“Women of the C-Suite: “Be Patient — All Change Takes Time,” With Elizabeth O’Brien of The IRONMAN Group

Be Patient — All change takes time. Don’t expect to change the course of a division or company in mere months. Instead, set goals for the long term and work on incremental steps to get there. Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth O’Brien. Elizabeth brings a significant wealth of experience and knowledge through […]

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Be Patient — All change takes time. Don’t expect to change the course of a division or company in mere months. Instead, set goals for the long term and work on incremental steps to get there.

Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth O’Brien. Elizabeth brings a significant wealth of experience and knowledge through her 24 years in the mass participation sports industry, working in every facet from operations, race directing, marketing, finance, and sponsorships. She joined The IRONMAN Group in June of 2017 with the acquisition of Competitor Group, Inc. (CGI), where Elizabeth was previously the Regional Director. As Senior Vice President of Financial Planning and Strategy with The IRONMAN Group, O’Brien oversaw the financial analysis functions for the business, while developing key advisory relationships with leaders across all areas of the business, and providing the organization with critical business insight. Today, as the Managing Director for North America of The IRONMAN Group, O’Brien oversees all aspects of the North America Business unit, leading the four North American offices (Louisville, Colorado; Nashville, Tennessee; San Diego, California; and Tampa, Florida) and more than 150 full-time employees. The North American business unit is The IRONMAN Group’s largest, with more than 70 annual events through the IRONMAN®, IRONMAN® 70.3® and Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon Series® brands. In addition to the running and triathlon events, O’Brien and her team will develop other platforms, such as mountain biking, throughout the region.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Elizabeth! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve always wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. At an endurance event, every person on the starting line has a unique story of why they are participating — either for their own health & fitness, to fundraise money for a charity, participate in memory or honor of a friend / family member, etc. Through the events we produce, we give participants a chance to fulfill their purpose and live their story. I started working at events while I was in high school and became hooked on helping people achieve their goals, especially when it comes to testing your endurance.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I’m extremely lucky that my job brings me all around the world to meet different people who are working on or participating in one of our events. I have been to numerous foreign countries I never thought I would be able to visit and have now visited more locations in the US than I can remember! It has given me such an appreciation for the differences in cultures, but also solidified the point that in this world, we are all truly more similar than different.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was just starting out my career journey, I was a coordinator for events and responsible for ensuring that all of the behind-the-scenes details were accurate and ready to go. For example, we had to create unique signage for each of our events that matches the specs of the scaffolding that spans the width of city roads. Accidentally, the signage order was placed in inches instead of feet, so a couple of weeks before the event, our signage showed up and looked like it was made for a scale architect model, and not an actual race starting line. We had to scramble and reprint everything we needed to get to the site in time. This taught me a key learning: details matter. Mundane tasks that can be boring need as much attention as the exciting, fun tasks. We had the mini signage up in the office for a long time as a reminder!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our company works as a team, both in the office and on the ground, from the Operations team to IT to the Finance team. Everyone brings their A-game to work and our events. Getting outside the cubicles and spending 12 hours handing out water to athletes as they finish an IRONMAN fosters a bonding experience that builds a strong team and a true IRONMAN family that carries the spirit of camaraderie beyond the walls of our office and the events we host. I am still in touch with many former employees because after being in the trenches at an event, we’ve formed a true friendship and mutual understanding.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

At The IRONMAN Group, we are always looking to expand and bring opportunity to more people who are looking to celebrate, commemorate, join a community, or test themselves and their physical abilities. The more people we can inspire to go from the couch to their first Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon Series 5K or an IRONMAN, the healthier we become. Those athletes can complete and graduate up through our ecosystem, becoming IRONMAN ambassadors, joining IRONMAN run clubs or IRONMAN University.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Set clear expectations and celebrate success; challenge those around you to deliver their best. If you demand excellence from yourself, your team will emulate you and deliver great results.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Surround yourself with incredibly talented and smart people that you trust. Every leader needs to have a team that they can count on, because it is truly impossible to stretch yourself efficiently in every direction of your business. Spend time, whether in the office or outside of it, with your key managers and employees to foster and share the same message, outlook, trust and decision-making process to succeed as a team. Communication is key — I don’t think there’s such a thing as too much dialogue or discussion to ensure everyone is on the same page. When leaving key meetings with delicate matters, go around the room and ask each leader if they are on board with the plan — give everyone time to voice their opinions, but come to a consensus and agree in the way to move the subject forward.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Following in the footsteps of my mother and grandmother, I was fortunate to attend a private all-girls high school in San Diego (Academy of Our Lady of Peace), which was focused on fostering female leaders, providing the self-confidence and teaching key skills that have helped form many successful women. An all-girls high school experience can be beneficial to women, as they are pushed to find their confidence, creativity, and most importantly leadership capabilities in these formidable teen years. I entered school a shy 14-year old, and at the end of my freshman year, one of my teachers took me aside and told me I had the confidence to be a good leader. She planted the seed, and thanks to the mentorship of some great teachers, and a very unique group of girlfriends, by 11th grade I was President of my class.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I like to tell anyone and everyone who asks why I have worked in the endurance event space for so long — the feeling of bringing good to the world through sport, through endurance events is contagious. We put on incredible and inspiring events that allow people to achieve their dreams — whether it’s their first race or their 100th race. Everyone has a reason to race, and it’s always to make something better — to better their health, to raise money for a charity, to set a personal best, or even just to forget, and relieve the stress…the list goes on. I am incredibly proud to have found my life’s work in something that can send good vibes out in the world!

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

  1. Be Yourself — I have always worked best with people who I felt like I knew and had a personal connection to or friendship with. Sharing little life stories and ensuring your team knows you can go a long way to having strong working relationships.
  2. Listen More, Talk Less — A long time ago, I thought that a leader’s job was to stand up and give inspiring speeches. Now, I know that a leader’s real job is to listen to and challenge their team members. Asking for honest feedback will allow rapid growth.
  3. Be Patient — All change takes time. Don’t expect to change the course of a division or company in mere months. Instead, set goals for the long term and work on incremental steps to get there.
  4. It’s OK to Say No. Boundaries are important, and you can quickly lose yourself in any new or exciting role. Ensure you have some time to yourself, or you will quickly burn out, even if it’s only 20 minutes a day to recharge while reading a book or doing a quick workout.
  5. Manage Expectations — Setting reasonable goals and expectations can be the difference between celebrating success or being disappointed in a particular outcome. If expectations are too high, even excellent progress can seem like a failure and perceived failure is a morale bust.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Getting kids active and moving early is essential. The more we can inspire kids to run through an IRONKIDS or KiDSROCK program, hopefully the more active they will be throughout their lives and the healthier our society will be!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote right now comes from our CEO, Andrew Messick. When he is asked how to succeed at the highest levels of business, his answer is six simple words: “Do Good Work. Take Your Chances.” This is relevant to me, as I was asked to pick up my whole family and move from California to Florida, after living in California all my life with all of my immediate family. But, by taking the chance to move across the country, I have been fortunate to have been given the challenge and the opportunity to have my dream job — leading a talented group of people, producing some of the most inspiring and life changing events that people can participate in all over the world.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Bruce Springsteen! I am such an analytical and data driven person, and artists have always fascinated me. I have been a fan since I was a young girl listening to his songs as I grew up. I like to say he’s the modern-day Norman Rockwell but using poetry and song to paint a unique picture of Americana that is so distinct and special. I would love to know how he creates such incredible stories. I’ve been lucky enough to see him perform live, and it’s also one of the most awe-inspiring experiences (and workouts!) I’ve seen. His music is always on my playlist and his Broadway show was one of the most moving things I’ve seen in a while (even though I only got to stream it).

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