An excellent leader tackles tough problems and surrounds herself with smart, committed people
By Angela Noel Lawson
March 19, 2019
When I asked Tracy Murphy to describe her leadership she paused for half a second. “I think about,” she said, “being a learner first.”
Tracy, President of Mount Olivet Rolling Acres (a nonprofit corporation offering care and services to people with intellectual or developmental disabilities) exemplifies and evangelizes a growth mindset. She asks herself: How can I learn? How can I practice what I’m learning? And how can I bring people along with me?”
Feeling Seen and Heard
I first met Tracy in 2015 when we both worked at Target. After a re-organization (and significant layoffs) Tracy became the new leader over the business area I worked in. She hosted an all-team meeting to share a bit about herself and answer any questions we had about the past, present, or future direction of our group. I liked her immediately.
Despite the turmoil and uncertainty of the previous months, Tracy telegraphed to the assembled team her warmth, care, concern, and boundless energy. In addition to sharing the timeline of her career and why she’d made the choices she had, she also spoke of how difficult some of the journey had been. But in that difficultly, she’d found rewards as well. Some of the hardest times turned out to be the best. Importantly, she also noted her pet peeves: gum chewing and band aids.
I left the meeting wanting to know more about this strong, sensitive, enthusiastic woman. I also felt I owed her something in return. Namely, I wanted her to know I heard her, appreciated her message, and would promise never to chew gum in her presence. So I went to see her a few days later.
Like many great leaders, Tracy schedules time for anyone to drop in and see her. Even though she was several rungs above me in the hierarchical ladder, because of her demeanor and authentic invitation, I felt welcomed. When I sat across from her in her new office I told her how I admired her courage to pick up and go where she was needed, and her attitude in making change something to embrace rather than fear. I shared with her that I saw a bit of who I wanted to be as a leader in her–and for that especially, I was grateful. I left her office feeling both seen and heard.
Valuing the Contributions of Others
Though that meeting would be the only one-on-one we had while we both worked at Target, it left an impression on me. So much so that I was particularly pleased to learn she read my blog. When someone you admire admires you back, it’s the best of all possible worlds. I’ve come to learn this is one more of Tracy’s skills: valuing the contributions of others.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, he identifies the types of people who help ideas catch fire in the public imagination. He calls one type “connectors.” These folks find joy in knowing people and finding the places to plug these people in with other people. Tracy has many of the characteristics Gladwell describes. She knows a lot of people and she’s infinitely generous. She holds nothing back; if she can help she will. And that’s what makes her current role an exceptional fit.
Finding Passion. . . and Following it
However, it may not seem obvious why a person with twenty-five years experience in retail would seek a transition to leading a disability-care nonprofit. For Tracy, though, it makes perfect sense. Wherever she worked, whether in the U.S., India, or Canada, Tracy’s passion for people manifested. She helped start, for example, volunteer councils in each location. These councils helped marry those who wanted to contribute with the opportunities to do so.
Additionally, she and her husband Tom are parents to three children adopted from South Korea. As Tom explained in a 2016 article in the Star Tribune, “the days he brought his children home [were] ‘three of the greatest days of my life.'”
Tom and Tracy are both active in nonprofits supporting children and family services. For months before she actually left Target she’d felt the growing urge to work with these groups. She knew there had to be a better way to secure funding, to connect people, and to deliver the right outcomes.
Moreover, Tracy finds joy in “solving hard problems with smart people.” In the months leading up to her departure from Target, she noticed the problems she wanted to solve and the people she wanted to solve them with had changed. Her next big adventure awaited.
A Career in Transition
No doubt the type of structured thinking that helped Tracy successfully earn her undergraduate degree from St. Olaf College in math and economics helped sculpt her transition. She also hired a career coach and followed her advice. This advice included choosing to be unemployed for a year in order to find the right opportunity in the nonprofit world.
During that year, Tracy began writing her own blog. In it she details her journey and shares her experiences. Conversations developed. Relationships deepened. Her blog offered Tracy another way to add to her neural net of interconnected wisdom she could both draw from and add to.
Then, after a year spent finding the right match for her skills and interests, Tracy accepted the top job at an organization all about people. She’s working with a team of smart, committed professionals. And she brings with her the leadership lessons she’s learned through the years.
For example, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Planning is everything. The plan is nothing.” In her career, Tracy seems to have discovered the same thing. Many times in her life she discovered what she thought would happen, didn’t. And it was up to her to adjust on the fly. “I’ve learned to take incremental steps and adjust as we go.” But Tracy, like many of us, had to learn how to be flexible.
Becoming a Bridge Builder
She tells the story of an early experience she had as a leader at Target. She was put in charge of a team of people. A dispute with another team arose. She remembers how she bought in to the “us vs. them” dynamic. Instead of, as Brené Brown puts it in her book Daring Greatly, “sitting on the same side of the table” with the other team to try and find a solution to the issue, she dug in. The results weren’t good. But, like the learner she is, Tracy extracted a lesson from that experience. Now, she’d approach a similar situation not from a position of “doing battle” but rather as a builder of bridges.
Another recent example helps illuminate Tracy’s approach to leadership. After a member of her team fell ill, Tracy asked everyone to sign up for one or more of the absent teammates daily tasks. She promised to take whatever duties were left over. As a result, Tracy had a breakfast meeting scheduled with a state legislator, then cleaned the kitchen. Before lunch, she coordinated a call between two organizations looking for better ways to support nonprofit efforts in India. Then she cleaned the toilets.
For a leader, no job is too small, nor too big. Instead, you take it one step at a time and learn as you go.
Follow Tracy’s blog to learn more about her and read about her journey.
Your turn: What do you notice in Tracy’s story? What stands out to you? How could you incorporate some of these ideas in your life?
Read more about the new series, Profiles in Leadership here.