What keeps women from being fearless leaders with career coach Tracy Forsyth

By Cecilia McAloon

Tracy Forsyth began her career in television thirty years ago. She worked her way up from being a runner and researcher all the way to becoming the Genre Director of Factual Entertainment at BBC Worldwide. Since then, Forsyth has turned her attention towards the career development of others, working as the Director of Mentoring at Women in Film and TV UK as well as founding her own coaching courses with Fast Track to Fearless.

Forsyth coaches what she estimates to be a 70/30 split of women to men who tend to be what she calls “self-critical overachievers”. In her experience, both men and women can be self-critical overachievers, but on the whole, “I think women are more forthcoming with the self-criticism, they are more ready to do themselves down.”

As a former self-critical overachiever herself, Forsyth works with women every day to help them overcome the barriers that prevent them from succeeding. As part of our #SeenAndHeard campaign to support gender equality in the arts, I spoke with Forsyth to learn more about her journey into television, overcoming her own self-doubt, and her approach to helping other women to do the same.Forsyth knew from a young age that she wanted to work in television: “at the age of five I remember watching the news and deciding I wanted to be a newsreader. And I remember when I was thirteen at school we had a careers chat and they said, ‘what do you want to do?’, and I said, ‘I want to be a TV producer/director’. I didn't really know what that job entailed, I just imagined it was going to be around cameras and lights and filming and, to me, that was the most exciting thing that there could be.”


On graduating from university, Forsyth began applying for roles in the Monday Media Guardian. After many applications she finally landed a role as a trainee researcher/runner for a live lunchtime show that was based in the middle of Wales. “I was essentially a glorified runner and driver. Mainly my job was to drive up and down the M4 picking up the guests for the show and then delivering them back.” Even so, being selected as one of five out of around fifteen-hundred applicants, “I was very, very happy when I found out I'd got that job.” “It was a brilliant, brilliant start into lots of different aspects of TV.”


As a natural introvert herself, Forsyth explains that she had to become a “learned extrovert” in order to move up the ranks. “I couldn't sit back and wait for the jobs to come to me. It's a very competitive industry - people have to notice you. So I think I realised that it's as important as hardwork and talent - the ability to get yourself the next job. It means being good at the job, it means keeping up your contacts, it means being proactive about reaching out. And, even if you are an introvert, it's about finding a way to present yourself and your skills in order to land that next role.”


After teaching herself those skills, Forsyth saw real development in her own career, perhaps coincidentally, around the time that she had children. “After I had children I thought that my career would go on hold or on lower roles. But, actually, ever since I've had children I've gone on leaps and bounds - probably the only correlation is my age and experience. I became a series producer, a series editor when I had children and then I became a commissioner and a divisional director at a massive department of BBC Worldwide.”


It was at this point that Forsyth realised that she was interested in career coaching. “I got to the very top in television and couldn't see where else to go and what I really loved doing was all the professional development. I just thought, ‘you know what? At this stage in my life, I want to use my expertise and my experience to empower other people to excel because everybody in television, I find, is very driven and very hardworking and very ambitious but they're also very self-critical.’”


In television in particular “you get a lot of perfectionists”, “a lot of people who achieve great things but they just throw them over their shoulder never to be looked at again”, as well as “a lot of self-critical people who are extremely talented but suffer from self-doubt”. Looking at this, Forsyth felt, “the world is going to be a better place if you take those people and help relieve them of the burden of self-doubt and get them to see the glorious, talented people that they actually are. That will, I think, make the world a better place because they'll be more confident to do what they want to do, to say what they want to say, and especially focus on women.”


Why focusing on women? Forsyth finds that women especially have an ingrained sense of self-doubt - a large part of which is social conditioning. According to Forsyth, one of the most common doubts that women are faced with is, “I don't want to put myself forward because I'll seem arrogant or bossy”. So how do you go about deconstructing an internal narrative like that? For Forsyth, it’s about a change in perspective: “To 'be bossy' means 'to act like a boss', so what is wrong with that? I think it's about reclaiming these qualities and not seeing them as negatives. The hurdle, if we're talking about women, is to reframe their qualities as an asset and in a positive light rather than looking at them through the gaze of history where it was unbecoming for a woman to be direct and that was seen as threatening. In my time, I've been called 'abrupt', and 'direct', and 'strident', and I embrace all of those things”, jokingly adding, “as long as I'm not rude.”


I ask Forsyth whether she feels that there is a way to be a boss without having to adopt what may be seen as more masculine traits? In other words, is there a way for women to be leaders without having to become ‘like men’? Interestingly enough, that’s one of the queries that comes up in her day-to-day coaching. “I coach a lot of senior leaders who ultimately want to be CEOs and some of the women think, ‘oh god, I've got to act like a man if I'm going to be taken seriously’, and I don't think that's true. I just think you have to act like yourself and understand yourself and if you don't think something's right explain and call it out. Be you.”


Real introspection is something that Forsyth emphasises when empowering people to become fearless in their careers. “I deal a lot with impostor syndrome and I think it's interesting that it's called impostor syndrome because it feels like you're being somebody else sometimes and not succeeding. Yet, if you really spend the time on professional development to really understand yourself and who you are and be that person, then you can't really go wrong.” “I think true confidence, fearless confidence, comes from really knowing yourself, what your factory settings are, what your buttons are, what your values are. Because everybody is slightly different in terms of what their vision of great leadership is or how they want to be.”


“You know, Donald Trump's vision of success and leadership is going to be very, very different to your vision of leadership and success. Don't try to be somebody else. Other people don't necessarily have it right. What is your vision of success? What feels right? How do you want to be treated? How do you want to treat other people? So then it becomes less about male traits and female traits it just becomes about traits.”


At entry level, Forsyth had no shortage of women in television to look up to. While women have not traditionally held the top roles in the arts, Forsyth explains that when she was coming up through the ranks, and especially in her department of Factual Entertainment, many of the leadership roles were held by women, “so I never had any thought that being a woman was going to hold me back. I recognise that that is different in different genres in television and different roles but, for me, I always had strong women role-models in charge of the productions I was working on.”


Nowadays Forsyth feels much the same, pointing out that Kate Phillips is the controller of entertainment at the BBC, Charlotte Moore is the head of the BBC, Jay Hunt is the head of Apple in the UK, Alex Mahon runs Channel 4, and Jane Turton runs All3Media. While there are, of course, other issues that prevent women from succeeding in TV, there are still many role models for women and leadership opportunities there. Part of the work now relies on women having the confidence to take those opportunities.


Forsyth mentions a recent article in the Financial Times that resonates with some of the issues that arise in her coaching. The article demonstrated that women on boards get paid 40% less than men simply because they don’t go for the top roles. From her experience of coaching future leaders, Forsyth observes that “women in particular don't go for those top roles because they think, ‘I'm not going to be able to do it’, whereas actually they could do it standing on their heads. And so my mission now is to use my experience and expertise to coach and mentor people, self-critical overachievers, to get rid of that self-doubt and that self-criticism, to really embrace who they are, to be fearless themselves, and to go and conquer the world.”


Finally, I ask Forsyth for her advice and insight, as a former leader in the BBC, on the #SeenAndHeard campaign that we created as a means of offering people a safe and anonymous way to speak out against inequality in a freelance industry. “I think any highlighting issues, highlighting people's experiences, is fantastic. I think the more things are uncovered and the more experiences are brought to light, the better to raise awareness, not only so that it can be highlighted to the industry that it's actually going on and something needs to happen about it, but also because it helps with processing what's happened - being seen, being heard, being listened to. So I think it really helps to bring things to light.”


In the past it has been impossible to speak out against inequality at work. Help Equality Check change that by taking 2 minutes to leave an anonymous review of your workplace. Your voice is powerful. Be #SeenAndHeard

About the author:


Cecilia McAloon

Cecilia has a double first in English Language & Literature from the University of Oxford. Before joining Equality Check, Cecilia co-founded an award-winning film production group and worked at the Oxford University Filmmaking Foundation. Cecilia has a long-held passion for ED&I and hopes that her work at Equality Check will have a lasting impact on creating equal opportunities for the UK workforce.