Annabel Kehoe has been slightly taken aback by the amount of people who have been in touch since it was announced she would be leaving the British Columbia Rugby Union (BC Rugby) in June.
Following almost seven years as the organisation’s chief executive officer, Kehoe and her partner made the decision to return home to Australia, with their young daughter, last month.
Kehoe, the first woman to hold the position of CEO in BC Rugby’s 133-year history, will look back on her time in the role fondly.
Prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic she helped grow BC Rugby’s membership beyond 8,000 for the first time, while during it she authored the ‘Return to Rugby’ policy that allowed the game to take its initial steps back to normality in Canada.
“It’s been really quite nice. A lot of people reached out and had very nice things to say, which I don't usually get in my role. I usually have disputes to be resolved,” Kehoe told World Rugby.
🇨🇦 The second 2021 @WorldRugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship winner from @RugbyAmericasN is @bcrugbyunion CEO Annabel Kehoe. Congratulations, Annabel! #WomenInRugby #ChoosetoChallenge #RANRugby #IWD2021 pic.twitter.com/Oy2Gzxvwr7— RugbyAmericasNorth (@RugbyAmericasN) March 8, 2021
“I'm now just really putting my head down because there's still so much that I want to achieve, in the short time that I have left here, for the organisation.
“So, I'm here for another three months and I just want to leave the organisation in the very best state that I can.”
Getting the result
Kehoe’s love of rugby was instilled in her, and her sisters, from a young age as they grew up in Australia with a sports-mad dad.
When Rugby World Cup visited the country in 2003, Kehoe, a cash-strapped student at the time, got a job at Suncorp Stadium so she could watch as much of the action as possible.
“I couldn't afford to go to Rugby World Cup, so that was how I saw the matches, from the kiosk where I worked,” she said.
Having completed her studies at the University of Queensland, Kehoe’s career took her around the world, first to London, where she worked for British Swimming, British Rowing and Women in Sport, and then to Canada.
Kehoe had moved to North America for a job with Rowing Canada Aviron but following a trip to watch the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup 2015 final, she had her eyes opened to the rugby culture that existed in the country.
“That was my first awareness of the scale of rugby that was here in Canada and specifically BC,” she said.
Soon afterwards, Kehoe saw the CEO role at BC Rugby advertised and didn’t hesitate to apply.
Kehoe admits it took time to adjust to being one of the few women in the boardroom, especially when key conversations and meetings would take place outside of official channels.
“Those post-meetings could take place right up until 1am, 2am, so I realised that I'd have to stick it out and I wanted to make sure that I was still around at those additional conversations,” she said.
“But, for the most part, I've been quite fortunate that I was supported by some fantastic mentors and board directors, both male and female.
“So, I think locally I was mostly able to just crack on and get the job done.
“Yes, I was young. Yes, I was female. Yes, I had an accent. So, I had kind of three strikes against my name, for some people, but I knew what I was doing.
“I was able to set really clear goals of what we wanted to achieve as BC Rugby and then work with the staff and the community towards those goals.”
It was following the success of the work she did chairing the National Return to Rugby Working Group in Canada that Kehoe was convinced to apply for the World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship.
Last March, she was announced as one of the 12 recipients of the Scholarship for 2021 and the programme has provided her with more than just funding.
It has given her access to a network of female leaders across Canada, North America and the world that she can lean on for advice and support.
“When we get together internationally, I have a tendency to sit back in awe a little bit,” Kehoe said.
“There are a lot of people doing some fantastic work in their home nations or regions.”
“[When] I first got to meet Roo (Chintoh)… I was instantly amazed by her. She just spoke so articulately and passionately but still in such a level way, in a calm but passionate way, and was so insightful. I just looked up to her,” Kehoe said.
“Meaghan and I talk on a fairly regular basis. We're both young mothers trying to sort of figure this all out.
“From a personal and professional level, it has been so brilliant for me to talk to mothers who are so professionally ambitious and trying to understand how they balance that from a really practical level because there’s still only 24 hours in a day.
“I found that to be wonderfully helpful, as well as just the level of conversation that we're able to have around different issues that are facing not just rugby, but sport here in Canada.”
Kehoe is keen to use the Scholarship to help her develop the skills needed to continue her work in policy and answer some of those questions facing sport.
“It’s such a critical tool to have in my tool chest,” she added. “It’s really your operations manual. It's how you want the sport to conduct itself.
“So, I feel it's so fundamental to any good leader. For me, it's that and being able to be financially literate are the fundamentals.”
Kehoe does not yet have a job lined up in Australia, but whatever happens once she and her family move home, she is determined to stay involved in the game she loves.
“I've had the privilege of working in rugby and I just believe in it, and it means that I feel real about it,” she said.
“I think the best leaders are authentic leaders, and so by being involved in a sport that I truly think is the best team sport going – for anyone – then it makes it feel as if that Monday to Friday is achieving something, is making a difference in people's lives.”