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OEs in Focus

Launched in August 2015, OEs in Focus looks at the lives, careers and thoughts of our Old Edwardians. Here our first OE in Focus, Sarah Clee, talks about how a career isn't just a journey, it's an adventure. 


Not all careers need a plan. Passion, adaptability and determination can take you on a journey you would never have imagined. Sarah Clee, (née Bannister) talks about her journey from the theatre, to the NHS, social housing and now, her own company.

I left KEHS in 1989 after two fabulous years, having been one of a handful of girls who joined school in the sixth form. Looking back, the move to KEHS was one of the most significant things I did in my life, because the two years I spent there, shaped so much of what I have done since. 

From the moment I walked into KEHS, I got the clear message that KEHS girls could achieve anything they set their mind to. They all had an obvious determination to succeed, but the remarkable thing was, there was an equal determination to help each other to succeed. The school was there to ensure we had the skills and thought processes, that would enable us to deliver on our enthusiastic plans. As I grew to understand later it was also ensuring that we based our decisions on values that would stand up to any test, even in the most difficult times. 

I can categorically say that it has delivered for me in my career. My parents and husband will also testify, that determination has shown itself in my DIY projects over the years. My mother (the Mrs Bannister many of you will remember) will tell you, it was my stubborn streak that led to me applying for KEHS to start with.

I never had a career plan. I always thought, if you know you want to be a doctor or a lawyer, there is a well trodden route to gain the qualifications and experience you need. For many of us, it’s just not that simple. I have always been creative and thrived off working with others, finding great satisfaction in what can be achieved through real engagement and teamwork. School gave me the first taste of this when I worked on the school productions with the newly appointed Jennifer Herbert. I decided I wanted to design for theatre as a career, learning how to take people on those emotional journeys, using paint, light, fabrics….. School, as ever, was supportive and I was the first upper sixth girl allowed to continue working on school productions throughout my final year. 

I got my degree in theatre design and worked in theatre for 10 years in some form or another. Although I realised quite early on that I wanted more of an intellectual challenge and looked for a career that would recognise my transferable skills. After temping in a design agency as a receptionist, I found what I wanted to do. I loved the challenge of finding a strategy that would address the problem, then executing that strategy through a range of tools. To me this was a form of theatre, with the all important team approach.

I have never looked back. I had a great time working for companies selling things as diverse as; container ships full of grain, vaccinations, chocolate, cheese, cat litter, roof tiles, even ballet tickets. After 10 years working with agencies I wanted to work in an area where I felt marketing and communication had yet to make a real impact. 

I chose the NHS, and was greeted on my first day with, ‘We all communication, I don't know why we need a communications person?’. At that stage, marketing professionals were pretty rare in the NHS, and it showed. There was animosity to ‘another overhead’ at a time of making savings, and a lack of understanding that the public wanted to know more, and be much more involved in decisions about their health care. 

It is very different now, and although there are still immense challenges ahead for the NHS, I am proud to have made my contribution to the ongoing improvement of such a superb service. The highlight of which was being invited to meet the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in recognition of my contribution to health.

I seem to be addicted to new challenges, this time it led me to the world of social housing. An area I knew very little about but it really showed me the barriers people come up against in life. Gangs, working on a child’s need to feel that they belong to a family, drawing them in. The impact that sex trafficking has on individuals and the community around them. People sleeping on the street in freezing temperatures, with nothing to call their own. Individuals managing life with long term illness or disability, and how old age can change people so quickly as they become isolated. 

Writing this down makes it sound so depressing, but the staff and customers were some of the most inspiring people I have worked with. An army of people who have immense skill in caring for, and supporting others, to learn the skills they need to gain their independence. A group of people who despite a genuinely rough deal in life refused to be beaten, and daily demonstrations of how one persons’ actions can change the life of another.

Having lobbied to show people how marketing was about the whole operational process and not just the glossy campaigns, I was invited to take on an operational role, as Head of Older Peoples Services. I now found myself managing over 400 wonderful staff who were caring for older people in the Midlands. If your belief that anything is possible is to be tested now is when it happens. When people look to you to care for their relatives and your staff teams livelihoods. This was probably the most worrying and at the same time the most rewarding of all my jobs to date. It is an honour to be able to lead a team of people and be part of the team that make a difference to the lives of so many. There really is no better job satisfaction than seeing someone smile for the first time since losing their partner.

After 20 years of strategising for countless companies, gaining experience in everything from major disaster management to royal visit protocol, I was ready for another challenge. 

All those years of day to day management, developing and guiding people, setting a vision for people to believe in, added to the on call experience (managing bomb threats, sudden deaths, a murder, floods, fires and one hurricane) had given me skills I could develop in others. 

That was the start of my own business. CleeCo specialises in building capability and creating capacity with strategy that is based on operational experience. It’s marketing strategy with the bespoke training that enables plans to be embedded and delivered. The work is varied with some organisations grappling with a key issue, while others want support to prepare for a major project coming their way, other days will be purely training sessions. 

I thoroughly enjoy running my own business and I am still immersed in the challenge I love, that of understanding how people respond to each other and how we can influence that for the better. The determination and skills nurtured at KEHS, coupled with the permission to be free spirits and break a few moulds has stayed with me. If I am honest, it has probably just go stronger. The advice I would give to anyone who is unsure about the career path they should take, is to follow the things you are passionate about and you will find a way to make a great career from them.