocked and asked if I was crazy. It was a smaller job at a smaller company but that was exactly why I took it because you could see there were a lot of very talented people with a lot of passion and desire to take the business to the next level. That's what I joined for and it's totally what it has been. I’ve been here three years but it feels longer. There's something about Equinox – the culture is so strong and it feels like a family. The people you develop relationships with, you feel like you've known them forever. 

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your career or industry?
My own self-doubt. There were many times along the way where I had opportunities to take a role but I worried I was incapable of doing it.

What goes hand-in-hand with that is that having had some pretty epic failures along the way, I think I have now finally realized that there's nothing to be scared of because even if the worse thing happens, I will be okay. I could have easily been fired again at Gatorade, especially in the early days when the business was tanking and all the Wall Street analysts were asking who the crazy lady was that came in and made this happen.

Finally I realized, what's the worst that can happen? I could get fired but I've been through that before and I'm going to be okay. Once you overcome that, you just put your head down, make it work and go for it. For me that is the one thing I wished I'd understood a bit earlier. I tell people all the time, the experiences of getting fired, those years were the most unbelievably depressing years of my career but it's not until now that I look back and realize they were the most important years. I even think about the Gatorade turn around. The courageous moves that you have to make, that if you haven't got the background that gives you the feeling that you're going to be okay, gosh, it would be hard.

What motivates you?
I'm very much an extrovert and get a lot of energy from people at all levels. I can sit for hours, like when I'm out at our clubs, I can simply chat with our teams and listen to stories that give me ideas and motivate me.

What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career?
It's okay to take steps backwards and sideways in your career. In fact, it's a really good thing. When you're starting your career you tend to think it's got to go in a very straightforward fashion. Actually, that's not always the best way forward.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My kids. Definitely.

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
I have been incredibly lucky every step of the way to have had inspiring people who have pushed me, watched out for me, mentored me and given me opportunities. People often ask me if I have female mentors and actually, probably because of the age I'm at, all of my mentors have been men. I love being able to say that because every single one of them, from Air New Zealand right through to my boss at PepsiCo, who I'm still closely in touch with, they were just the kind of people who could see I had ambition and fire in the belly and therefore they were willing to push me. There's no question, without that, I don't know if I’d have gotten as far as I’ve come.

What is your life motto?
Without risk, there is not great reward. It's something my Dad used to say when we were kids and I believe it.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
I hang on to pieces of advice throughout time. I'd say right now the one I use a lot is: Worry less on making the right decision and worry more about making your decisions right. This came from my professional coach who I worked with the whole time I was at Gatorade and he still works with me now I’m at Equinox. He told me that line when I was trying to decide whether to take this job. I was so torn up about it. I could see this opportunity and I really wanted to come but I was terrified of walking away from the huge success at Gatorade. I just couldn't figure out if I was making the right decision. That's when he said, "Don't worry. Which ever decision you make, make it work." It was such good advice because even when we first got here, I’d moved my family and the kids were very unsettled for a number of reasons and it was hard and I doubted my decisions. In my head the whole time I realized that of course I'd made the right decision, I’d just have to make it work.

Who do you most admire in business? Why?
There have been a lot of people over the years and I would say I admire all my mentors that I've mentioned. There’s one in particular I talk about a lot at the moment and that’s Angela Ahrendts from Apple. She has recently very kindly become a mentor for me and I have found it really inspiring to see someone bring a unique style of leadership to transform major organizations.

Who do you turn to when the going gets tough?
There are a lot of people and my husband is right up there because he's definitely the anchor of the whole situation. He always keeps me on the straight and narrow.

I also turn to all of my mentors that I've had along the way. It's really interesting to be able to talk to people who have gone through similar situations to me, years earlier. I love that because they know me very well and I can instantly get in a zone where they can give me a perspective that other people might not be able to.

What do you believe is the secret to rising up to the top?
I don't know if it's rising to the top or just maximizing your own potential. I think the secret is being really unabashedly true to who you are. I say that having gone through the instances where I got fired to where I was very successful. It was the times like at Atari when I was desperately trying to fit into something that I wasn't, that I was terrible. I was unable to get my ideas understood. Whereas when you find yourself in a culture and environment that is so true to who you are and you can just be out loud with who you are, I think you are just so much more confident and people engage with you in a much more real way.

What are your favorite traits about women in the workplace?
I do think men and women have very different styles. It took me a few years to get more comfortable just leading the way I would naturally because earlier on in most of our careers, we were all living in very male, what I would call ‘command and control’, environments. That was the old style.

I do think that it was always expected that the person at the top had to have the most knowledge, had to have all the answers and had to tell the next level what to do. Whereas I believe women very naturally are comfortable leading from behind - like the Nelson Mandela quote - as long as you're showing the team your direction and where you want them to go, you just have to encourage them and bring the best out in them to get there.

We talk a lot at Equinox about servant leadership, where the role of the leader is to bring out the best of the person below them, as opposed to push down and tell them what to do. I think women are naturally more comfortable doing that because inherent in that is strong collaboration and that's what I think women are more naturally good at.

There are always exceptions and this is a generalization but women tend to be brilliant at multi-tasking. Most women are very good at doing lot of things at the same time. We've been doing it forever and because of this we're good at putting teams together and realizing who needs to be together from a leadership standpoint. That's something I love seeing and I do think it's culturally starting to pervade a lot of organizations.

What's next?
Aside from Equinox, I'm putting a lot of my own personal thought on the non-profit side of business. The two areas that I'm most involved and passionate about are cancer research and getting young girls into sports. We have a huge initiative at Equinox called Cycle for Survival, which is all about rare cancer research, because so few organizations are raising money for rare cancers, which make up 50% of all cases.

Then on the flip side, I am also very involved in getting young girls into sports, which is the prevention of future cancer. I recently learnt that a third of all cancer deaths in the US are directly linked to obesity and lack of exercise, so the two go hand-in-hand. I get very angry when I think about the fact that we have this huge obesity crisis in our country that is not improving on any level and is leading to this huge cancer crisis that's affecting all of us. I want to continue putting a lot of my energy into those two areas to push for real systemic change.

As told to Caroline Hugall at Equinox Head Office, New York City on Thursday 11th June 2015.