Is going to extremes the path to success?

Sarah Robb O’Hagan enjoys global success in business but that wasn’t always so. She talks to Rita de Brún about her new book, which shares some epic, vital failures along the way.

Is going to extremes the path to success?

For one who has shattered many a glass ceiling, Sarah Robb O’Hagan has emerged vibrant, in a powerfully grounded way.

Given her obvious business prowess, no one could doubt that the Flywheel Sports CEO is eminently qualified to pen a book called Extreme You, which is named after the movement she founded to help people become the best version of themselves and which has been given the literary equivalent of a thumbs up by Facebook COO and founder of leanin.org, Sheryl Sandberg.

In traversing the globe to build a career, Robb O’Hagan has soared to dizzying heights and held presidential positions of the business rather than the territorial kind.

Her name is etched on the warrior lists that comprise Forbes magazine’s Most Powerful Women in Sports and Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business. With that, she has received oodles of prestigious accolades for outstanding leadership and other laudable traits.

So far, so impressive, and that’s how she is. But in refreshing contrast to the gravity of the high profile roles she has filled, her effervescent sparkle emerges clear and strong when I say I’m curious as to how she would describe herself. “Probably, as a ball of energy and enthusiasm,” she shoots, before bursting into a surprisingly girlish giggle.

When she speaks, her accent is so delightfully zingy it calls to mind a blend of kiwis and apples, of the big and juicy kind. Of course, this is only to be expected, she being a New Zealander who lives in New York.

She’s walking on water. But it wasn’t always that way. Early in her career she got fired from her job at Virgin Mega Stores in the United States, then given a one-way ticket to fly home to New Zealand. If she was down then, she didn’t stay down. Instead, she found herself a job in a video game business, only to be laid off once again.

Did that double-whammy cast her into a limping tail-spin of self-doubt, if only for a while? “It did, but shortly afterwards I had an epiphany, looked deep within, owned the role I played in losing those jobs, then emerged stronger and better for the experience.”

If there’s a traditional route to the top, she didn’t take it. She became an executive at Nike then went on to become global president at both Gatorade and Equinox.

But in her rise to the top she sometimes made strategic moves that entailed moving to lower ranked jobs in smaller companies. Many would be too proud to do that, too self-conscious, too lacking in vision. But not her.

She seems fearless but insists that she’s not: “I’m definitely a fearful person, but having had so many fails, I’ve become better at processing fear. Now I compartmentalise them and ask myself what’s the worst that can happen. That process drives me forward as I always conclude that I’ll be fine, no matter what.

Most of us battle a voice in our head that casts niggling self-doubt. Has she managed to silence hers? “I haven’t. I still hear it. But these days I recognise it for what it is and I don’t listen to it.” She’s keen to tell stories of struggle; believes they play an important role: “Once we get through them, we become stronger,” she says.

As this is a theme she regularly repeats, I conclude it runs deep with her, just as it does throughout Extreme You. Asked to describe the core message in that book she replies: “We live in a culture in which perfection is being pedalled on social media. The wins are being broadcast but the truth isn’t getting out there.

"Everyone who becomes a great success has had failures and struggles. We should never worry about or shy away from those experiences as they play an important role in making us the best we can be.”

Robb O’Hagan wants us to stop worrying about being imperfect: “It’s freeing to open up about the tough times we’ve been through as that leaves us with nothing to hide. Perfection is overrated.”

She’s in pensive mood. “When I was younger, I was in such a hurry to do everything. I was so ambitious to get where I was going. Not anymore. Now I’m worried that my life is speeding by, way too fast. And I’m very aware, particularly given what some people have to face, that much of what we do in our lives is not so important.”

It was in the 1940s that the phrase ‘behind every great man there’s a great woman’ entered the lexicon. Decades later it came back in vogue again, having been adopted as a slogan for the feminist movement. Does Robb O’Hagan have a great someone behind her?

“Oh I do,” she replies. “I’m married to a man, Liam, who’s entirely amazing, so much so that it was no surprise for me to learn that he was raised by a feminist.

Asserting that “in many ways he’s far more courageous” than her she adds: “By being the lead parent in our family, by leading the charge full-time with our three kids and attending PTA meetings and all the rest of it, he has broken into what’s very much a women’s world.”

  • Extreme You by Sarah Robb O’Hagan, is published by Little, Brown Book Group.

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