CEO reveals shock interview moment that landed her the job
Catherine Clark closed her eyes, took a deep breath and made her terms clear.
It was November 2014 and she was being interviewed to become Netball Queensland's chief executive officer. She knew what she was doing was risky.
But Clark, 43, doesn't operate by playing it safe.
She'd held CEO roles previously - including the former CEO of Gymnastics New Zealand and Gymnastics Australia - but this time was different.
She was now a new mum, with son Magnus 12 months old at the time.
"I declared in my job interview that my No. 1 priority was being a mum and if you appoint me to this position I will be leaving at 4pm every day to pick up my son," says Clark, who grew up in Redcliffe and Burpengary, north of Brisbane, and attended Caboolture State High and Delaney's Creek State School.
"I wanted to be courageous and I recall going over the words in my head while sitting in the car.
"For the first time in my career, I wanted to put out my terms. I knew I had to stay true to myself and my values, even if it meant I didn't get the job."
She was there to remind them - and the country - being a top boss and a mother was not a limitation but a strength.
"It wasn't about shirking responsibility, it wasn't about not being the best CEO I could be for the sport, it was about being listened to and having balance."
Six years ago, this was a ballsy move.
The recent women's movement in sport was yet to take centre stage, as it would in years to come, and there wasn't the spotlight currently being shone on equal rights, opportunity and recognition of female athletes.
It's a push Clark has been passionately leading ever since her terms were accepted without question and she became Netball Queensland's CEO in January, 2015.
Netball Queensland is the state governing body for the sport's 330 grassroots clubs and state representative teams, and owns the licence for the Firebirds.
Now in her sixth year, Clark continues to make strides despite stepping into the role faced with hurdles. Five CEOs had come and gone within seven years at what was a time of great instability for the organisation.
Clark also had no netball experience but what she did have was a fire in her belly to raise the platform of women's sport.
Under Clark, Netball Queensland received a dedicated home base (now known as Nissan Arena) in 2019 after her advocacy secured funding for the $44 million venue.
She helped launch Diamond Spirit in 2017, an initiative encouraging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island girls to play netball and cheered on the Firebirds to back-to-back championships in 2015 and 2016.
In 2017, when Suncorp Super Netball was first announced, Clark became, as she says, "a passionate contributor" to the Players Agreement.
She helped fight for groundbreaking parental care policy for players, providing income protection for contracted athletes, support and a travelling carer for children up to 12 months.
Then, last year, she helped manage and host the entire league in Queensland in what became a historical moment for the sport.
The global pandemic hit right before the Super Netball season was about to begin in April with COVID restrictions shutting down the competition.
Everything Clark knew about leadership and sport was tested but she was ready for the challenge.
"The single focus was to make sure the league happened with minimal interruption and here in Queensland, with the way we handled COVID-19 and the venues we had … we could pull it together and the state government came to the party by putting $2.2 million in funding. It was fabulous," Clark says.
They pulled together "textbook depth" COVID-safe plans in a matter of weeks, a feat Clark says would normally take at least six months.
Mostly via Zoom calls, Super Netball, Netball Queensland, including the Firebirds and Sunshine Coast Lightning, hatched a plan to host all eight teams (including home teams).
Incredibly, they hosted 34 games in 10 weeks, which is the number they would ordinarily hold over five years.
"Everyone stood up, it was quite incredible, the clubs did all they could to make it happen," Clark says.
Despite pulling off the remarkable, the season kept delivering unexpected challenges.
The organisation came under scrutiny when the league's only Indigenous athlete, Firebird player Jemma Mi Mi, didn't play in the Super Netball Indigenous round.
Clark addressed the issue at the time and voiced her disappointment, admitting to a severe error in judgment. She also called for urgent reforms.
The next month, in October last year, Clark created an Aboriginal and Torres Straight Island advisory committee.
"On the back of that and learning from last year, we will get a lot of outcomes happening this year that will take us forward," Clark says.
"It was about saying, 'OK there is more work to do here', we need to be guided and led by people who have the knowledge, who have a deep cultural understanding and who can hold us accountable to the steps we want to take."
"We should be seeing indigenous players in our Diamonds team, we should be seeing a celebration of our indigenous culture through all kinds of artefacts."
The emotional strain and exhaustion of the rollercoaster year took a toll on Clark's health after she was diagnosed with adenomyosis in October, which is often likened to endometriosis.
It added to an already existing thyroid condition, called Hashimoto's disease, which Clark has managed since she was 30.
Her struggling body led her to take 4½ weeks off to recover which, she says, is the longest leave she's ever taken in her career.
"It (Hashimoto's) can make you have fatigue, get lethargy, put on weight, but I've managed that for a decade. You have medication you have every day but I've never let it
Clark, a former Queensland state hockey player turned professional hockey coach, isn't someone who easily sits still.
The mind of the mother, with sons Magnus, now 7, and Hardy, 4, is constantly racing.
She's up at 4.30am to go for her daily run, time where it's just 'me and the road', before her day ramps up.
Between family duties, which she shares with husband of eight years, Chris Rawlinson, and leading Netball Queensland, she's constantly on the move.
And ahead of this year's season, Clark is not planning on slowing down.
The Brisbane Firebirds have a fresh start under new head coach Megan Anderson, who steps into the role after Roselee Jencke held the position for 11 years, and will see the return of former Firebird Kim Ravaillion, who recently played for Collingwood Magpies before taking 12 months off to have a baby.
Star shooter Gretel Bueta will also return to the court as a new mum after having her son, Bobby, in January.
"The player's lounge looks a lot different these days," laughs Clark, "we've got toys and play mats and all that kind of stuff."
Clark has always been a champion of creating a family-friendly environment.
She hopes to encourage even more support for female athletes, including raising their salaries.
As a fierce advocate for pay parity, Clark says she'll continue to advocate for the salaries of contracted female athletes to be closer to their male counterparts in codes like NRL and AFL.
The average salary for a Super Netball contracted athlete, according to Clark, is $55,000, far from the average of an AFL player which Clark says is $336,000.
She also knows as a female CEO of a female-led code, it's critical she continues to be a loud voice and the visionary the sport needs.
One of these visions will be the creation of the Youth Advisory Group, which aims to provide opportunities to support and develop aspiring young female leaders. Applications open mid-April.
"I may have been an accidental CEO but the gender gap in CEO roles isn't changing so I'm not prepared to just sit and leave it to chance," she says.
"We must be proactive in lifting the next generation up."
Another part of her long-term vision, she dreams, is to have a men's version of the game.
"Our next challenge is how do we get men and boys playing the game, it's the 'NetballM' issue, as opposed to AFLW or NRLW. It's for your son, my boys, and it's going to be about seeing themselves playing the game and as accepted and included," she says.
The thought came to her early last year while Magnus watched a pre-season Firebirds game.
"He turned around and said 'do you think boys could play as well and get paid?
The moment dawned on me," she muses, "My son has only ever seen women's professional sport and a female CEO.
"He grew up wondering if boys can play. It's such a paradigm shift."
The Suncorp Super Netball season begins on May 1, firebirds.net.au
Originally published as CEO reveals shock interview moment that landed her the job