Leadership

How this CEO recovered after sleeping through the most important meeting of her life

Sarah Robb O'Hagan
Photo courtesy Flywheel Sports
Sarah Robb O'Hagan

Sarah Robb O'Hagan has held top executive roles at Virgin, Nike, Gatorade (where she was credited with turning around the $5 billion brand) and Equinox, before becoming the CEO of Flywheel Sports in February. But that's not the whole story.

She's also been fired twice. And after a night of too much partying, she slept through what was arguably the most important meeting of her life.

According to O'Hagan, it was these failures that gave her the courage to find success.

The disaster

O'Hagan's experience at Virgin Atlantic Airways started great: As a 20-something, the New Zealand native landed her dream job in the marketing department in New York.

Frustrated by a disorganized marketing strategy, she took a risk. "One Friday night, in the middle of a New York City heat wave, I opened my laptop in my tiny, un-air-conditioned apartment and began writing," she explains on LinkedIn. What emerged was a new marketing strategy for the company.

O'Hagan slipped that plan and a handwritten note under the door of the president of the U.S. division of the airline.

A few days later, the boss called; he liked her plan — and her initiative. She was promoted to Director of Marketing.

Then, disaster: That night, O'Hagan went out to celebrate. "At five in the morning, when I got back to apartment, my plan was to catch one hour of sleep, and then get up at six for work," she says. She woke up the next morning at 11:00.

"Failure is one of the greatest personal trainers you will ever have in your life." -Sarah Robb O'Hagan, CEO of Flywheel Sports

"I had just slept through the biggest meeting of my professional life," she says.

The recovery

O'Hagan went to the office, terrified, but told her boss the truth. At first, he just sat there. Then he said she had destroyed his trust — but also, he was going to give her a second chance. "I think it's pretty hilarious — and it's very Virgin!" he said to her.

O'Hagan made the most of it. She went on to pilot the ultra-successful Austin Powers ("Virgin Shaglantic") ad campaign, which helped resuscitate her reputation.

The CEO says learning how to pick herself up after failure has helped her score some of her biggest professional wins. She recommends leaning into failure, not trying to avoid it, which she writes about in her just published book, "Extreme You" (April 2017, Harper Collins).

"[F]ailure is one of the greatest personal trainers you will ever have in your life. And if you can just shake the fear by saying, it has to happen to me at some point and I will become better because of it, then you can in your mind just process and move on."