Equinox President Sarah Robb O’Hagan: Failure Got Me to the Top
You may not know Sarah Robb O’Hagan, but you most definitely know the brands she’s worked with and led. Her career path to date has included management roles at Virgin Atlantic, Nike, and Gatorade, all of which have led to her current gig as president of Equinox.
Though she’s hard at work on rapidly expanding the company’s footprint (and brands Equinox, SoulCycle, Blink Fitness, and Pure Yoga) throughout the world, Robb O’Hagan took some time to share with us how she’s made it to the top. Hint: It’s involved sports, sweat, and getting really comfortable with failure.
You’ve said in interviews before that being an athlete has helped you in business. What impact has sports had on your career?
It’s funny—having a career in sports, people often jump to the conclusion that I must have been an elite athlete at some point in my life. And actually, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve played a lot of sports, but I am very average.
I think the lesson in that is that you don’t have to be the best to take a lot of lessons from playing sports in your youth years. It’s everything from leadership and working with a team to achieve a goal to just the physicality of it, getting to know your body for its capabilities.
For me, there are so many areas of confidence that have come from that activity of playing and engaging in a sport. It’s actually a very common theme among other women who lead companies—many of them will say that they played sports in high school, and inevitably that was a big part of helping them get out there and become strong and competitive in the workplace.
Competitiveness is actually part of progressing a career—if you want to progress at a fast pace.
You’ve clearly progressed in your career at an amazing pace! What would you say have been a couple of secrets to your success?
First, I would say, really embracing failure and figuring out how to learn from it, not be scared of it, and move forward. For me, that’s meant everything from launching something I thought would be successful but wasn’t to being laid off. Those were pretty horrific experiences, but it’s how you move forward after a failure that can really make or break you.
I think the other one for me has always been about effectively seizing opportunities that are out there. In the case of making the decision to go to Gatorade, it was kind of a scary decision—I never thought I was going to leave Nike. But it was the kind of amazing, career-changing opportunity that I knew had a lot of upsides. Or, in other cases, I kind of figured out how to create the opportunity. When I joined Virgin Atlantic, for example, I had wanted to work there for years. So I effectively stalked the CMO, I found ways to introduce myself to her socially, and from that it became a friendship that became a job. Sometimes, you have to aggressively get yourself in positions for the right opportunities.
Speaking of the right opportunities, what do you look for in who you hire and promote?
We have a saying here: “Characters welcome.” I think that’s one of the coolest things about our culture—we just love big personalities, interesting personalities, as well as quiet personalities—but what they all have in common is they are determined to maximize their own potential. We have such a wide range of people, and when they get together, the magic happens because of the diversity. That’s a big piece of what we look for.
Then, what unites everybody is a real drive and incredibly high performance values. Someone who thrives at Equinox is someone who really tries to push to get very strong results, and then keeps pushing and pushing. Someone with the sort of sense of, once you’ve run a round, it’s time to go run another one and see how much faster you can go. I think that’s probably what unites everybody here—that real desire to win.
What’s your favorite part of your job at Equinox—and the most challenging?
I’m a very extroverted people person, so my favorite part of the job is always the time I get to spend with people. I get very energized brainstorming things, being out in the field, and being with our team. You can’t go into Equinox and leave not feeling supercharged. That’s actually a theme that’s gone throughout my career. It’s always been the relationships—taking on big challenges together, winning together—that’s motivating to me.
And the biggest challenges are almost always related to that—how to keep motivating and inspiring the team to keep going. Ultimately, as a leader, that’s your most important job.
What career advice would you offer to people who want to follow in your footsteps?
One of my favorite sayings is break yourself to make yourself. When you’re someone like me, who’s stumbled along and failed a lot, you kind of push yourself out of your comfort zone and break yourself a little bit so that you push through to the next level of growth.
It’s kind of like what we ask ourselves to do in the gym. How do you push your body to the next level? You get uncomfortable. It’s the same in your career. If you get to the point where you’re bored, where it’s easy, that’s the opportunity to break yourself and go do something. If you’re not making mistakes and learning from them, if you’re not getting more experience that you’re going to use later on, it’s going to catch up with you later.
Photo of woman running courtesy of Shutterstock.
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