Leaders in the Limelight: Tracy Donnelly

Written By

Susan Jacobs

August 13, 2018

My name: Tracy Donnelly 

My company: Northern Lights College 

My title: Dean of Continuing Education  

My location: Dawson Creek, British Columbia, Canada 

Tracy Donnelly

Best business advice I ever received: On the day she retired my supervisor shared, “If you spend your entire career working to please your boss, you will never be happy. Understand that the general motivation behind assigned tasks is to help your boss look good to his or her boss, and so on up the chain. Being aware of the full picture gives you the professional freedom to not be beholden to any one person, while remaining true to your workplace goals and your happiness.”

Her wisdom has rung true countless times over the past 10 years. I have found that this notion allows me to notice when assigned directives will take me away from the overall strategic vision or mission. Rather than try to please my supervisor at the moment, I am able to see the broader perspective. I can ask the supervisor which road I should travel, and ask for the support I need to meet the new goal. In the end I feel empowered—lending to a truly collaborative experience. 

Most daring personal career move: I was moving quickly toward my Ph.D. when I was told I would have to put everything on hold for a year. It was a crushing blow and it felt like I would never recover. Ultimately this event became a gift in strange wrapping paper, as it forced me to examine why I was on that path in the first place. I discovered that I was investing all this time and life energy into the Ph.D. mainly because I like to complete the projects I start. Stepping back, I realized I was already doing the work I love most—without the degree. Furthermore, if I continued down that path it would cost me time, money, and more sacrifice than I wanted to give. After much reflection the choice became clear. I am grateful for choosing to honor myself, as opposed to making a costly decision born out of expectation and obligation. 

I often think about how my life would have differed had I waited and put everything on hold. I can honestly say I am happy that I took the risk to NOT finish what I started. If I had stayed on that path of sacrifice for the promised unknown, I am almost certain I would never have been able to enjoy the level of impact I have on my community.

What I’m most proud of: I am most proud of my personal tenacity (although my loved ones call this being stubborn!) I am proud of how this very deep part of my character has positively impacted lives.

I have been given challenges such as, “Please build a nursing program that we desperately need. Never mind that our previous efforts have been met with resistance.” As a point of clarity, I am not a nurse. I just took the process step-by-step and built a quality program. I recall sitting in a windowless office creating this program from the ground up.

Since its inception in 2011, about 130 nurses have graduated. My efforts have gone on to touch the lives of community members, families, and patients. This ripple will continue to reach out and change lives. It is truly an honor and a privilege to create something, even when it is hard and full of unknowns. I believe with all my heart that education is the key to unlocking the door to generational poverty. 

Current workplace challenge: When I took my current position as dean of continuing education, the division was in dire straits. In working to create sustainability, my first challenge was discovering that the required change was met with extreme opposition by just about everyone at the college. I had to take an honest look at the old thinking and how it mixed with my new thinking. I discovered that the opposing views running together created muddy water rather than clarity toward a unified vision. I had to stop everything and listen to everyone. I had to reimagine my change strategies and shape a new vision. It took considerable time to make clear, data-driven decisions and implement a solid and mindful new plan. 

My overall success has been dependent on my ability to bring other departments into my decision tree. The conversation with internal stakeholders is not difficult, but setting my goals into motion through their timelines and their needs is difficult. My answer to finding balance has been to become hyper-transparent. I tell everyone on the leadership team everything, even when they don’t ask. This helps when conversations become stressful because I have already planted seeds into why I need to tend to my garden at my fast pace. This generally softens the conversation and seems to work as compared to just pushing through, which generally creates resentment and misunderstandings.

In the end, I believe that my collaborative and hyper-transparent approach will infuse my divisional success with much more than I thought possible with my initial plan and strategy.  

Something people don’t know about me: I have overcome extreme shyness, and this personal growth has translated into me becoming a legendary rock star. (Or at least that is what it feels like when I am in my car by myself, on my commute to work!)

Editor’s note

Tracy Donnelly will be participating in The eLearning Guild’s second annual Executive Forum on October 23, 2018. This special one-day experience, which takes place prior to the Guild’s DevLearn 2018 conference, is designed for senior learning and development leaders who want to collaborate with peers and industry experts on cutting edge strategies that address the key challenges of the modern learning organization. Join Tracy and other senior executives at this exclusive event.

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