Katie Sadleir’s role as World Rugby’s general manager for women’s rugby puts her at the forefront of developing the game.
I met with Ketie a few weeks before the coronavirus lockdown, because I was interested to hear what she had to say about culture change in sport.
We talk about leadership, getting buy in, driving results, building relationships, and changing decision making at a global level.
ABOUT KATIE SADLEIR
Katie Sadleir was appointed World Rugby General Manager for Women’s Rugby in November 2016 and moved from New Zealand to Ireland to take up the role in 2017. The purpose of the role is to accelerate the global development of women in rugby. Prior to joining World Rugby, Katie accrued a wealth of experience as both an athlete and a senior leader working in sports and sports governance in New Zealand. Born in Scotland, raised in Canada, Katie made New Zealand her home, representing her adopted country at the 1984 Olympic Games in synchronised swimming, before going on to win a bronze medal at the 1986 Commonwealth Games.
Following her retirement from international sport, Katie led the establishment of the New Zealand Academy of Sport network in the late 1990s. She then went on to serve as General Manager of Sport and Recreation New Zealand (now Sport New Zealand), from 2000-2006, acting as a leading proponent in the transformation of New Zealand’s High-Performance system. From 2009-2015 she held directorships with both Sport New Zealand and High-Performance Sport New Zealand. She also served as a director with the International Association of Elite Sport Training Centres, a board member of the New Zealand Swimming Federation and a member of New Zealand Olympic Committee’s Athletes’ Commission. In 2016 Katie won the Sport NZ, Lifetime Achievement Award for her contribution to sport in New Zealand.
Read more about her here.
THE TRANSCRIPT BELOW WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, WE CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
TX: 5.3.20 – Ep 56. Katie Sadleir – on culture change
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR
Welcome to A Question of Performance where we talk with leading figures across sport, media and business about what improves, limits and drives performance.
I’m your host Tammy Parlour. I’m Chief Exec of a national sports charity called The Women’s Sports Trust, which I co-founded back in 2012.
Each episode is designed to be an expresso shot of insight into a different aspect of the sports industry. It’s a short but focused dip into the minds of some of the most fascinating women and men from across the world of sport.
Katie Sadleir’s role as World Rugby’s general manager for women’s rugby puts her at the forefront of developing the game.
I met with her a few weeks before the corona virus lockdown ‘cause I was interested to hear what she had to say about culture change in sport.
We talk about leadership, getting buy in, driving results, building relationships and changing decision making at a global level.
First let’s here from her about what she does.
R: Well, I’m the general manager of women’s rugby for World Rugby, which sounds all very impressive when I, sort of, say that title but it is it’s a role where I have global responsibility to accelerate the development of women in rugby and I, sort of, talk about how I have three main focuses.
The first was to work with the member unions and regions to develop a strategy that they could all believe in which was inspirational and aspirational.
The second is to connect great practice and good practice both in rugby and with other codes and other industries where we wanna really get really fast knowledge transfer.
And the third is really to drive the accountability that’s required across the organisation I work in World Rugby but also across the globe to drive the change that we’re trying to see, trying to achieve.
I: I definitely want to talk about your particular role now but what I’m particularly interested in talking to you about is culture change because when I read about your career it’s the thing that seems like it’s the common thread. And for many sporting leaders who are trying to modernise it’s one of the biggest thing that they’re having to navigate as well, do you think culture change is the hardest thing to shift?
R: Oh it absolutely is because it’s the people aspect, everyone can write a plan or can raise the money, maybe I shouldn’t be so glib about it but to really get people to buy into what it is that you’re trying to achieve and to believe in it and to get passion about it it takes time because it’s about people and people’s beliefs and their norms and their unconscious biasness. And getting the platform right to get everyone focused on what’s important is important.
I: How do you change a sport that has well established structures and people holding onto power who don’t want to modernise?
R: Yeah, oh there’s all sorts of ways. I mean, like, I’m really fortunate I’ve had all sorts of different case studies that I’ve had to work with but now and in rugby it’s interesting, I think it’s about discussion. Talking about things that aren’t usually talked about in a way that is okay to actually have different opinions.
One of the really great things when I took on this role of working with World Rugby is I’ve always wanted to be working in organisations that are really committed to best practice and leading from the front and demonstrating what is the right thing to do. And the values of rugby and the state of vision and mission in terms of wanting to be inspirational and world leading in leadership set the theme for, okay, well are we really there? And so then you can start having those, kind of, courageous conversations when you’ve got people that say they wanna be great you could start having open and honest conversations of “Well, are you there?” And if you’re not there and you really wanna be there how do we work together to actually move things on?
And that was the, kind of, one of the big aha moments when it came to working with World Rugby. I talked very much at the beginning of my journey I’ve now been there for three years and in the first year it was an organisation that was governed by men, so we had 30 men on our World Rugby Council and they said that they wanted to be committed to being world leading in our approach to diversity. So at the end of that 12 months the governance structure was changed and we brought on 17 women directors onto the board.
Now to do that, kind of, thing that’s a huge cultural shift from where we’ve been before and to do it it meant that the leaders really had to believe in it because it was…
I: Where did that come from in the first place?
R: Well, it came…in the end we were developing a strategy which was not unlike other international federations or national sport federations strategies it had five work streams about participation performance, profile investment, diversified investment streams and leadership. And we realised that we couldn’t talk about being world leading and work with our unions to actually get them to actually address their governance structures and their leadership structures unless we did something ourselves. So it came from a closed shop discussion with the Women’s Advisory Committee and World Rugby which also had the chairman, the vice chairman, the chief executive on the committee and we sat down and so said “Okay, maybe we should set quotas for the world.” And I think I said “Well we can’t set quotas for the world unless we’re demonstrating this and we’re really committed to this.”
And the chairman Sir Bill Beaumont basically said “You’re quite right, you know, we need to change this.” And we brainstormed a few areas of how we could do it and that was what we came up with and then he led that.
I: When you talk about it there doesn’t feel like there was much resistance is that right?
R: Oh, there’s always resistance to things like that. No, I mean, hey certainly when you’ve got a passionate leader who wants to actually drive that change that is very, very helpful but the way that we’re structured globally not all unions and member unions are represented on our council so it was adding 17 more positions to council rather than restructuring the existing ones and it was 17 women onboard before several other countries are involved.
So there would be people that would question that but overall it was very much welcomed and the difference that it’s made now in terms of the decision making, the tone of the meetings, how some of those women have been filtered through to other subcommittees is just amazing. And it’s enabled us to drive a significant culture change globally in terms of being able to eyeball major unions and saying “Well, what are you doing? ‘Cause we are now doing that ourselves.”
I: And you talk about getting women onto boards it makes me think of your early career, in your early 20s you joined the board of Swimming New Zealand and I’ve read a quote from you it said “It was a board of men and me, the culture associated with governance that was really hard for a young woman to come in.” How did that come about both from a sports perspective but also individually, where does the gumption come from to, sort of, join?
R: Yeah. Well, my sport, I mean, I’ve been involved in aquatics so I haven’t played rugby, everyone says that “What’s my rugby career like?” and I always, sort of, say “Well, I was married to a rugby player and I have lots of good friends but I didn’t play.” But I was involved in competitive swimming, synchronised swimming and water polo so in my aquatic world and it was the board of New Zealand Swimming. And, I guess, at the time I was still studying, I was doing my Master’s in sports management and I had been approached by the equivalent of the English Sport or Sport England to assist with a project they wanted to get up and going to address getting more young people involved in volunteer positions. And so I thought “Oh yeah, well, you know, go ahead. Let’s give this a go.”
So I was, kind of, linked to the governing agency for sport at the same time as I was finishing my actual competitive career and this position came up on the board of New Zealand Swimming and I thought “Well, it just makes sense, I should put my name forward.”
But it was quite a challenge it was. And it was when I think back now when I was quoted the other day something similar at a workshop I did with the Irish Rugby Union where I talked about going into these meetings on a weekend where there was no windows in downtown Wellington in New Zealand where I’m from and all these men would turn up there in their blazers and I would just sit there and think “What is this about really?” In terms of that whole, kind of, stigma associated with administration at that time was that whole, kind of, pomp and circumstance. And I would turn up in my tracksuit as a young 21 year old.
But I think that I was committed to having a career in sports management at that time so I had a Master’s degree in sport under my belt, I had been contracted in doing work for the governing agency so all of a sudden the perception of what I could bring and offer to the wider group was given some credibility. So that helped and I quickly got onboard and tried to change some of the way that we did things.
I: As the only woman what were the challenges and how did you overcome those?
R: I think the challenges were twofold ‘cause in hindsight I wonder whether or not the challenges were about me being a woman or whether or not they were about me being very young. So it, kind of, was balancing both. It was about that, kind of, unconscious bias stuff that existed, sort of, saying “Well, what could you possibly contribute?” There was people on that board that had been there through very many, many, many terms and so making yourself heard, contributing on topics quite a…trying to be respectful because you know what it’s like, I mean, I’ve got a daughter who’s 24 and she thinks she knows the world and trying to make sure that she leans in and says what needs to be said but in a respectful way. So you wanna make sure that people are listening as opposed to finding you irritating particularly when you have lots to offer.
But I got there and, I mean, and that was a start of…I always thought I was going to be a volunteer in sport more than a professional in sport and so I, sort of, followed both those whether it’s managing teams, taking teams overseas, collective oversized teams or getting more involved in the sporting infrastructure of New Zealand, I just started yeah.
I: Later in your career you were at the helm of New Zealand’s high performance sports system and helped take the country from four Olympic medals at the Sydney games to 18 at the Rio games, how was that achieved?
R: That was, I mean, in hindsight I reflect on that quite a bit ‘cause I won a lifetime achievement award for my contribution to sport before I left to come to Ireland and I was thinking about those early days. I mean, I’m a firm believer that if you wanna have a great high performance system you need to have a great high performance system off the field and on the field. And so I was given this amazing opportunity from the New Zealand government around the time when Sydney was awarded the Olympic Games to…we had no high performance system then and so I was… I travelled for about three months looking at elite systems around the world, what was working, what wasn’t working and what were the key gems that we should take in terms of forming our own system.
And then came back and, sort of, basically said “Well look, we can’t compete on dollars with some of the countries I’ve visited and we certainly can’t compete on numbers with some of the countries that I visited.” So New Zealand has a population of 4 million at the time or just under had to do something that was quite significantly different. And I set about a very significant culture change programme and in that stage we didn’t even invest in high performance programmes. I mean, we did have a targeting programme where we had identified three or four sports that we felt that we had the potential to be world leading in but we had no, kind of, system that wrapped things around.
So the early days of that was coming back being really, really clear about where we were at, working with the system to agree what was the vision. So it was working with people to come up with what was possible and then going through a process of putting in place the building blocks to create what now is, I think, a system that has a huge reputation of driving significant results.
So it was an amazing challenge but it was a huge culture because to do the system and to create what we had with very limited resources we had to take money away from sports to actually create a system that would actually benefit more. So it was sitting down in a room with the national sporting organisation saying “Look, we’ve been dabbling around for quite a while but if we really wanna be world leading then we actually have to work differently and this is the key things that we need to put in place to achieve that.”
I: It sounds like having people signed up to the vision is the most important thing?
R: Absolutely. Signed up for the vision and then, I mean, I’ve always taken the stance I was lucky at that stage I had my Olympic and my Commonwealth Games involvement as an athlete myself was in synchronised swimming, a very tiny sport in New Zealand, and so I could speak from the perspective of a sport that knew that to actually get somewhere from a global country that it was really important to invest in other sports.
So I could, sort of, speak from the perspective of, well, I understand that it’s gonna be hard for us but to actually really get there me as a synchronised swimmer or you as New Zealand Swimming need to have rowing do really well because once we get the runs on the boards and the credibility in terms of the programmes that we really focus on then it gave us the credibility to say “Government, we can do this so let’s invest more.”
I: You’re currently tasked with accelerating the development of women and girls in rugby around the world, every culture must have different opportunities and challenges to deal with, when we’re looking at culture change is there anything that is consistent across all cultures?
R: Well, I think listening to people and believing in people is, kind of, fundamental. This has been fascinating whether or not we’re working with India or Iran or Malaysia or Uganda or Kenya or the New Zealand, Australia and England and the USA, it’s really about understanding what’s important to those nations. Everywhere I go they love the sport so from the passion for the sport and the commitment to the values of the sport is definitely something that’s not a hard sell.
The different challenges and biasness and barriers that some of those cultures have in terms of getting the woman’s programme developed is a little bit more difficult but I think the Olympics has helped. I mean, once rugby became an Olympic sport in Rio it meant that governments started asking questions of the unions as well because as they’re looking at investing in Olympic medals our challenge now is to make sure that as we develop the game that we’re committed to both the 15s and the 7s in equal and the others.
I mean, the thing I was amazed about when I first started at World Rugby I think my first trip to a regional association was to Mongolia to talk at a general assembly there and that’s where the woman place know rugby. So we’re really lucky it is a game of all sorts of formats, beach, snow, 7s, 5s, 15s and so there’s something there for everyone and the challenge is to work with where the union’s at and see how it can be expanded.
I: You launched a seven year plan in 2017 and at the time it was seen as being quite ambitious, was it too ambitious or not ambitious enough?
R: Well, I have to say even I didn’t think that World Rugby would change its governance structure on day one. We had a target in leadership to actually have 30% as a standard that we were achieving by the eight years and to have that, knock that one off on the day that the plan was signed off was pretty amazing.
I mean, I think that I hadn’t anticipated how fast people were gonna get onboard and so we’re doing some pretty big things and we have achieved some major, you know, one might say disruptive milestones in the first two years of the plan. So we’re definitely on track.
I: Like what?
R: Well, like things changing the gender naming of our tournaments, I mean, that was quite big dropping all reference to woman or women’s, so we now just have rugby world cups. The one that I’m working on now, I mean, we made a call last year to unbundle all our commercial sponsorship strategy and have a separate strategy for women’s rugby. Now when I first arrived people were saying people aren’t interested in women’s rugby and that that was a waste of time, so getting that signed off and being in market and having some really good discussions over the last three months I think we’ll be able to make some really good announcements within the next three.
So there was that trying to radically work not just at a governance level for World Rugby but with some of the major unions in terms of their leadership. I was lucky, I was fortunate I was in Japan for the World Cup last year and spent a bit of time with the Japanese Rugby Union. I mean, they went from one woman on their board to five in two years and so there’s several examples of things like that that have happened.
Frameworks and development in countries that you just would never think would grow quite as fast given that we were able to support them with resources to actually assist them.
I: And why? Why has it grown as fast as it has?
R: Well, I have a theory about it but I mean I must admit you have to put it in context, I haven’t known rugby for that long but it’s such a physically demanding sport so when I look at countries like Iran and I see one of our…we launched a campaign last year, a global marketing campaign called Try and Stop Us Start Rugby Become Unstoppable and one of the unstoppables that we identified is a lady called Nahid who is the coach development manager, women’s coach development manager in Iran and they went from 3,500 members pre campaign to 10,000 post campaign in a country where you just wouldn’t think would embrace women’s rugby.
And I remember when I met with her initially we were talking about some of the challenges of not being…we had the fast track the development of cultures because there needed to be women coaches and there was issues about who they could play in front of and it’s just gone from strength to strength. And I think sometimes that it is such a powerful sport which where women have some presence that in countries where perhaps things from a human rights perspective aren’t quite there that when they’re playing rugby that you have that kind of power.
I mean, I’ll give you an example. I met with a general manager from Syria in my first year as well and he had a video for me about the women playing rugby in Syria and it was, kind of, like a call to “Can you help?” And it was basically, sort of, talking about what’s going on in their lives and how there was more women playing in Syria than there was men because of the situations that were surrounding them and that when they played rugby it just gave them that, kind of, that bubble of “This is really great, we’re powerful women where nothing can stop us.” And so it was the right sport for them to choose.
I: And to go back you mentioned sponsorship a few minutes ago, do you think women’s rugby can attract the multimillion pound sponsorships as women’s football has?
R: Well, we’re not as big as football and I work very, very closely, you know, football’s doing some fantastic things. I came from New Zealand and Soraya Biermann who’s the head, has my same job in football, is also from Auckland and she was appointed two weeks after I was and we sat down and we talked about making sure that we spend a lot of time together over the next five years comparing, contrasting and understanding what we could learn and what we couldn’t, well, how we could do things together and that’s been invaluable.
And so she’s been really great, like, giving me access to a lot of FIFA things. We do the same with cricket, Holly Calvin who works for the ICC, I spend time with her as well. They have bigger audiences, they have bigger numbers but what I can say is that we have a board, an EZGO board, and a movement within rugby that is really passionate to fast track and get there faster. And so making the call to unbundle, I mean, FIFA’s not done that at a global level so when I look at the amazing things that’s happened at UEFA and at the FA in terms of that separate commercial strategies it’s been good to watch how that’s gone and it’s certainly given us the impetus to do what we’re going to do.
It’s new, our numbers are growing, we’re a sport that is so entrenched in our values and that’s something that I think is very attractive in terms of commercial partners and the way that we’re pitching what it is that we’re looking for commercial relationships with it’s not just about our advance it’s about the programmes that we run for people, so it’s social change.
I: Hmm, it’s interesting you talking about football and cricket and so forth and the idea of benchmarking oneself and how do you figure out what’s the right thing to benchmark against?
R: Yeah. Well, I mean, like we have similar strategies although cricket’s still developing its global strategy but when I look at what FIFA’s trying to do and what we’re trying to do, everyone’s looking at participation numbers. We’re looking at the five pillars that I talked about before but the one that’s really important, I think, for rugby in the short term was the leadership. And in a way we’re probably a bit ahead of FIFA in that regard, I mean, I don’t think they’ve got six women on their council and I know that really Soraya is really trying to change that and with the fact that they’ve got a plan in place.
But we were able to, sort of, move quite a lot quicker and to, sort of, embed that as something that it creates sustain change. If you actually change the decision making it would be lovely to have all the money in the world but we need to actually get the right people making the decisions globally and at a regional level and a union level so that when discussions that come up about decisions for women versus men’s part of the game that you’ve got the right people making the call.
I: What do you see as your biggest challenges in your role at the moment?
R: Wow, what is the biggest challenges? I mean, I guess the thing is is that there will still, I mean, with any organisation there’ll be people…and when I say any organisation I’ll talk about the global family, there’ll be people that absolutely are passionately for driving for the women’s game and they see that as the biggest strategic growth area.
There will be people who don’t and that’s okay ‘cause the world’s different and so I don’t focus there, I focus on the people who’ve got their hands up saying “Help us.” And then there are also people that will do what they need to do but they’re not quite onboard and so focusing on getting those people, swilling them to the side of being major champions I’ve been really lucky there’s… I call them ambassadors, there have been some really significantly really influential men around the world and then women but men who’ve actually, like, Serge Simon who’s the Vice President of France and he chairs the Women’s Advisory Committee and he’s absolutely passionate about what should happen in terms of women’s rugby.
So it’s great having those people that people listen to working alongside and singing the same messages for you, developing more of those globally is really important.
I: Anything that keeps you awake at night?
R: Probably more from an excitement perspective rather than a negative perspective, so the next Rugby World Cup is in New Zealand in 2021, I was down there three weeks ago while we launched the new brand identity. It’s a big year for New Zealand in terms of they’ve got the Cricket World Cup the first half of the year and then they’ve got the Rugby World Cup the second half of the year, that’s gonna be an amazing event and I guess World Rugby’s challenge and my challenge is to make sure that we absolutely capitalise on that in terms of what we’re trying to do across the globe.
We wanna make sure, you know, there’s only 12 countries that are participating at the World Cup but we wanna make sure the world has seen it and so using that as a catalyst for real, real profile and exposure for the women’s game is something that keeps me up at night.
I: I suppose that nicely links to one of my last questions and that is about success and what success actually means to you personally?
R; Well, from a rugby perspective maybe I’ll do it two things, I mean, from a rugby perspective, I mean, and I’ve talked about this as has Brett Gosper and Bill Beaumont is about normalising women’s involvement in rugby. I mean, quite often when you speak to people or a taxi, I mean, I do the taxi test quite a bit is this a sport that you automatically think is played by men and women, girls and boys or is it a sport that’s dominantly played by men and then some girls play it? So getting it into that pitch where, like, you think of cycling and swimming not, you know, unashamedly and that means changing the look and feel and the content of rugby across all our social media channels and how we deal with unions.
And I talk about personal success in terms of this job and I guess in my career it’s about developing people to do great things. I mean, I’ve been really fortunate I’ve had some amazing teams that I’ve worked with and helped and developed. And I’ve been able to through this pipeline programme that we have for developing leaders across the globe amazing women and if I can help them get there faster in terms of what they’re trying to achieve and I look at some of them and some of the things that have happened since I’ve been around it just makes you feel great about what it is that you do.
And I’ll give an example of one and we just released our press release for International Women’s Day, the pipeline programme that we have of scholarships which, sort of, helps on filling the governance roles and the senior leadership roles. And so we started this programme two years ago, we’re now into our third year, every year we allocate about 12 scholarships to women who are either on boards or who are in senior leadership positions and then we work with them to actually see where they go. And one of them who was the president is the president of Burkina Faso, a lady called Rolande Boro and when I met her in Botswana and I was trying to help Africa think about how they develop the game and she could speak no English and she talked about how she really wanted to get involved in global governance and so she was awarded a scholarship and her scholarship was about getting that English, like, that was the thing that was gonna help her.
She’s now on the board of Rugby Africa and she’s a director on World Rugby Council and when she came and spoke to me after first being appointed and she just came over to me and gave me a hug and talked to me in English, I just thought “Wow.” So when you can see things like that that makes you think you’re really making a difference.
I: I’m just gonna finish now with a few quick fire questions.
What did you eat for breakfast?
R: Oh, I had scrambled eggs on toast.
I: Oh, so did I, favourite piece of kit?
R: Running shoes.
I: Sporting hero?
R: Billie Jean King.
I: Why? Seems a silly question to ask why but?
R: I just think she’s never stopped. So, I mean, everyone saw the movie and we all know all the major changes that she’s done in that but she’s just kept going. And, I mean, I reached out to her when we did our Try and Stop Us campaign and just said “Look, I’ve never met you but completely everyone in the world would like to” and just asked her if she would support and endorse and she just got so onboard, which was fantastic. And even just recently when we made the change to the name of our Rugby World Cup unprompted she came out with a tweet, sort of, saying “Fantastic World Rugby” more or less “we need more sports to do this.”
I: That’s amazing. A useless bit of advice you have been given or you have given to someone else?
R: A useless?
I: Don’t follow this advice.
R: Don’t follow this advice?
R: That I’ve given to someone else?
I: Or that you’ve received from someone.
R: Hmm. Ah, probably women are on boards to listen and not speak. Clearly I don’t accept that.
I: No I can’t imagine you do in that case.
R: Well I have heard that from somebody from a very high influential woman in sport so yes, no, no definitely lean in.
I: Greatest passion outside of sport?
R: Gosh, well, I love tasting wine from around the world and learning more about what goes on behind to make it and probably it’s my family to be honest.
I: And last one, best performance enhancer?
R: I’m not gonna say wine. But best performance enhancer? Good sleep. A good night’s sleep.
I: Brilliant, well thank you for talking with me today, I really appreciate it.
R: Thank you.
I: Thanks for listening. You can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and also don’t forget to subscribe online to aquestionofperformance.com.[transcript coming soon]