FEARLESS! Lessons from a Big-Time Sports CEO

Scott O’Neil is one of the top sports and entertainment CEO's in the world. In this episode of CXOTalk, he shares practical and personal lessons on how to lead and grow a team. Scott's new book is called Be Where Your Feet Are.


Aug 06, 2021

Scott O’Neil is one of the top sports and entertainment CEO's in the world. In this episode of CXOTalk, he shares practical and personal lessons on how to lead and grow a team. Scott's new book is called Be Where Your Feet Are.

The conversation includes these topics:

Scott O’Neil is the former Chief Executive Officer of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment. A decade-long Alternate Governor for the NBA and NHL, O’Neil was acting CEO over all properties in HBSE’s dynamic, global portfolio, including marquee teams, the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and NHL’s New Jersey Devils. He is also the Co-Managing Partner and Founding Board Member of Elevate Sports Ventures, a best-in-class sports and entertainment consultancy founded in partnership between HBSE, the San Francisco 49ers, Live Nation, Ticketmaster and Oak View Group. A former President of Madison Square Garden Sports, O’Neil was the key architect in some of the largest venue sponsorship deals in history, while overseeing the iconic New York Knicks (NBA) and New York Rangers (NHL). 


Scott O'Neil: All these players, they're extraordinary. They're one of the top 450 people in the world that do what they do, out of 7.5 billion, right?

Do you want to know the quickest way to lose your spot on an NHL roster? Go read 10,000 comments that say you're incompetent, you're an idiot, you're done, you can't play hockey, you have no hockey sense, you can't shoot, you can't score, you can't defend.

About Scott O'Neil and the book: “Be Where Your Feet Are”

Michael Krigsman: Scott O'Neil is the former CEO of Harris Blitzer Sports and Entertainment, which owns properties like the New Jersey Devils and the Philadelphia 76ers hockey team. Scott's book is called Be Where Your Feet Are.

Scott O'Neil: I spent four years as president of Madison Square Gardens Sports. I grew up in New York, so for me, Madison Square Garden was the world's most famous arena. It was the mecca. It was the everything, the center of sports and entertainment in the world. To be hired there (coming out of the NBA league office) was quite a thrill.

Behind the scenes at a sports organization, well, I can tell you this. It's a family, for one, which I think would surprise a lot of people. Having walked the walk with several CEOs, I would meet them out on 7th Avenue and walk them through the gates. They were always surprised that I knew the custodians, the security guards, and the people working the concessions.

I always thought it was funny because it is a family. I guess I would liken it to the circus. You see those old movies of the old circus where everybody kind of knew each other and they were all friends. That's how it is at a sports organization. You know each other's families, spouses, partners, kids, friends, and so that's the first thing that, behind the scenes, is fascinating.

In particular, at the world's most famous arena, there's a place called Suite 200. I think that would be most interesting to outsiders is that every star in the world—whether that's a Fortune 100 CEO (like a Jamie Dimon type) or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama or Kim Kardashian, John McEnroe, The Edge, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock—it was essentially a who's who every night, and you almost couldn't believe who would walk through the door.

I'm not starstruck. That's not where I get my jones. I know a lot of people do. It was a great tool for us to bring customers, clients, prospects, and people were doing business with into that room. Their head would just swivel as they went back and forth.

Then walking into the arena, it's the most amazing thing. We ended up, when I was there, we put over a billion dollars into the building to keep it, as we said, the world's most famous arena. It was a big transformation project.

The one thing we kept was that ceiling because, when you walk in, it's so unique. Actually, you walk in and go up to the building. The ceiling, it's like a spoked ceiling, and so that's the first thing you notice.

The second thing you notice there is every event is a big event, whether it's the Westminster Dog Show, a tennis exhibition, a college basketball game, boxing, UFC, Nicks. Everything is, you're on the world's stage. You walk in there, and you can feel the palpable electricity.

Those are the short little memories to give you a sense of what it's like to work there, be there, and walk into that building every night. It feels like something special happens every night there.

Michael Krigsman: It must have been a lot of fun.

Scott O'Neil: It was fun. It was hard. It was fun because it's so big and grand.

That is a big, big, big, big, big brand surrounded by big brands. But it's a New York pace, and that is not for the faint of heart, but a fun, fun experience for sure.

Michael Krigsman: Scott, you wrote this book Be Where Your Feet Are. Tell us about the book. What is the message of the book? Why did you write the book?

Scott O'Neil: Be Where Your Feet Are is about being present, being good, doing good, and finding your authentic self. In a nutshell, this book helps you to hopefully discover or rediscover your authentic self and put that into practice in the real world.

It walks through a series of examples, a lot of stories from me, and a lot of stories from people in and around my world. Generally, there are a lot of failures.

This is a peek behind the curtain. This is not your Instagram, Facebook, the Lego guy, "Everything is awesome!" You know that Lego guy, who I love? I just think that's Instagram. That's Facebook.

When you peek behind that curtain, what you find about life (at least what I found about life) is it's a little messy. And so, we talk a lot about some of the messiness of life and how you can be a life-long learner and leverage that to continue to get better, improve, learn, and grow.

Why I wrote the book, it's a longer story and not a very happy one. My best friend of 20 years took his own life. His name is Wil Cardon. He was this just amazing force of nature.

I met him at Harvard Business School. We instantly connected. I spent a ton of time with him. I vacationed with him and his family. His kids called me Uncle Blue, and my kids called him Uncle Wil. We were thick as thieves.

I got a call late one night that he had taken his own life, and I spiraled. I spoke at his funeral, which was a quite humbling experience. I thought I had pulled it all together, but I didn't.

I understood. I found out what grief was (for the first time). I would find myself in a meeting, someone would say something, and I would just burst into tears and walk out of the room. I had trouble sleeping.

Whatever that version of grief or depression is, I had it, and I started to write to heal, without the intention of writing a book. It's more like a journal. Some of it was a lot of nonsense, but most of it was just stories, stories of struggle, and what I learned.

A dear friend of mine Randal Wright came to visit. He said, "What have you been doing?"

I said, "I've been writing."

I think my wife called him to come check on me and see if he could jolt me out of my trance.

He said, "You should publish this book." I said, "This not – that's not what this is. This is about—"

He said, "No, no, no." He said, "What are you about?"

I said, "What do you mean?"

He said, "Well, why do you think you're on this Earth?"

I said, "Well, I hope I'm on this Earth to help develop leaders."

He said, "We need more vulnerability from leaders." And he said, "This is a vulnerable look at the world. People are going to see you, and they're going to say, 'Oh, you have this great job. Everything must be perfect. You have these three daughters and this wife. You've been married for 25 years. Everything is easy.' You're going to tell them that it's not, and it's still going to be okay."

At that point, I went on the journey, and it was quite an experience, for sure.

The struggle for authenticity

Michael Krigsman: Why didn't you write the Instagram book that we see all the time?

Scott O'Neil: I don't have that gear, Michael. That's not how I see the world.

Look. I never want to say that I love the struggle, but I appreciate it. I don't think that you can learn anything from those books or those memoirs – everything is perfect. By the way, it's just not real life. That Brady Bunch thing does not exist.

It doesn't mean that life isn't fulfilling. It doesn't mean that I don't love my wife and have a great connection and that I don't appreciate my kids. They're everything in my life. It doesn't mean that my work isn't fulfilling and it gives me problems.

All those things are good. I feel really fortunate. It just means that the steps are hard and sometimes you trip and fall.

I think the more leaders, the more managers, the more coaches, the more mentors, the more teachers can be a little vulnerable and share some of their fallings as opposed to successes, I think that helps us as a world. It helps the world get better faster.

Michael Krigsman: Is the core message vulnerability or is it something else?

Scott O'Neil: I think it's about finding your authentic self. Part of finding your authentic self, oftentimes vulnerability is a tool to find out who you are and what you're about. But I think when you're young and you're kind of walking through the world, you ask yourself, "What makes up me? What makes up you?"

To some extent, it's the experiences we go through. To some extent, it's the people we surround ourselves with. And to some extent, it's who we aspire to be.

A lot of those experiences are trips and falls. How you react to them, how you learn from them, how you have that innate ability to compartmentalize failures as opportunity to grow and learn is something that I think catapults people up a phase or stage in maturity and level.

Michael Krigsman: This maybe is an obvious statement but writing a book about vulnerability and being your authentic self is not the standard stuff that CEOs of major organizations write about.

Scott O'Neil: I was reading Bob Iger's book. I happened to meet him down in Orlando. When COVID hit, the NBA moved all their games down to Orlando.

There was nobody. I meant not nobody. I went to a game by myself. I was literally the only fan of the game one time, and then other times the commission, of course, Adam Silver would be there and some of the network partners.

Bob Iger happened to be at a game. There were five, three or four fans. One of them was Bob Iger and one of them was me.

I had just read his book. I went up to him, and I said, "Hey, I just want to introduce myself, and I just want to say thank you."

He said, "For what?"

I said, "I just read your book."

I think it's called Ride of a Lifetime. In it, he talks about being really anxious about whether he was going to be named CEO or not and having a nervous breakdown.

He actually talks about it in his book, and I was like, "Thank you," because life is hard, and it's messy, and it's tough. And so, no, not all books are like that. A lot of them are ... [indiscernible, 00:10:29] books.

Look. It's hard to write a book, it's hard to get published, and it's hard to get anybody to read it. And so, kudos to anybody who has the courage to do it.

But I would put the hook in the line or the line in the water and just say, if you are writing a book, just consider the readers. Consider how we might help each other grow. I think, when you do that and you dig deeper, you might find that if you're a little vulnerable, life gets better.

Michael Krigsman: Is your book about making money?

Scott O'Neil: No, it's not.

I remember when I was in high school. I grew up in a fascinating family by two Ph.D.s. My mom and dad are both Ph.D.s. One had a Ph.D. in child development and the other one in psychology, so it was a bit of a laboratory growing up.

I was in high school and, in my senior year, I was taking classes. It was in Pokipsy, New York, and I was taking my classes at the local college, Marist College. I had to write a paper on success, defining success.

Now, I'm 18 years old, and you think I'm confident now, you should have seen me at 18. That was the only assignment, defining success, and I wrote my paper. I didn't do very well on the paper. That's being modest.

I went home. My parents hadn't looked at my grades since I was in seventh grade. I don't even know if they ever looked at any of our grades (of me and my four siblings). He said, "I'd like to take a look at it."

I said, "Okay."

I was talking about it at dinner, and he read it. He said, "This is what you think, huh?"

I said, "Yeah, this is what I think."

He's like, "Hmm," and that was it. Then he turned and walked away.

The paper effectively defined success in the facets of the way I think about life now and success. For me, success is certainly career (what I'm doing in my career), family (as a husband, as a dad), emotionally, physically, spiritually, and so I think about the different facets of life.

I don't advocate for other people to define success that way. I advocate for people to make sure that when they're defining success that they consider some different outlets other than how much money they made this year or last year or next year. For me, money has never been a real driver of anything I've done or a motivator.

Lessons from a sports and entertainment CEO

Michael Krigsman: You were CEO of this large organization in the sports business, and you were a dealmaker. You recently stepped down, but the lessons that you're describing now, would you characterize your life as a CEO as embodying those lessons at that time, or is this something new?

Scott O'Neil: Yes. No, I think I've evolved as a human being, and I've evolved as a leader. I've certainly traveled down into different phases of life as a person.

I will tell you the one constant has been I've always loved people. I've always had a knack for building teams and growing teams. I'm really attracted to talent and debate. Those have been my constants.

I've had the reputation of developing some incredible talent. I might argue that. People that have worked with me are gone and are doing some incredible things now. I was just happy to get some time with really extraordinary talent.

I think the question you're asking is, is this all crap or actually put into practice?

Michael Krigsman: [Laughter]

Scott O'Neil: I appreciate the question. I would say that the stories, a lot of stories from the book, are from work. Some of them are stories where they're wins. A lot of them are stories where I learned from people at work.

The other question is, are you perfect at this? No, no, no, no, no...

These principles in this book, like API (assume positive intent), WMI, be a purple water buffalo, and fail forward, they're all things when I am living them and that's my best self. But am I perfect at that? No, I'm not.

Am I growing and learning every day? Yes. Do I trip and fall on occasion? Some would argue more than on occasion.

I hope that everyone, all your listeners, sophisticated audience, I hope that you're learning something every day or you probably wouldn't be listening to this podcast.

Michael Krigsman: What's the relationship then between the lessons you describe in the book – and maybe you can share some of those lessons – and business life? It seems like they're quite separate and distinct.

Scott O'Neil: Let's take my favorite lesson in the book, WMI (what's most important). My executive coach, Brendon Burchard, tells me that he's interviewed 10,000 executives, and the research comes back that high performers spend 65% of their time (or more) on the 3 things that matter most.

I would say yes. I did my own audit.

If there's one thing you listen to this podcast and take away, write down the three things that matter most at home, the three things that matter most in your relationships, and the three things that matter the most at work. Then go audit your calendar. Map what you do against what matters most.

If you're anything like I was when I first did it, it's a bit horrifying. I was somewhere around 23% of my time. Honestly, I have full control of my time.

For me, the question is (to answer your question directly), is that applicable at work? Yes. Is it applicable at home? Yes, it is. Is it applicable in your relationships? Yes, it is.

How many times have you gone out to dinner with a friend that brings you negative energy? You come back and you don't feel better about yourself. Is that a great use of your time? No, it's not.

What's most important with the relationships that matter most? How are we spending our time? How are we intentionally spending our time?

Does that matter at work? Yes, it does 100%. I think it's very applicable.

Assume positive intent is another one of my favorites (API). Look. You can walk in my house and there are APIs written on every blackboard. By the way, I have three daughters, so blackboards are everywhere: in our kitchen, in our living room, in their schoolroom, in the bedrooms. Then we have them in some slates. It's the last thing you see when you walk out the door.

Assume positive intent, what a gift to have at work. If you're not assuming positive intent, just picture someone with baggage stacked upon their shoulders. That baggage might be a conversation we had yesterday, some bad thoughts I had about a person, some bias I may have. Instead, assume positive intent.

You walk into my office. Literally, people will walk into my office, and they would say, "Scott, I need you palms up and API," because we had a common language. All that meant was, "Something went really wrong, I need your help, I do not need your emotion, and I do not need your reaction. I need your counsel, and I need your help solving this problem." It's like, "Okay."

Yeah, so failing forward is another one. We built a reputation. We were named one of the most innovative companies in the world at HBSE. If you're not okay failing, you will not innovate, you will not do anything new, and you will not pull the trigger. You just won't. You won't learn. You won't grow.

Now, is that easy? No, it's not. But as a leader, everyone in that organization, if you want to be innovative, if you want to break ground, if you want to do something new, if you want to do something (what I would say) is interesting to me, then everybody needs to know I'm going to take some chances and they're not all going to work. That has to be okay.

It doesn't mean you don't do a postmortem. It doesn't mean you don't break it down. It doesn't mean you don't learn from that.

But, man, can you imagine an environment where you couldn't fail forward? That it was like, if you fail, you lose your job? You'll never innovate. You'll just take the safe course. You'll make the same steps every single time.

Be a purple water buffalo. I'll keep rolling through them until you beg me to stop.

Michael Krigsman: [Laughter]

Scott O'Neil: Man, I've worked with a lot of teams. I've worked in this business now since 1992. That's a long time. I've worked for some extraordinary teams, and I've worked with some teams that aren't so extraordinary.

I always say you have to love each other; you don't have to like each other. Those that love each other, those that root for each other, those that are there for each other, the purple water buffalos, the teammates, man, I've been on that team. Those teams, every day and twice on Sunday. The teams where it's every man, woman, and child for themselves, not so much.

I think the principles apply to extraordinary leadership, management, and teams. Yes.

Managing high-performing talent

Michael Krigsman: Scott, these lessons that you've been describing, how does that map onto the management of a sports team with these incredibly talented and skilled players?

Scott O'Neil: I'll give you one quick anecdote. The title of the book, Be Where Your Feet Are, is about being present, fully present. As I like to say in my quick vernacular: phone down, head up.

If you were to walk into our conference room, for example, you would find a phone basket. While that seems like that might be meant for children (as it is in my house because we have a phone basket here, too), I will tell you that my millennials and my Gen Zers will look me straight in the eye and say, "How am I going to take notes?"

I say, "Grab a pen. You can do it. You can do this! We can do hard things together," because I think what's missing – two things.

One thing I think was missing about life is you've got to get your head up. You walk in the hallway and everybody has their head down looking at their phone.

You walk into a conference room before a meeting starts. What is everybody doing? Aimlessly scrolling through Twitter, Facebook, or Snapchat, or they're sending a text they don't need to send.

All I want them to do is look to the left, look to the right, and say, "Hey, how was your weekend? Hey, how's that new project you're working on? Is there anything I can help you with?"

The same thing on the court. Remember, these players, they are gladiators. They're big, strong, fast, tough, and amazing, but they're young – dare I say children, but definitely young men.

Young men, just like my daughters in my house, sometimes can be fragile. I wonder, if the fans knew the impact that they had by the negative stuff they write and tweet, I think they'd do a lot less of it.

If I had a slew of players in my house right now, I'd tell them all, "Just shut it down. Shut down Reddit. Shut down Twitter," those are the nastiest ones, "and just be on platforms where you get positive energy and love."

You want to know the quickest way to losing your jumper? Go read from 10,000 people that tell you, you can't shoot.

You want to know the quickest way to lose your spot on the NHL roster? Go read 10,000 comments that say you're incompetent, you're an idiot, you're done, you can't play hockey, you have no hockey sense, you can't shoot, you can't score, you can't defend.

I think it's not too dissimilar from my 14-year-old daughter who may see her friends post something about three of them had a pool party and she's the only one not there and what that does to her. Or me, I've been in the mix of some pretty nasty tweets, and I was surprised at how hard it hit me.

You take that and put that, times it by 10,000, and put it on a 21-year-old kid. What are we doing? Yes, I think there are principles where "be where your feet are" can help players, for sure.

Impact of negative social media on high performers

Michael Krigsman: I think that, for many of us fans, the players are so remote. We see them through our TV screens. They're not real. I think many people would be surprised to hear the impact that negative social media, for example, and attacks have on players because they do come across as supermen and superwomen – superhuman.

Scott O'Neil: Listen. You're an extremely successful guy, an incredible history, incredible background. Can you imagine, after each of these episodes, if you got 500 notes that said you're incompetent, you're an idiot, you're stupid? Can you imagine? You'd probably stop doing this work.

Instead, we're listening to the vocal minority because that's not the majority. You'd have to literally be unaware, not very bright, and have way too much time on your hands to send a comment about the work you're doing.

Now, again, you're confident, successful, and mature. What about your 21-year-old self?

I agree. I think fans don't understand the impact or influence that the comments can have, but that's just like a boo in the crowd. I think it's crazy to boo your own team. I really do. I think it's irresponsible to boo your own team.

Why would you be sending negative energy out into the world about the team that you love, about the team that you want to win, about the team that you respect, about the team colors you wear? You want to lift them up. You want to build them up. You want to create confidence. You want to create an environment where people know that they are loved and respected.

Let the coach pull them out of the game, and management. But for you, that groundswell of love and support, that's what wins – in my opinion.

Michael Krigsman: We the fans feel that those players work for us because we've spent all this money and all this time—

Scott O'Neil: They do.

Michael Krigsman: –coming to a game. If the player misses the shot, well, he's not doing his job and he's a bum. That seems to be the common sentiment.

Scott O'Neil: Right. Can you imagine, like someone that worked for me? General manager of the building, Donna Daniels. Something goes wrong with the building, and I'm like, "Boo, Donna! Boo! You're the worst! You are awful! You should lose your job!" Can you imagine?

She actually did work for me. She does an extraordinary job, like all these players. They're extraordinary. They're one of the top 450 people in the world that do what they do, out of 7.5 billion, right?

I hear you. I agree; they do work for you, the fans. But what do you want as a fan? Do you want better performance? Do you want harder working? Do you want wins?

What's your best avenue to get there? I'm not sure that the current pace of harassing, heckling, and booing your own team works.

The other team, sure, go have at it. Go get them. Go get them.

I'm not very Machiavellian in most of my thoughts, but if you're purely Machiavellian, the worst thing you can do is get on social media and tell someone how terrible they are. The second worse thing is to actually boo them in person, live.

“My true love is building teams and developing talent”

Michael Krigsman: Scott, coming back to your book, can you give us some examples or tell us how the lessons from your book map onto the business world?

Scott O'Neil: I'm kind of a classic manager, leader, developer of people, culture builder. But do I love deals? Yes.

We grew this company over $2 billion in 6 years. It grew, some organically and quite a bit through acquisitions.

Yes, I definitely have a reputation of doing deals and growing deals. But my true love is building teams and developing talent.

You pick a chapter; I'll tell you how it applies to building teams and growing talent. I think that's the path to building value in an organization.

The notion. I'd love to dig into culture a little bit. The notion of culture, to me, it's what you tolerate and what you celebrate. That's how I would define culture.

Actually, I stole that from Hugh Weber, our president, or my former colleague at HBSE. It's what you celebrate and what you tolerate.

I have some friends who believe that any talk of culture is soft. I literally chuckle at them.

When I left HBSE after 8 years, there were 12 people that were there when I started, 12 out of 2,000. And so, culture is what you tolerate and what you celebrate. If you have a culture of accountability, a culture of hard work, a culture of continuous learning, and a culture of excellence, there's nothing soft about that, and that creates a competitive advantage.

I always point to that. I don't know if you've ever been to Disney World, but I always think about the jungle cruise line for the jungle cruise ride. My young girls love Disney, and I'm not a huge fan of places where I have to wait in line for two hours and the food is not great.

Nonetheless, there we go. I inevitably had one on my shoulders. It'd be August. I'd be sweating. I would look at this young woman in an outfit that I wouldn't wear, and she's always smiling. I thought, "Self-selection." That's all I kept thinking about.

When you're building a culture of your team, when your culture is strong enough and you build up a reputation, people self-select in. Now you have people coming to us (a couple of years into my tenure there) saying, "I want to be innovative. I want to take chances. I'm willing to work hard. Hey, that's me. That's me. Yeah, I want to learn. Yes, oh, I want to be developed. Yes, I am not fully developed. I want to learn and grow every day. Yes, I want to be challenged. Yes, I want to do extraordinary work."

Now you're like self-selection. By the time you build that culture and you have that reputation, now the best people in the world that want to be that, start reinforcing it, and that's when I think you get real, real lift.

Michael Krigsman: Let's inject a couple of questions from Twitter. I love getting the questions from the audience. Then we'll continue on the conversation about culture. I think culture is part of all of this.

Wayne Anderson asks a really interesting question. He says, "How does the approach and mindset for managing bad feedback and performance change on the sports side versus the business side?"

Scott O'Neil: The good news, bad news (as a coach or a general manager) is you get to see it every day and so does everybody else. How do you manage that?

Well, if you're a coach, you manage it by playing time. As a GM, you manage it by how much you pay the person, who extends a contract, who gets trained, who comes in, who you draft, and what positions to replace someone who may not be doing as well.

It's like the purest form of talent management there is. There is no complacency. You are fighting every day.

For Wayne, I wished he knew how hard these guys work. I mean it's pretty humbling to see. They're literally fighting for their careers.

Think about this. Can you imagine if 95% of your lifetime earnings were made before you were 28? Can you even imagine that? That's kind of nuts.

I did a presentation for one of our teams a few years ago. I asked them what an assistant coach in college made. I think it was like $55,000 or $60,000.

They were like, "I don't know. A million dollars?"

I'm like, "A million dollars?! For an assistant coach in college?! A division one coach."

"No. No, that'd be too high."

You're thinking, these guys, our minimum salary in the NBA is a million dollars. Now, your next best spot if you want to be an assistant where you played college ball, you're going down to $60,000. Can you imagine?

How hard are you willing to fight to get there and stay there? How hard are you willing to work? How many shots are you willing to take? How many moves do you want to develop? How many hours are you willing to be in the gym? Because there are 5,000 people that are probably just as athletic, just as talented, just as smart.

I think, from that point, it's pretty simple.

From a business end, it's a little more complex. We take (or we did) a pretty transparent approach to talent management, to performance reviews.

I go right between the eyes. It's kind of the only way I know in terms of developing people, both positive and negative. Happy to talk more about that if it's helpful.

How to manage psychological well-being for high-performance and professional athletes?

Michael Krigsman: We have another question from Twitter. You were talking about the psychological well-being of the athletes. Lisbeth Shaw asks, "How does this relate to folks that we've just seen at the Olympics, like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, that's playing out this drama over this past week?"

Scott O'Neil: First, I would like to talk about what's happening in our own homes and what's happening in our own workplaces. We have an epidemic happening right now. I think it's been spurred on by, I think, the pandemic made it worse because we were isolated and we had higher anxiety levels.

What I talk to a lot of young people about is just a really simple formula: Do something for your mind, something for your body, and something for your soul every day. Get the right amount of sleep. Practice gratitude. Put your phone down and get your head up. Be where your feet are, in other words.

Those things, I don't think they're too dissimilar from anybody. This just gets you to the starting line, by the way.

Something for your body. I think Simone and Naomi had this worked out pretty well. For the rest of us, we've got to put 20 minutes. We've got to get the heart rate up for 20 minutes a day.

For me, I'm a Peloton junky now since COVID started. Forty-five minutes every day no matter what, I'm on the Peloton. I sweat until I can wring my shirt out.

That might not be for everybody, but you might want to go for a walk every day. We've got to take care of our bodies. It helps clear your mind.

Learning. I think we get in this mode, especially working from home. We just do. We just do. We learn, we grow, and we read whatever is in our sphere because we don't know when to turn it on. We don't know when to turn it off.

I will tell you. One of the best tools is to pick something to learn outside of your core business.

For me, over the last year, it's been blockchain. I am completely fascinated by blockchain. I think blockchain is going to change the world as we know it. That and 5G. I'm just not as interested in 5G, but blockchain, I read. I'm doing at least an article, at least a talk a day, so I can understand the tech and where it's headed.

Now, I'm not advocating you go study blockchain. I'm saying, what is interesting to you? Go learn about it. One talk, one podcast, one article, do something a day.

Then the soul, nobody wants to talk about spirituality and your soul, especially at work. I'm not going to advocate for scripture, prayer, or going to church. I do that, but you don't have to do that.

But you do need to find stillness in your life. You need to get ten minutes. Whether that ten minutes is sitting out on your porch listening to birds in the morning, good for you. If that's yoga or you get that through a run or get that through just sitting still and meditating, good for you. But you've got to find and milk that soul.

Sleep. I've had more sleep experts come into our office than you can shake a stick at. They all say the same thing.

I grew up, "Sleep is for the weak." That's what I heard from everybody. "Money never sleeps. Sleep is for the weak. You should get up at 4:00 a.m." All this crap, it's not true.

The reality is the body needs to heal. Your brain needs to heal, and it heals when you're sleeping.

Depending on your DNA, you need somewhere between 6.5 and 8.5 hours a day.

Then the gratitude part, I just encourage everybody to pick up your phone and send a note to your mom. Just tell her you love her, you appreciate her, and one thing you learned from her.

Then think about, could you imagine if you just did a 30-day challenge? Sixty seconds a day, you send a note of gratitude or appreciation to someone in your life: a teacher, a mentor, a coach, a mom, a dad, an uncle, an aunt, a grandmother, a grandfather, someone that works for you, someone you work for. Just 60 seconds a day of gratitude will get your mindset in a different place.

Then the last thing is put some rules on your devices. Ours in our house, which are a little draconian – just ask my daughters – are no phones in the kitchen, no phones in the bedrooms – ever.

We have no notifications. Shut your notifications off. It's like insulin shock. It's like we're looking at our phones 300 times a day. It's not healthy.

You do not have to text someone back within five seconds of them texting. You don't. There's no rule. It's not written.

But you know the person that texts you and then puts the hand up, you know, like three times? It's been five minutes. There is no rule on this.

When you walk into dinner with your friends, leave your phone in the car. Can you do it? Can you take 30 minutes without a phone in your pocket?

We are so attached, and you've got to take the discipline and put processes and rules in place so you can be more present and be where your feet are. That's the six-step process I'd be thinking about in terms of mental health and wellness.

In terms of Simone Biles, God bless her. Naomi, thank you very much. Kevin Love, thank you.

All these incredible athletes who are struggling and they're going out and they're saying, "Hey." They're raising their hands saying, "Hey, I have a problem." You know what that's doing? That's being vulnerable.

You know what that's doing for my 14-year-old daughter who struggles with that stuff too? It's giving her the nod to say, "You know what? It's okay. Yeah, I have anxiety. I have social anxiety. It's okay. I need to get some help. I need to go see a therapist. I need to go talk to somebody. I need to raise my hand."

I applaud the athletes that use their platforms to go help change the world. It's hard out there. I will tell you it is hard, and it's getting harder for everybody.

Michael Krigsman: Do these rules fit back into this subject of culture that we were talking about earlier (inside a business)? By the way, you are a tough dad, but I will say that [laughter] I do practice. Personally, I practice each of those items very seriously.

Scott O'Neil: Great.

Michael Krigsman: Except, as my wife will say, I would definitely fall down on the last one. I think I could relate to your daughter who is like, "Well, you know, I just need to respond. It'll take a second."

Scott O'Neil: Right. The problem is, when you are reacting right away, it's taking you out of probably what's most important. What we're doing is we're taking things that are timely and they're impacting what we think is most important. In other words, I think it's just about if you are prioritizing those texts over what you're doing, then just make sure you're intentionally prioritizing.

If you're with your wife and you think answering a text is more important than listening to her story, then answer the text. But just intentionally do it and know what you're doing. And know the message you're sending, what you're saying to her.

My wife is hardcore. Lisa is what her name is. If I pick my phone up, she's just like this. She holds her finger up. She's like, "I'll wait."

I'm like, "No, no, no. I'm just checking. It's the playoffs."

"No, no, no. I'll wait. It's more important? Okay."

What a gift to get that kind of feedback. It doesn't feel good, by the way.

Michael Krigsman: But this notion of culture, as a CEO of a rapidly growing and well-known company, how did you feed these lessons back into the company (to the benefit of the business and to the people working there)?

Scott O'Neil: At the end, the tail end, like I said, it was self-selection. My senior team were the zealots, so I could concentrate on things like leadership development meetings. I spent a lot of time on onboarding. That's what I think. I want to spend time.

If you want to change the culture of an organization, you as the CEO or you as the leader or you as the manager need to pay a lot of attention as to who is coming in, why, and what their experience is like in those first 60 days – intentionally.

I put on quite a bit of leadership meetings. I think communication now is incredible.

Millennials and Gen Zs, I love these two generations. I love-love-love them. They are very entitled, okay? They want to be promoted tomorrow. They want the corner office the day after that. But they're willing to work hard.

You need to give them access. You need to be transparent. They're very connected to their brand. They're very connected to your brand.

Their contract is, "Hey, mister bigshot CEO, do your values match mine? Do the values of this company match mine? If they don't, I'm walking away."

They don't even need jobs. They don't have cars. They don't have houses.

I couldn't even imagine that, just saying, "Yeah, I'm out. I'm checking out."

It's pretty amazing the pressure and connectivity you have with these young people, but I will sign up for that social contract all day long. Let's create a company where there's purpose.

You have to believe in something bigger than the mundane job you have. As CEO, what is that? What impact are you making? What difference are you making in the world?

Someone is going to say, "That's a waste of time. That's not a good use of resources."

I'm like, "No, you've lost your minds. It is the only way, the only place you should put your resources because I need to attract talent and I need to keep them. I need to keep them engaged. I need to keep them focused."

Their social contract is like, "Yes. What do you stand for, mister CEO? What do you care about? What is this company going to do? We're having social issues in this country. What are you doing about it, personally? What's this company represent?"

To me, man, I would work with this group all day long. I love them. I love the challenge that we have to keep them focused and driven. But, man, talk about pressure on the culture. That's the group.

What is a purpose-driven enterprise?

Michael Krigsman: You mentioned the term "purpose," and we hear a lot lately about purpose-driven companies, purpose-driven leadership. How can business leaders put that into practice so that it does not become superficial or a caricature or a cliché, but actually have some real substance behind it?

Scott O'Neil: That's the challenge. You'll get sniffed out very quickly by the younger generations.

Like I say, we did it at HBSE. First off, we started with diversity hiring, and that's the place to start.

When I came into the organization, we had one woman who was a VP or higher and one person of color who was a director or higher. Can you imagine that? Then I believe the number was 62% of our hires over the next 8 years were non-white men, so we got a lot more diverse a lot quicker.

We'll always have more work to do but, the day I left, we had 18 women who were VPs, 13 of whom were SVPs or higher, including our COO, our chief human resources officer, our chief revenue officer, and two heads of marketing. We've done a great job in terms of gender diversity. That was quite a big swing.

Then, when I left, I believe it was 34% of the organization were people of color, so you have a huge migration and swing. In terms of diversity, first off, we put some processes in place to make sure that happened.

Again, I use the word "draconian" sometimes because I am definitely a leader who defers. I'm definitely a leader who empowers. I'm definitely a leader who loves people who can take the ball and run. However, when you're in a turnaround or change situation, that style is not effective, or I should say it's ineffective.

Early on in the few turnarounds that I've been in (or high change situations), I've been much more dictatorial, directional, like a field general, that type of style. Early on, I put the rule in place that half of the final candidates had to be diverse.

If you want to change the world, you want to change the face of the organization, you just change the rules of the game. That's what we did, and so that really pushed it.

Then you get to a point where it's the reality about hiring. I guess it's intuitive but, generally, people hang around with people who look like them – generally. It's a gross generalization, but generally.

Generally, when you're hiring, you look for somebody you know. If you're a white man, most of the people you might look to hire might look like you. You know what I was trying to do was just tweak that a little bit and make it harder.

Then once you hit a certain level and you have women in high places and you have people of color in high places, then their hiring becomes self-fulfilling as well. I think that was a big swing in terms of diversity.

I think diversity is one, especially in terms of when you talked about purpose-driven as the question. I think, at least this past summer, this country was talking about race quite a bit – for good reason. For us, we had done the hard work.

I had a bunch of my friends call and say, "Okay. Should I hire a chief diversity officer?"

I was like, "Yo, you're the chief diversity officer. You can have somebody in that spot but, just so you know, you're not hiring a person and it's going to get you in the game, if you will."

From us, we hired a great chief diversity officer, by the way, David Gould, who is an incredible force for good.

That's one. Are you living the values? I don't mean to just talk about diversity, but you can't fake this stuff. What do you stand for?

If you come to work for HBSE, you are dedicating 76 hours of service to the community. Now, you can do that through work, but you do it on your own. I didn't care if you wanted to go mentor, teach, coach, be a Big Brother or Big Sister. Whatever you wanted to do, go do it. Then we were shutting down the office once a month to go serve to get those 76 hours in.

Now, people know that's either fake or it's real. To me, it was real. We tracked everybody's hours. We had a portal. You put in your own hours and we served.

Again, what do you stand for? When an issue comes up, are you taking a position as an organization? That's really complicated. It's really, really complicated.

We sat down with a lot of constituents. We set up employee resource groups. We had a good cross-section of people weighing in.

We decided, okay, we're going to weigh in on these issues and we're not going to weigh in on these issues. But silence can be deafening, as you know.

Purpose-driven, in my opinion, the leader leads. You have to lead. That's your job. But it's organizationally, like, what do we stand for? Why does it matter?

I don't know. I don't think you have a choice anymore. I think the world is different than 20 years ago.

I think, as a leader 20 years ago, you could just go in and say, "We're doing this, we're doing that, and we're doing this." People would listen and do whatever you wanted. You could make all the calls.

I don't think that's how it works anymore almost under any circumstance other than hardcore change or hardcore mishap. I think the world is moving too fast. There are too many people doing too many things.

You've got to hire really good people. Empower them. Set up checks and balance systems. Trust but verify and move on. I don't think that a dictatorial style works.

I don't think "Hey, post something on the wall and mail it in," I just don't think it works. I think people sniff it out.

I think you have to care about people. I think people, people, people, that's the key sustainable competitive advantage.

Michael Krigsman: Correct me if I'm wrong. It seems that the key factor in being purpose-driven as something meaningful versus the words is actually getting skin in the game and putting those words into action that have consequences for the people.

Scott O'Neil: Yes, in a carrot way versus stick way.

Look. We track who serves and how many hours they serve. If you don't serve, you're likely to say, "I don't know if this is the organization for me because I've been to four meetings in a row and they keep mentioning who is serving, and this is not what I want to do. I'm self-selecting out."

The people that are self-selecting in are saying, "Okay, this organization cares about the community, understands service, and they're engaging at a whole level. By the way, we just painted a school and the president of the Sixers was painting right next to me. Oh, and the chief operating officer, she was helping me clean up the homeless shelter."

I'm like, "Okay. Yeah," so you start to build that culture strong enough; people self-select in and self-select out. Yes and no.

Scott O’Neil on blockchain

Michael Krigsman: You mentioned blockchain earlier. Do you want to share your thoughts on blockchain? You know your audience for CXOTalk is a very technology-centered audience.

Scott O'Neil: You know I was just in Mozambique, which is the third poorest country in the world. Access to banking (just by estimates by driving around), maybe 5% of people had access to real banking. Blockchain is actually going to democratize banking and financial institutions (in the long run).

Bitcoin provides an inflationary proof currency. The notion of walking into a bank and waiting three days to wire money is going to be a thing of the past.

Do I think insurance will be very different? I do.

Do I think banking will be very different? I do.

Am I betting against JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America? No, I'm not. They're really smart people, they have a lot of access, and they have a lot of infrastructure. I think they'll be major players.

But we've seen a rise in some incredible companies come up. I follow Ethereum very closely. They just had their London upgrade on August 4th, which is going to transform.

Anyway, I don't want to overtalk out of my skillset. But, essentially, it's going to start to reduce the supply of Ethereum over time, which will help it grow in value.

Ethereum is doing real revenue, like real, real revenue. It's the biggest platform, and I think that platform alone (if you're going to study one), I'd be spending a lot of time on Ethereum.

There are great, great newsletters out there. Ryan Adams puts out a great newsletter that I read religiously. The Messari Report – if you're looking for a report to get you the A, B, Cs of blockchain all the way down to what's happening in industry – they put a quarterly report that's spectacular.

To ignore what's going to happen in the world is naïve, so I'd take a look.

It's also really interesting if you're interested in the geopolitical impact. China just shut down all their miners about a month ago.

The way I'd explain it (in my simple language) would be that there are miners. They are solving for, I guess, an agreement between two people, so to speak. That's taking up a lot of electricity, and that's causing a stir, like a big stir as to how much electricity is used for these miners, so China has shut them down.

You really understand the difference between geopolitical control and what's happening in the U.S. What does that do to the value of miners in the U.S.? Well, it shoots them up. What does the pressure do to the U.S. government in terms of what's happening with electricity use?

Anyway, I guess it's a long way of saying that it's an interesting space. I read everything I get my hands on. If you have anything you think is interesting for me, post it to me on Twitter or LinkedIn. I'd love to take a look.

You probably know a lot more than I do. I'm happy to learn from anybody who knows what they're doing. But to ignore what's happening in this space is not prudent.

Michael Krigsman: How did you become interested in blockchain and what is the thing that really holds your attention about it?

Scott O'Neil: What holds my attention is the power of banks in the world and insurance companies in the world, how much influence they have, and how they can be just intermediated. That's what's really interesting to me is just thinking about some of the most powerful people and companies in the world and, theoretically, in ten years, that whole industry can look very different. If that whole industry looks very different, our world is very different.

A lot of things that just happen very naturally for big business can look very different. Where are you going to get a couple hundred million dollars in debt? How is that transaction actually going to happen? What's the approval process going to look like, and how is it going to be paid? How is it going to be verified?

I think, if you start thinking about what the ramifications are, they're pretty steep. That was my interest. I just kept reading about that. There are some fascinating people in this space.

It's also so nascent that you'll have a tweet by a well-known CEO and the market will move by 3%, 5%, or 10%, which is insane. In many ways, what happened to GameStop and AMC is very similar to what's driving the price of Bitcoin, Ethereum, and the others in the space. That's scary in terms of if you're an investor.

It's a nascent world, but my interest is driven by what's going to happen in the future. I think everybody should be interested in that.

Michael Krigsman: It is pretty extraordinary how a tweet by Elon Musk can drive the price of these cryptocurrencies (in a meaningful way). The big question everybody wants to know is, should we be investing in Bitcoin now?

Scott O'Neil: Bitcoin, the price now, I think it's like $43,000 or $44,000. It's probably going, I think, be at $100,000 by fourth quarter. Yes, I'd be investing in Bitcoin.

Ethereum is a better bet, if you're betting. I am certainly not a legal nor registered investment person, so I would be doing your own research. Yeah, I'm pretty heavy in both and like both.

I'd also just encourage any investors to consider some of the other platforms in that space. They're more early-stage and much higher risk, but there are incredibly smart people and incredibly smart money chasing some amazing, amazing companies.

How does a company develop its ethics and corporate culture?

Michael Krigsman: We have another question from Twitter, not about Bitcoin but actually about your book. This is from Lisbeth Shaw who says, "How does a company develop its ethos and institute the kind of social contract that you were describing earlier?"

Scott O'Neil: The social contract exists. Whether you like it or not, it exists.

How do you develop an ethos? Well, I would say if you're the CEO, it's a lot easier. If you are not and you're running a group or a department or a team, I would consider what I call a culture within a culture approach.

The one thing that would drive me a little bit batty over time (as I was coming up through the chain) was all the noise that was happening outside. My notion was, okay, in my sphere of influence, can I create the greatest place to work in the world? Think about that as a mentality. Everywhere I was, it was like, okay, can this be the greatest place to work in the world?

By the way, the answer to that is always no because there's always going to be somebody that does it better, does it smarter, has more infrastructure in place, has better people, smarter people, more whatever.

What a great pursuit. What a great pursuit, and so I love to talk and think about that with your most senior executives. Can we get as close to that line as we possibly can?

Then you start, obviously, breaking down the organization and how it works. You've heard me say it three times so far about people, people, people.

Do I have the right leaders in place? Do I have the right emphasis on personal development and professional development (of those leaders)? Do they have clear expectations? Do they know what we stand for? Are the values-driven not only on the wall but how we execute in meetings, how we interact with each other, and then just in terms of the feedback loop, which can be as simple as your six-month check-ins and reviews? But also, what does it look like on an hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly basis with your executives and with your team?

It's a pretty complex question, but I would say leadership, leadership, leadership first.

Michael Krigsman: Having a systematic way of approaching it so that it's not just ad hoc and let's do a little today and maybe a little next week and not worry about it in between.

Scott O'Neil: Yes. You either jump into the pool or stay out of the pool – for sure.

Michael Krigsman: Scott, as we finish up, is there a core message or imprint that you would like to leave on the people watching today?

Scott O'Neil: I mentioned I was in Mozambique. I was with my 17-year-old daughter and 19 other teenagers helping to build a school. I don't have any discernible skillset. I'm not handy. I didn't really know what I was doing.

One particular day, I was assigned to cement mixing. I was back in their corrugated metal area with shovels and some young teenagers from the U.S. You just take the cement mix and add some dirt and then add some water.

What struck me, as we were mixing this cement – and, by the way, this work is not for the faint of heart – I just kept thinking about water and the water we added. If we didn't add enough water, it would have dried up and been useless. If we added too much water, it was too runny and useless as well.

I wonder. I'd be inviting your listeners to think about that as a metaphor for life. What is the water?

I know what my water is. My water is taking intentional time and making memories with my wife, my daughters, and my family. That's one of my waters.

One is learning, for me. One is being challenged every day. One is my physical, emotional, spiritual well-being and making sure that I'm taking care of those things.

I would just invite you to think about the water in your life. What is it? How do you get the right amount (not too much, not too little)? How do you regulate it? How do you think about it? And how do you make sure that you're managing it to a point where you could become the best version of your authentic self?

Michael Krigsman: Okay. Scott O'Neil, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. I really appreciate it.

Scott O'Neil: Loved my time with you. Absolutely loved it. I'm a fan, as you know. I've told you off-air before. I wish you the continued success in all that matters.

Michael Krigsman: Thank you so much. We've been speaking with Scott O'Neil. He wrote this really good book, Be Where Your Feet Are. He is a major sports CEO, and I hope you've enjoyed this show.

Before you go, subscribe to our newsletter. Hit the subscribe button and subscribe to our YouTube channel. Tell your friends. Check out CXOTalk.com because we have great, great shows coming up.

Thank you to Scott O'Neil and especially thank you to all of the people who asked such great questions and who watched today. Have a great day, everybody. We'll see you soon.

Published Date: Aug 06, 2021

Author: Michael Krigsman

Episode ID: 716