The Best Mistakes I've Made: Sarah Robb O’Hagan on success, failure and participation awards

At this year’s KEA Inspire, one of Forbes ‘Most Powerful Women in Sports’ talks failure, resilience, and the problem with participation trophies.

With a resume listing Virgin, Nike, and Gatorade among her previous employers, Sarah Robb O’Hagan has plenty to boast about. But on stage at this year’s KEA Inspire talks at SkyCity Theatre, O’Hagan instead decides to spill the beans on the harsh and unforgiving “truth about success”.

“There’s been a cultural shift, people believe that the best thing to do is to shield your children from pain,” she says. “In the US, there's a huge issue of teachers having a really tough time disciplining kids because the parents complain to the school and the teacher says 'I can't get that kid in trouble.’”

And the trend continues through to adulthood. In the US, 40 percent of college grades are now ‘A’s, and in the work force, a quarter of people get their first job through the help of parental connections. “When you cover up mistakes for them, you're actually denying them the ability to learn” says O’Hagan.

Having started off working for Air New Zealand and later moving to the US to become one of America’s most powerful business gurus, O’Hagan’s had her fair share of adversities, suffering not one, but two major redundancies.

The first was from Virgin after she moved from the company’s airline division to Virgin Megastores. Flying high after partying with Richard Branson on her 26th birthday in Cannes, O’Hagan’s confidence was soaring. Unfortunately, what she didn’t foresee was Napster, which had launched around the same time as her move. The music retail business was going down the drain, and she ended up being “embarrassingly, beautifully” fired.

She later joined Atari with a bigger pay packet and a bigger team. But what she didn’t take into account was she hated video games. Unsurprisingly, she was fired from there too and entered what she called “the canyon of career despair”.

But of course, things eventually turned for the better. She was hired by Nike and restarted her rise to the top. “Do you know why? Because I finally had humility and realized that I was a giant shit show,” she says.

O’Hagan then joined Gatorade, which at the time was a stagnant company. But after she joined, things turned from bad to worse and her head was on the chopping block again.

When you’ve got nothing to lose, you’ve just got to play your own game.

So she rebranded the company from a beverage to ‘a sports fuel company’, and the business entered a period of revitalization. O’Hagan insists that without the resilience she built up from her failures, she would never have saved Gatorade from its one-way ticket downhill. “When you’ve got nothing to lose, you’ve just got to play your own game.”

"Does anyone think had I been raised with participation trophies that I would've figured out how to move forward?" she asks. “Nobody wants to talk about failure. Not only are we doing participation culture all the way up, but it's now 'Everyone's a Winner' culture. For young people, they see everyone crushing it and they think, ‘What the hell happened to me?’ We’re not telling young people what happens behind the scenes”.

Before the talk comes to a close, O’Hagan has one last piece of advice for Auckland’s future leaders: “Stay stubbornly humble.” Advice she probably wishes she’d heeded much earlier herself.