with greg layton

The Inner Chief is for leaders, professionals and small business owners who want to accelerate their career and growth. Our guest chiefs and gurus share powerful stories and strategies so you can have more purpose, influence and impact in your career.

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In this episode, we meet Tracey Burton, CEO Uniting NSW/ACT on Experiential learning, 360 degree feedback and the future of the health industry.

Tracey has been the CEO Uniting NSW/ACT since April 2018, having had more than 30 years’ experience in the Australian health and community services sector including leadership roles in public and private hospitals.

In addition to her executive management roles, Tracey has also served as a Board Director for aged care services, disability services in New Zealand and for a medical research foundation.

Tracey holds a Bachelor of Health Administration, an MBA, is a Graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and has done an Executive program in Negotiation at Columbia University in New York.

In this episode we talk about: 

  • Why being the smartest person in the room won’t help you lead;
  • Experiential continuous learning outside of formal education;
  • The do’s and don’ts of 360 feedback and why it is so powerful; and 
  • The future of the healthcare industry.

Connecting with Tracey Burton

You can reach Tracey via LinkedIn. You can also take a look at what Uniting does.

A special thanks to former guest, Liz Nicol, for connecting us to Tracey.

Books and resources mentioned in the episode


“I think probably one that comes to mind is where I ended up in significant conflict with my boss, and I've always said, ‘No-one ever won an argument with their boss or their owners’.

On workplace conflict: fight or flight?

  • I was quite convinced that I was right. And I think in hindsight I was right, but that wasn't of any use to me. The lesson I've learned is that if you're feeling that you really should just step back and get out and that it's not worth it, do it. You come home distressed so then it impacts your family. You're not sleeping well because it's an uncomfortable place to be, all of those things.
  • So I think, be courageous and step away from it rather than gritting your teeth and bearing down and hanging onto what you think is right.
  • One time I was in a position where I really did need to leave because I was in conflict with the way the organisation was going. I was being really affected personally and then taking it home with me. Because this organisation was going through some massive change, my team was just being sidelined and not valued for the contribution that they've made and what they're capable of making to a bigger picture.
  • But the idea of leaving the team that I had nurtured and been part of and we've done so much good work together, abandoning them because of that situation, was tough. I was their leader, defending them, which was exhausting, then abandoning them was one of the hardest decisions I could ever make.

On why being the smartest person in the room won’t help you lead

  • I was running a very significant hospital in my early thirties and I think as a young leader, I thought that you do that by being the smartest person in the room. And I learnt that if you're the smartest person in the room, you're in the wrong room.
  • But it's a confidence thing, and so at some point, I did get that insight that by attempting to be the smartest person in the room, attempting to always add value to somebody else's work, it wasn't necessarily helpful. It was not facilitating others’ greatest contribution. In fact, it shuts people down.
  • I try and have that framework of “ask don't tell”. But I think sometimes when you've had a lot of experience, and you've seen it before, the temptation is just, “Oh yeah, this is how you fix it.” But actually just asking enough questions is the right framework – ie. consciousness is, at least, a good start.
  • When I have the opportunity of recruiting people into a team, I can boost them and put them upfront and make sure that they are given the opportunity to present their own work, done through me.

On experiential and continuous learning after formal education

  • If you can fit an MBA around your family and your work obligations, it is important. I don't think you can leave it too late either because it's almost become a prerequisite now. But then the challenge is how do you keep learning after that? You finish the MBA, then what?
  • Experiential learning for me is just fantastic. At Uniting, we just had this amazing interaction with some of our staff and our board, where instead of having a PowerPoint presentation about how the service works, we actually took on a persona ie. we were the client and experienced the service. And that was a fantastic way to learn.
  • I was lucky enough to do a short course at Columbia University, and it was on negotiation and that was experiential as well. I got to practise my negotiation skills with someone from Russia, who learned nothing about the whole concept of negotiation, which is, you want the orange peel, I want the orange, and if we work that out, we both win. Her model was no matter what, you had to have the entire orange. So the thousands of dollars of course fees were wasted on her! And so the insights that I got by being in a room with people who had completely different frames of reference to my own and was amazing.

On 360 feedback and why it is so powerful

  • I think my advice would be to think really carefully about the categories that you're going to have, so your peers and people who work for you, and people that work for them. And then getting a good number of voices into each category. It's a big burden on people who are going to fill it in for you, but if you only get three or four voices versus eight or nine in each of those categories, you can miss out on some of the richness.
  • The important thing is to be brave and sit down with the people who gave you the feedback and be transparent about what you've learnt and what you're going to try and do with it. So I've actually sat with my team members and said, “Look, I've heard this message that by being available to so many others, I'm not necessarily available enough to you.” And the success of the organisation actually is through them. And so then that puts me in a position of being accountable to them to make that change as well.
  • I think it's best for people to remain anonymous in the process, but you need to know what category it's coming from. And certainly your boss should always be fully transparent.

On how to get out of a career rut

  • I think definitely say yes to any opportunity internally, so if a project is coming up, offer yourself up to get involved so that you've got a learning opportunity and you can prove yourself.
  • Try finding those opportunities to do something a bit different. I don't think there's any way around the sheer hard work of it. So it might impact your family, but hopefully you're getting something out of it and you're getting some learning, so then you'll have to put something into it to get something more back.

On the future of the healthcare industry

  • Well, the largest thing that Uniting does is aged care, and everyone's aware of the challenges of the aged care system. In Australia, we only spend 1% of our GDP on aged care and you get what you pay for. So fundamentally we have to find something that all Australians can be proud of, namely the care that's available for senior Australians when they need it. Most people want it in their home, but the availability of funded home care is really small.
  • I'm hoping the Royal Commission is really going to wake Australians up to some of the big systemic problems and hopefully just as we did as when the NDIS came about. I pay a lot of tax, but when I understood NDIS, I didn't mind paying a bit more tax if it meant that people with a disability and their families were going to get support.
  • If we spent more money on the prevention side, such as care for young people and children who need foster homes. If we could be spending more money upfront and trying to hold those families together, the outcomes for those young people and children are really much more likely to be positive. But unfortunately, the state has to spend a fortune in helping these people with their families already broken down.

On overcoming imposter syndrome

  • I suffered from imposter syndrome for a long time, but then I came to understand that there's a little voice in your head that you can turn off, and that can make a huge difference to someone's life.
  • It's a terrible waste of energy, and I think it is a confidence and a maturity thing and that second-guessing yourself is just such an unhelpful thing. Because even if you make a decision and you make a mistake, well, you can recognise it was a mistake and fix it, change it. Very rare that you make a mistake that you can't go back and revisit.

Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders 

  • I think it's about working in a place that you love, in a space that you're going to love. Because if you don't love it, it's really hard to be authentic about it. And non-authenticity is spotted a mile off and it takes a lot of energy to fake it. So I think that's probably the most important thing. And that might require you to really examine what you're doing, and maybe make a brave decision to try something different.

Stay epic,