Since Katie Sadleir made the “tough” decision to leave World Rugby to join the Commonwealth Games Federation as Chief Executive Officer, she has worked hard to leave a tidy desk for her eventual successor.
Friday will be Sadleir’s last day as General Manager of Women’s Rugby following five years in the role marked by unparalleled growth in female participation at all levels of the game.
Working to the mantra ‘charting the beautiful departure’ – although she stopped short of getting the slogan printed on a t-shirt – the former synchronised swimmer has approached her final three months at World Rugby with the same determination that helped launch myriad transformational initiatives.
“I’ve just met so many amazing people,” Sadleir said of her time at World Rugby.
“I really have loved this job. When I look at the messages that I've had from people all around the world to thank me and to see the things that have happened, not that you've done yourself, but you've been able to drop something into a process that just gets it there faster and gets it there in a better way.
“So, that's really exciting to be able to have been part of that, and to be privileged to have been part of changing people's lives.
“You know, you don't get that opportunity very much, so it's kind of cool.”
Supporting people to get over the line
Sadleir, who competed for New Zealand at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in 1986, was not looking to leave World Rugby when the opportunity to join the CGF came up.
However, she says she took her own advice that the “time to look for your next job is when you’re happiest in your current job”.
There are plenty of reasons why Sadleir would have been content following five extremely fruitful years as General Manager of Women’s Rugby.
Katie Sadleir, World Rugby Women's General Manager, speaks about the innovative Rugby World Cup 2021 Coaching Internship Programme. pic.twitter.com/yTciA9OmJg— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) September 3, 2020
Despite being raised in New Zealand, Sadleir was a relative rugby novice when she agreed to take on the role with World Rugby back in 2016.
It had appealed because it presented her with the chance to create social change, and she spent the first year in the job talking and listening to people while developing the relationships that would enable her to succeed.
Those discussions helped form the basis of the 2017-25 women’s strategic plan and she has since continued to drive the profile of the women’s game, helping to position rugby as a “leader in the wider sports ecosystem”.
Since the strategic plan was first published, 17 women have been appointed onto the World Rugby Council. Subsequent high-profile initiatives include the World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship, the Women’s High Performance Academy, the ‘Try And Stop Us’ and ‘Team Powered’ campaigns, and the introduction of gender-neutral naming of Rugby World Cup tournaments.
But Sadleir says her proudest achievement at the global governing body has come through “seeing other people get on board enthusiastically”.
“I was more or less told, this was before I started, that women's rugby was never going to take off in South America because women play hockey and they don't play rugby,” she said.
“Now, you've got Colombia still on the path to qualification for Rugby World Cup 2021. They've got three women chief executives of Argentina, Colombia and Brazil and they're looking at establishing a 15s tournament. They've run some amazing campaigns.
“You see that, and you see what's happened in Africa. So, I guess what I'm proud of is being able to work and engage with people who really just needed that support to actually get over the line.”
Sadleir says she is also indebted to the help and support of World Rugby Chairman Sir Bill Beaumont, Women’s Advisory Committee Chairman Serge Simon and World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee Carol Isherwood, who has been a sounding board and friend.
She said: “If you think about the start of this, we developed the strategies, spent so much time listening and learning and then when we launched the strategy, at the same time, [Beaumont] was committed to add 17 women directors to the council. That was momentous.”
“We’re not there yet”
Sadleir describes her career as a colourful palette, but at its heart is a desire to help develop people, and in particular female leaders.
That is why the success of the Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship has been so important to her. Since the inaugural programme in 2018, there have been 49 recipients, several of whom have gone on to land high-profile leadership roles.
“The majority of them are so connected now,” Sadleir said. “They've got a WhatsApp group and every week you're hearing about their new adventures or their new appointments.
“It's really been a programme that has significantly changed the leadership of women's rugby. So that's kind of cool.”
She is also enthused by the work that has been done in the high-performance coaching space.
Each of the 12 teams that will compete at Rugby World Cup 2021, playing in 2022, will have at least one female coach thanks to the Coach Internship Programme.
“It certainly isn't about me, but what I have been able to do is to connect people and to support people to enable them to feel confident in the changes that needed to happen,” Sadleir added.
“We're not there yet and we've still got more to go. I mean, we've still got some big challenges, but we have in the last four years, I think, done some really amazing things.”
Looking ahead, Sadleir believes that WXV will be a “game-changing” competition for the women’s game as it will help unions build sustainable programmes while strengthening Rugby World Cups and growing both the player and supporter base.
Moreover, her transition to the CGF, whom she joins on Monday, will be aided by the fact that rugby will be part of the Commonwealth Games 2022 in Birmingham.
And although she will make her final calls as World Rugby's General Manager of Women’s Rugby on Friday, Sadleir is keen to stress that she will be ready to answer the phone to her successor should she be needed.
“Absolutely,” Sadleir concluded. “I certainly would make myself available to support in any way possible that person as they start their journey.”