Sara Sutcliffe - CEO, Table Tennis England Share PDF Print E-mail
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SaraSutcliffeFPSara Sutcliffe was appointed as Chief Executive Officer of Table Tennis England in July 2013.

Since then the organisation has undergone considerable governance reform, a relocation of the head office and a restructure of the professional staff. 

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came into the role at Table Tennis England?

I started off as a lawyer and I joined the British Olympic Association in 2001 as their legal director and I stayed there for 12 years until the end of 2012, so I was one of the first few people to work on the London 2012 bid.

I went to three Olympic Games and one Winter Games as general counsel to Team GB and through that process I decided what I wanted to do was to have a long-term career in sports administration, as opposed to being a sports lawyer. So I started to plan after London 2012 that what I wanted to do was to find the right role within a governing body.

You’re about to complete two years in the role as CEO, have you implemented any changes in that time? How have you put your stamp on the organisation?

I joined table tennis at a very interesting time because my predecessor had decided to retire after 18 years in the role. There had just been a change of chairman and Sport England had just put the association on restricted one-year funding, and stipulated a number of requirements that it had to address, such as governance issues, as a matter of urgency.

So that became the priority for the first 12 months because we needed to deal with those requirements to continue getting the substantial amount of funding from Sport England that we needed.

Working with the Board, we were successful in achieving a vote at an EGM to bring about a number of the governance changes that were needed. Alongside this, I undertook a restructure of the whole staff and relocated the head office from Hastings to Milton Keynes and set about rebuilding the organisation, undertaking a rebrand and looking at the programmes we run.

In the space of 12 months we undertook the major changes, we are now off restricted funding and moving ahead.


What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?

You can see from what that 12 months entailed there were a lot of challenges, but one that we didn’t see coming was in the middle of the restructuring process, the chairman who had recruited me unexpectedly died.

So in the middle of everything else that was going on, there was an election to fill the vacancy and we were fortunate that Sandra Deaton, who was already on the Board, was elected as the Chair, which gave us much needed continuity and leadership at a difficult time.

The whole restructure and relocation process was difficult because it involved making 25 members of staff redundant and then we had a fairly intense recruitment process to bring on board 20 new members of staff, including a whole senior management team in the space of three months. So it was a great opportunity to create a new culture but also a huge challenge to do it in such a short period of time.

You’ve been in sports administration for a number of years, previously at the British Olympic Association and also as a director at GB Taekwondo and British Gymnastics, how does it differ working in table tennis?

It’s my first Chief Executive position. I’ve been a member of senior management at the British Olympic Association and in Taekwondo and Gymnastics I’m a non-executive board director, so it’s a completely different type of role.

I really enjoy all of the roles I do, the non-executive roles help me understand what I need to do as a Chief Executive and I can also take what I do as a Chief Executive around the board-table when I act as a non-executive director.

Being a CEO is very different, there’s that daily juggle of the issues that you’re managing, both the issues of running an organisation and also the outward facing issues in terms of communication with the membership and also dealing with the political landscape of sport.

You’re constantly dealing with stakeholders, funders and all the partners we need to work with but also making sure you have enough time to think about the future direction and strategy of the organisation.


How are the preparations coming along for the Rio 2016 Olympics?

Very well, it’s an incredibly exciting period for us. Coming off the back of our best ever Commonwealth Games results in Glasgow last year (5 medals including gold in the mixed doubles), Paul Drinkhall and Liam Pitchford are both ranked just inside or around the world top 50, which is a place where we haven’t been for 20 years in terms of performance.

All things being well they should qualify for Rio and be capable of putting on really credible performances.

It would be the first time since Sydney 2000 that we would qualify a player by right and what’s more, we’re doing it without any funding from UK Sport. We lost all of our performance funding after London 2012 so we’ve had to strip back down to basics and this has been an entirely self-funded programme.

A lot of the improvement is undoubtedly down to the hard work of the players and coaches involved, but I also believe that the system and pathway we’re putting in place right from the bottom talent development level upwards is starting to show results. That’s not to say we wouldn’t love some UK Sport funding going forward and that’s obviously part of our aim, to prove that we are a justifiable investment.

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