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CEO of Flywheel Shares Practical Business Insights with Regent University’s Executive Leadership Series

Sarah Robb O’Hagan encourages ELS guests to be their most extreme selves.
Photo courtesy of Elisa Sosa.

Sarah Robb O’Hagan is an epic failure.

In fact, if there’s one thing the CEO of Flywheel Sports and published author has learned through her lineup of experience working with huge brands like Equinox, Gatorade, Nike and Virgin Entertainment Group, it’s to not only learn from failure, but to lean into it.

Like an athlete leaning forward on an indoor bicycle.

On Monday, March 5, O’Hagan shared her business insights and three methods to “stepping up, standing out and succeeding,” at Regent University’s Executive Leadership Series, a monthly luncheon featuring influential women and men from around the world.

O’Hagan’s story of failure – and allowing it to propel her forward – began in her home country of New Zealand, with dreams of “working for Richard Branson’s airline,” Virgin Atlantic. She was able to step up and stand out by first getting out of line.

She was 26, and was offered an advertising role in the organization by “stalking” Virgin’s marketing director at a conference. She’d spent every last penny in her move to New York City.

“I couldn’t afford to eat because I had to buy train fare to my job,” said O’Hagan.

Her first day on the job, she learned the woman who’d hired her no longer worked there.

“And I did what any self-respecting woman would do,” said O’Hagan. “I went to the bathroom and started crying.”

In the midst of working in fear that she’d be the next to lose her job, O’Hagan noticed the company was in disarray. There was little leadership, her boss needed help, and she set out to do something about it.

Over the course of a weekend, she drafted a plan and slipped it under the president’s door. This boldness was what eventually led to her promotion running the marketing division.

“You need to add value to the person trying to solve your company’s problems,” said O’Hagan. “See the problems your boss has, help them solve it – that will help you.”

Secondly, O’Hagan encouraged her audience to “pursue epic failure.” After a successful run in her role at Virgin, she moved to the entertainment division of the company – the same year that Napster, the king of digital downloads, took flight.

It did not go well.

“One day I was called into my boss’s office, and I was given one week’s severance and a one-way ticket back to New Zealand,” said O’Hagan. “It was like they were saying, ‘You’re so bad, we don’t want you in our company or our country.”

But she held on to the fact that she’d come to the states for a reason, and in a move of admitted desperation, she took a job at Atari. She was eventually laid off.

“There I was in my late 20s having been fired back-to-back,” said O’Hagan. “It’s the reason I can go on and do better … We get so scared of failure, but it’s what propels us forward.”

Thirdly, O’Hagan explained that “playing the specialist card” is what sets businesses apart, especially in an era where consumers are seeking custom-made experiences across all kinds of platforms.

“Be spectacular for a few, rather than average for many,” said O’Hagan.

The 2017-18 Executive Leadership Series will conclude on Wednesday, April 11, with the annual South Hampton Roads Mayors Forum. The event will feature a Q&A-style town hall.