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O'Malley: Make Room for Mermaids

By Kathy Gurchiek  10/31/2011

The group of schoolchildren was becoming rowdy, so the priest organized  a game of giants, wizards and dwarfs. The giants would stand here, the priest said, pointing to one side of the playground, the wizards over there, and the dwarfs in a third spot.

A little girl tugged on the priest’s frock as the other kids scrambled for their spots.

“Where should the mermaids stand?” she asked.

Much like that little girl, said Susan O’Malley, former president of the Washington Wizards NBA basketball team and the league’s first female president, she wanted to be in the game even if she didn’t look like the other players.

O’Malley was the keynote speaker Oct. 24 at the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2011 Diversity & Inclusion Conference & Exposition in Washington, D.C.

She knew at age 12 what she wanted to do when she grew up, writing in a class paper about her dream of running a professional sports franchise—a goal that her female teacher called “unrealistic.”

However, O’Malley reached that goal, serving 21 years as president of Washington Sports and Entertainment. In that role she ran the Wizards, the Capitals NHL hockey team and the WNBA’s Mystics women’s basketball team. Her responsibilities included overseeing operations at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.: business development, finance, HR and payroll services, marketing, team operations and the Washington-Baltimore TicketMaster operation.

She started her career armed with a degree in business and finance and worked for an advertising firm before joining the Bullets—later renamed the Wizards—in 1986. She was promoted to executive vice president, where she took control of the franchise’s business operations. She received her law degree in 2007.

O’Malley kept the Diversity Conference audience laughing with wry, dry observations—from noting the absurdity of reserving front-row tables at her talk—“like anybody wants to sit there”—to recalling team road trips where players pretended not to know her when security guards mistook her for a fan seeking autographs.

Even her stories illustrating business truths kept the audience howling as she imparted lessons she has learned. Among some of those principles:

You have to set expectations. This insight came from an intern from New Jersey the team hired one semester. The intern was a vocal Nets fan and cheered loudly for the visiting team at a game in a nearly empty arena.

When O’Malley summoned him to her office the next day, the intern seemed surprised, pointing out that he’d never been told he couldn’t support another team.

“He was right” in a strange sort of way, O’Malley said, so she put together 13 rules for interns to follow.

When you mess up, you have to make it right. O’Malley recalled the lengths to which one business owner went to rectify bad service she received.

O’Malley’s mother had fantasized that if she ever won a lottery, she would have fresh flowers delivered every day. Since she was 12, O’Malley had wanted to fulfill that wish someday. When O’Malley achieved her dream job in pro sports, she decided to do just that.

Sending fresh flowers daily would require a lottery-size wad of cash, so O’Malley decided to deliver flowers every Monday for a year. She placed the order and paid the bill.

The first Monday came with no thank-you call from her mother. O’Malley checked with the florist. The flowers hadn’t been sent. The shop was struggling to create a system for such a long-term order but promised to deliver flowers the following Monday.

The next Monday came with no thank-you call. Furious, O’Malley called the florist to complain, only to be told, “Hey, hey, hey—back off!” After a heated exchange, O’Malley was assured the deliveries would begin the following Monday.

That day, O’Malley’s mother called her. The flowers had arrived. They were beautiful, and were delivered by the shop owner in person. These are the flowers, he told her mother in his garbled explanation, that O’Malley had been trying to get delivered since she was 12 years old.

Have fun at work. O’Malley recalled a season when the Washington Capitals, who had been on a winning streak, lost several games in a row. After one disappointing game, the glum players boarded the team bus to be taken to their cars.

But the bus didn’t stop as expected. At the coach’s direction, it kept going until it arrived at a bowling alley. The players bowled for hours, wearing team shirts and drinking beer. Two nights later, they won again.

“It was a different spirit. A different feel,” O’Malley said. After the game, a reporter questioned the coach about the bowling expedition. They were “practicing,” he said, but he didn’t elaborate.

The winning continued. Another reporter asked the coach about the bowling excursions. When he replied that the team was practicing, the reporter pushed him for an explanation.

“We were practicing having fun. Somehow they had lost the joy, and I wanted to help them get it back.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at

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