Six vital things I learned from Tracy Robbins

(Originally posted to LinkedIn)

I am incredibly lucky to have had incredible support from the people I’ve worked for throughout my career. The on-the-job training and guidance that has shaped my working ethos has largely come from direct bosses and line managers; the people I’ve worked most closely with on a day-to-day basis.

Almost six years ago, when I was at TMW Unlimited on a leadership-training course, I realised how useful it would be to have someone to talk to outside of this very immediate group of people. More specifically, how much value there would be in finding a woman to do this, in a structured way. After all, every single one of my managers (with the exception of Jen Janson and Lesley Booth back in 2006!) has been male.

Everyone feels differently about this particularly type of coaching; but for me, I wanted to understand the experiences of a woman going through her working life. How did she deal with sexism and pay, having a family and so on? There are many things a competent person of any sex or background can teach you – but there are some things that are unique to a woman in the workplace.

I waited a long time to find mine. The company running that same course for TMW. just add water, helped me find her. Jeremy Sturt, the company’s founder, contacted me almost three years after I first mentioned this to him while we were mid-training. He mentioned that a friend of his, Tracy Robbins, had just completed the Advanced Management Programme at Harvard and had joined the Meyler Campbell executive coach training programme. Because of the latter, she was looking for women to work with as part of her on-going education.

Tracy’s international business experience was second to none, a board member at IHG for five years, part of the executive committee for 10. HR Magazine’s Director of the Year and ranked consistently as one of their most influential. She was a Women of Influence Board Member for Cancer Research and had a reputation for delivery – most notably a $23m HR transformation project at IHG that led to 35% increase in global engagement score and numerous awards for best place to work. I couldn’t wait.

We met, we clicked, and my professional adoration of her was immediate. Her down to earth approach, active listening and warmth was central to every conversation we had, and she remains one of the most kind people I’ve ever met. In fact, her first comment to me after our meeting was “I think we could almost be dangerous together … :-)”. The feeling was mutual.

Sadly, Tracy passed away last year. She was already a breast cancer survivor when we met, and by the time we started working together she was graciously battling it for the second time. She never once complained, she simply retained absolute focus on what she wanted to achieve – sharing her knowledge & experience with others – all wrapped up in with wonderful sense of joy and positivity. I am amazed still that she was able to give me so much while she was under so much physical strain.

I think long and often about writing down everything from our sessions to keep that fire I saw in her eyes going, and I do think I will when I work how out how to frame it. But for today, I’m going to summarise the most helpful things she taught me. It’s a pity to keep them locked up waiting for the right time, when someone might get something truly useful from it right now.

Working with a coach

Tracy was much more practical than many a coach. For me, the psychologist-tested ‘but how does it make you feel?’ just doesn’t work, and it wasn’t her style either. In our early days she asked me to carry out a few straightforward exercises to help her get to know me, and shape what we hoped to achieve. It’s firmly my belief that anyone can do these solo, or in a team, to get the same effect.

  1. Produce a mood board for how you want your life to be three to five years from now. Yes, an actual mood board. Visualising things brings sharp focus to what you want from your life.
  2. Think about your life. Draw a line from birth to now and mark on it the moments that are important to you and have shaped you. Think about how these have in turn shaped your values and given you a purpose.
  3. Write down your coaching objectives. In six month’s time, what do you want to have accomplished? What will success look like?

Reflecting on this

The most valuable thing Tracy ever taught me was to surround myself with places and people that reflect my values. It sounds obvious, but it’s often overlooked. This is an incredibly easy way to make sure you’re building the right environment to flourish in – both professionally and personally. Do the people and places you spend your time reflect what’s important to you? Will they help move you towards where you want to be in the near future?

How others see you

One of the best things you can achieve through coaching is developing your leadership style and perception. Once you’ve gone through the values and reflection steps, you need to get even more insular. Focusing on yourself in the same way you might do a client feels downright weird at first; but it’s an important step in helping set measurable goals.

  • How do you want to be viewed in your first 30/60/90 days? This should be led from your purpose and values.
  • How does this affect how you need to behave?
  • What tactical things do you therefore want to put in place (office layout, how you conduct meetings, how you recognise people etc)
  • Is there a symbolic act that would help people better understand you? This can be really small like being more open about something important to you.

Maintaining professional progression

It’s vital to get clarity around your current role and objectives in order to make sure you’re succeeding, or moving towards your next step. This has to be a joint activity with whomever you report in to, or else you’ll be on totally different pages.

  • What are the skills, knowledge and behaviours your manager sees as your strengths and what are the ones they would like you to work on to succeed in that role?
  • How often would they like to review this? (this is usually once every three to six months)
  • Consider the ways you frame what you’re asking for; consider making it less inwards-looking (‘what you want’) and more about exploring further opportunities
  • Frame these ‘further opportunities’ in terms of what it will achieve for the business you’re in – aligning to company vision, aiding better synergies team to team, clearer focus on a certain goal, growing something faster
  • And most importantly, apply real empathy. Tracy & I spoke at length about the Brené Brown video on Empathy below (another incredible woman I’m super happy I can highlight). Even when you’re asking for something, how will it make the other person feel? Will they feel like you’re saying they’re not working hard enough for you? By considering opportunity and suggested solution, you change the conversation to something of shared value. Under the opportunity piece start with the most important business opportunity as your manager would see it.


A tough conversation for many, but the biggest learning is again a reframe. The very word ‘renumeration’ reflects salary for to work you’ve achieved, rather than just a brutal chat about money

  • The delivery element here is key; map the elements of your current role as a pie chart, then build a ring around it to show where your next role might extend to
  • By framing the additional responsibility you’ll take on, you validate a growth in seniority and in renumeration
  • Outline what that could look like, and what’s needed to get there (team, resources etc)

A simple way of working with people you don’t necessarily want to

Not everyone is going to be the ideal co-worker. It’s a fact of life. And as you go through life you can’t just avoid people and hide, you’ve got to lean in and work out a way to engage them in order to work harmoniously.

  • Though you can’t change the people around you, you can change the way you deal with them.
  • What drives them? Start there. Engage them on something they can get excited about at the start of every meeting, and you’ll find them instantly easier to engage with.
  • Be conscious of how that person is going to make you feel. If you find someone is extremely negative for instance, be prepared for it. You’ll find situations far less draining if you know how they’re going to make you feel, because you’re not caught off guard.

I’m sharing this on International Women’s Day to say thank you to Tracy for helping me find focus and remember who I am when I needed it most, but also to salute the incredible females in my life. In the words of my namesake Victoria Principal, “when women work together, it’s a bond unlike any other”.

Find out more about supporting Cancer Research here; through fundraising, donations or volunteering.

Leave a Reply