Equinox President Gives Advice on Landing Your Dream Job

Here's a dream gig for anyone still reeling from the holidays: Sarah Robb O'Hagan is president of upscale fitness chain Equinox, also the parent company of Blink and SoulCycle, where getting your heart racing is just another day at the office.

equinox president
(Image credit: Meredith Jenks)

MARIE CLAIRE: Were you athletic growing up?

SARAH ROBB O'HAGAN: Yes! I'm from New Zealand, and in high school, field hockey, tennis, and swimming were my main sports, though I never made first team, which is like the varsity team. At the University of Auckland, I also did a lot of recreational skiing, water skiing, and sailing. I was not the most petite person in my class—I was 5'10" and self-conscious. I wish I'd had a better appreciation for what my body could do sportswise rather than focusing on how it looked.

MC:How did you earn your first dollar?

 As a minibar attendant in a local hotel during the college holidays to help pay for my education. You know the person who goes around to all the rooms checking for what's been used in the minibar? Who knew that was a job? I didn't until I did it! It was good experience—I learned how important every employee is in an organization, top to bottom.

MC: How did you end up in the athletics business?

After university, I got an internship at Air New Zealand. I'd grown up on "Just do it" and dreamed of one day working for Nike. A couple of years after transferring to the United States with ANZ, I heard of a job at Nike in Australia, so I applied. I was devastated when I didn't get it. Five years later, I heard about a marketing director job at Nike, this time in Los Angeles. So I badgered their recruiters and got into the mix of candidates, though it took nine months to actually land the job. It was a smaller role than another offer I received at the same time, but I'd wanted to work at Nike for so long, I had to take the shot. In hindsight it was a risky decision, but boy, was it the right one. Careers are more like jungle gyms than ladders—sometimes a sideways or backward step can propel you forward.

MC: After Nike, you served as president of Gatorade. What's the most important lesson you learned there?

The mantra at Gatorade was speed, speed, speed. They liked to react immediately, but then things got rushed and weren't executed well. I'm impatient, according to my teams throughout the years. But I've learned that innovation takes time. It's important to provide people with the space they need to create. At Equinox, I am focusing on doing it right rather than doing it fast.

MC: You've been president of Equinox since September 2012. Do you feel pressure to look a certain way because of your career?

No. I've worked out my whole life because it is my meditation—it's important mental time for me. Before I joined Equinox, I had always been at the same weight, doing the same thing. When I arrived here, I really wanted to understand what we were prescribing to our gym members and the science behind it, so I've been using myself as an experiment. In the past year, I've changed my workouts to include Pilates and fitness classes, along with my running. By including more variety and doing what the Equinox team recommends, there's no doubt I'm in the best shape I've ever been in.

MC: Anything you're still working on?

Improving my sleep—and I'm not alone. High-achieving gym members were coming to Equinox asking why they'd plateaued. We discovered most of them were getting by on only four to five hours of sleep a night. That's not enough for optimal fitness.

MC: What kinds of people do you like to hire?

When a résumé comes in, we always Google the applicant. It just blows me away. We might have kids applying from the best schools with every qualification, but they're not on Twitter, they're not on Pinterest. Then we get a person without qualifications but who has 30,000 followers on Twitter. Clearly this person has identified something about leadership—he or she could be the one to lead our business forward. I'm also cautious of those who feel they have all the answers—by definition, this type of person is probably going to shut down new thinking. Curious people who ask meaningful questions make me think, Ah, I am going to get some really interesting thinking out of this person.

MC: It's said that participating in team sports builds better business leaders. Do you think that was true in your case?

Our whole lives are improved by sports and fitness—and I'm not just talking about fitting into skinny jeans. Eighty percent of the top female executives from the Fortune 500 played sports in school, which illustrates the point: What happens on a field or in a gym translates elsewhere. Too many girls drop out of school sports. At Nike we had a saying: "The collective 'we' on the way to independent me." Young women gain confidence from team sports. It's about teamwork, leadership, goal-setting, and all it teaches you.

MC: The most common New Year's resolution is to exercise regularly. What's your secret to sticking to it?

I do a couple of events a year, such as a triathlon or half-marathon, to keep me in training. Last year I stupidly agreed to do one too many in the fall, including a Tough Mudder. So now I'm letting myself relax a bit.

Sarah Robb O'Hagan, 41, is also active on Twitter. Follow her @sarahrobboh.