Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils CEO Scott O’Neil gives himself until noon the day after a loss to be miserable—and then he flips a switch.
At least, that’s what he did after the Sixers crushing playoff loss. “I’ve learned to handle losing differently,” he said in the opening remarks at last Tuesday’s Citizen hybrid event, an interview with Citizen co-founder Larry Platt held both online and in-person at Fitler Club, in partnership with Fitler and Comcast NBCUniversal. “You have to compartmentalize,” he says.
Flipping that switch—being able to go from CEO to father of three girls to husband—might be the ultimate skill the Newburgh, NY, native has learned over his 25-plus years in sports entertainment. O’Neil climbed the ranks, starting as an assistant who performed all the classic assistant roles—tutoring the boss’s wife on using her computer, securing autographs for the boss’s kids—and working his way up to President of NYC’s legendary Madison Square Garden.
But he lost it all—he was fired from his job; his father died; and he lost his best friend from Harvard Business School to suicide. It was while delivering that eulogy, staring out at his friend’s five kids, and in the months that followed, when O’Neil fell into a deep depression. Writing his new book, Be Where Your Feet Are, became part of his healing. You can buy the book here, through Harriet’s Bookshop, which was The Citizen’s official bookselling partner for the event.
Watch the full event here:
Or, see below for some highlights of our conversation with O’Neil:
Family is everything to the Sixers CEO. It was while on a camping (ok, glamping) excursion with some fellow CEOs and their daughters when O’Neil was tasked with a poignant exercise: Pretend you’re about to have your last-ever talk with your daughter—what do you want her to know? The message he drove home to his middle child: Family above all else—always. Also: Everything will be fine.
Everything meaningful he ever learned in his life, he learned from failure. After experiencing grief and loss—of his job, his father, his dear friend—O’Neil recognized the importance of learning from his mistakes.
“I don’t want to repeat the same mistake twice,” he said—in business, and in his personal life. “If you really take stock of what you know and what you’ve learned,” it’s the failure that teaches you the most, he said. His current professional joy? Seeing his team thrive and succeed. “My joy is much less about the kill…and I’m much more interested in people I work with, and them succeeding,” he said.
Life is messy. Despite the veneer we all project on social media—and O’Neil loves pics of people’s vacations and kids’ graduations as much as the rest of us, make no mistake—we can’t assume anyone’s life is perfect. “I’m not ashamed of my struggles. I’m not ashamed of who I am.” And, he says, if you are feeling particularly full? Reach out to help someone else. In fact, he typically starts his professional speeches by imploring attendees to take 60 seconds to text their mother, telling them they love her.
He loves a good acronym. Two that are guiding his life right now: API—assume positive intent—and WMI—what’s most important.
His role model is his younger brother, Michael. O’Neil has many professional role models—NBA commissioner Adam Silver, NHL commish Gary Bettman—but it’s Michael who he calls when he has a question about life or faith or business or family or fatherhood. Michael built a successful healthcare tech company while practically on his deathbed, getting chemo, and recently launched a charity—Gray Bridge—to help bridge racial divides.
He considers intellectual curiosity a key trait for success. And as he wrapped up the night, he left the crowd with these words of—sage-like—wisdom:
“There’s no finish line—you have to keep learning.”