Philadelphia 76ers’ CEO champions faith and family values while imparting secrets of success in new book
Successful NBA executive and Latter-day Saint convert Scott O’Neil shares the ‘messy’ life and principles to live by in new book
When speaking to groups, Scott O’Neil often fields questions from people about how to find proper “balance” in life.
Many ask questions like “Can you be successful at work and have a good home life?” “If you want to be a great dad or mom, can you succeed at work?” “How do you find work-life balance?”
O’Neil, the CEO of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, a global sports and entertainment company that includes the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, always gives the same answer: “I have no idea.”
To O’Neil, the concept of balance is like aspiring to a “mediocre middle.” It’s the wrong question.
“I don’t believe the good life is about finding balance between work and home,” O’Neil said. “It’s about living the moments we have where and when we have them. ... The question we need to be asking and answering is how do you maintain the discipline to be where your feet are?”
The idea of being 100% present and focused wherever you are in a given moment is the core theme of the sports executive’s new book, “Be Where Your Feet Are: Seven Principles to Keep You Present, Grounded and Thriving,” which hits bookshelves this week.
The book was inspired by the sad and shocking news of O’Neil’s best friend’s suicide, which moved him to resolve conflicts between his heart and driven professional life.
O’Neil, a graduate of Villanova University and Harvard Business School, gives key lessons and principles, including how to identify your “WMI” — “What’s Most Important.” He tells about his conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at age 47, the value of family and how he bounced back after being fired from his then-dream job as president of Madison Square Garden Sports to become one of the NBA’s most successful leaders. The author also describes other personal and professional setbacks, and what he learned, over a 20-year career in the professional sports world.
“The book ... it’s not a pat-yourself-on-the back, victory lap, Lego Guy ‘Everything is awesome.’ It’s the opposite of that,” O’Neil said. “It’s essentially like a vulnerable peek behind the curtain look at life, and life can be messy. I’m kind of OK with messy. ... This book is about purposeful living.”
O’Neil discussed parts of his book, including the value of faith and family, as well as other topics in a recent Zoom interview with the Deseret News.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: What does it mean to ‘Be Where Your Feet Are?’
Scott O’Neil: Marty Erlichman, Barbra Streisand’s longtime manager, one time told me the secret to life is when you wake up in the morning and put your feet on the ground, be so passionate about what you do for work that you sprint to the office every day. At night, after a hard-charging day of work, sprint home with equal passion.
So a lot of my focus is just making sure when I come home that I am a dad and husband. I try to be the best dad and husband I can possibly be in the world. We have our grinds. Coming out of the pandemic, we’re trying to figure out where our day starts and where it ends. I can tell you that when I am able to be where my feet are, I’m better. I’m a better dad. I put my phone down, tuck it in a drawer. The TV is off. We have family dinner, where we can have real conversations about real things. I am 100% where my feet are and they are too.
It takes time and I’m not perfect. I make plenty of mistakes and go off the rails sometimes. But (when I’m where my feet are), that’s when I am my best self.
DN: Who was the greatest influence in your life growing up?
SO: My mother and father were instrumental in shaping who I am today.
My dad grew up in a two-bedroom apartment in Bayside Queens, New York, which is a decidedly lower-class neighborhood. He had five siblings, so the six of them slept in the same bed. Every Sunday his father would walk him through Forest Hills, a nicer area of Queens. My grandfather said, “Look around. You can have whatever you want, you can achieve whatever you want.” And that’s what I heard from my dad every single day of my life. You can achieve anything you want, there is no dream too big. Do not put a ceiling on yourself. You are going to have to work for it, but you are good enough, smart enough and talented enough. Get after it.
My mom was a force of nature, a source of goodness, energy and light.
I remember being 13 years old and her taking me out to Colorado Springs to watch her train a bunch of Xerox sales managers. I had gone through a bit of a tough time. I was 13 and saying and doing the wrong things. My mom wanted me to understand a little bit about life and a little bit about her and what she did for a living. To see her up there, making people laugh, making them cry and then having a line of people after every session, wanting to talk to her and get more of her wisdom, I remember sitting next to her on the flight and just looking up at her like, “Whoa.” That has shaped my view of women, empowerment, strength and influence that I carry with me today, not only in the office, but certainly my home with my daughters.
DN: Why do family and faith matter?
SO: You have to figure out what we call “WMI” — “What’s Most Important?” For me it’s really clear. It’s my family and my faith.
What my faith has given me is strength, courage, a longer lens. In the book we talk about “trust the process.” If you are a basketball fan, you know that also has a connotation in the NBA, and the turnaround process we went through with the Philadelphia 76ers. But your faith truly gives you a chance to have a longer lens and to have an eternal perspective. With an eternal perspective, you have the blessing of being able to make smarter decisions over time. In my life, I would say strength, courage and an eternal perspective have been the biggest differentiators.
People know that I’m a dad. I coach my daughters in basketball. I go to parent-teacher conferences. I show up for award ceremonies and the middle school band concert. I want to run a company where that is valued. If you were to come into HBSE you would find a bunch of moms and dads, as well as some who haven’t become parents yet. But I want them to look out and say, “I can be that parent.”
The family unit is something that completely changed my life. Both as a young boy growing up, and as a dad today, there’s no greater joy in the world. There’s no greater blessing in the world. And there’s no place I’d rather be at home with my three daughters and wife Lisa.
DN: What is the hardest part of your job?
SO: The hardest part of any CEO’s job is firing people. It brings me anxiety and stress. I have been on the other side of that. I’ve been fired before. I’ve run a company into the ground. So I agonize because I love the people I work with.
Day to day, I think the hardest thing for me is to say “No.” At my core, I am a people-pleaser. I don’t have the luxury of time. So the hardest thing for me to say is, “I’m sorry, I can’t do it.”
DN: Why write this book?
SO: I feel like everybody has a purpose in life. I feel like I’m starting to narrow in on mine at 51 years old. And that’s to help develop the next generation of great leaders. Whether that’s in my house with my three daughters — one of whom is actually interning with the Utah Jazz, ironically — or that’s at church with the with the young men who I work with, or that’s at work with the incredible crew I get to work with at Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out if I can add a little bit, help provide some perspective, share a story or an anecdote, or maybe lend a hand or a hug when it’s needed. This book is an extension of that.
DN: What message do you want readers to take away from your book?
SO: I want the central message to be that life is messy, and it’s OK.
You have to take care of yourself. Mind, body, spirit — do something every day to make sure you taking care of yourself mentally healthy, spiritually healthy, physically and emotionally healthy.
Text your mother and tell her how much you love and appreciate her. Reach out to someone who is struggling and may not be responding like they typically do, or hasn’t shown up for church in a couple of weeks. If nothing else, reach out and minister, tell them you are thinking of them and appreciate them. The world needs that right now.