As Director of People Operations, Tracy Iqbal has a clear passion for people.

In the second of our ‘Who We Are’ series, join as we tackle topics including a holistic understanding of people and emotional intelligence, neurodiversity as a superstrength and the keys to a happy workforce.

Welcome, Tracy. Would you like to kick off by telling us about your background and path to being Director of People Operations at Arrows? 

Well, this is an interesting one. I did a BTEC in Business & Finance at college and was intending to go to university. I needed to save money to go, so I got a sales job in a newspaper. I did well quickly and decided I liked earning money! So, I continued working.

In time, some of my colleagues left to join the wonderful world of recruitment. In 1996, I made that move too and joined Reed. The training and onboarding were exceptional – it was a big part of my inspiration to become a trainer. After 13 years there, I joined a smaller boutique agency. I worked my way up and managed large teams until I effectively made myself redundant!

In 2016, I set up my own training company, Talent IQ Ltd. It was while running this that I was introduced to Arrows Group. There was

something different about the company for me from the start. I was brought in to do sales training with consultants. I got to know the Directors and realised there was something missing for me running my own business. I wanted that sense of belonging you have as part of a company.

I took on the role of L&D at Arrows – for the first year, while also running my training company. I developed Thrive, which is our end-to-end candidate experience programme. As Arrows has evolved and grown, I’ve had the opportunity to become the Director of People Operations. The team includes HR, Talent, Marketing and L&D and we are all about ‘putting people at the heart’.

What was the motivation behind setting up your own training company? 

I’ve always been a coaching leader, that’s my default style! I get a lot of joy from seeing people develop.

My training company was the leap of faith to see if I could make it on my own. You need a commercial mind to set up your own business and to know your market. It was about putting into practice everything I’d done to develop people. It was me, a phone and laptop starting from scratch.

I’m privileged to have a great network. I’ve supported a lot of people as a recruitment manager, and I always treat people with the respect they deserve. Thanks to this, I finished work on Friday and had my first client on Monday!

What are the most important things people should know about you?

First and foremost, I have a passion for people.

I’ve almost finished studying to be a master practitioner in Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). I’m already a trained practitioner in various mindset and behavioural tools. These help me bring language, behaviour and emotional intelligence elements into my coaching.

I’m a curious person. Every time I deliver a training session, I learn something too. We should all be open to continually evolve and develop.

I am neurodiverse; ‘delightfully dyslexic’ is a good phrase I heard recently. I think dyslexia is a superstrength and I don’t want anyone to think it creates barriers. We’re just wired in a different way; I like it!

Being neurodiverse also helps me when I write training. I know from the courses I have studied that I need to learn repetitively to absorb information. For my training, I vary learning modalities to be more inclusive. I combine videos, activities, and self-directed research. I’m mindful there’s not a one size fits all way of learning.

You are an advocate for a holistic view of people, based on understanding and emotional intelligence. How does this apply in a business context?

Understanding people holistically helps you recognize, respect and value differences. At Arrows, we use tools that help facilitate discussion. We don’t want to put people into boxes. But, by understanding behaviour and mindset preferences, we can better understand individual strengths and limitations. This means we can better rely on each other.

I’m a big fan of emotional intelligence. We can always build on it – it’s possible to be emotionally intelligent one moment and not the next.

We run an Emotional Intelligence for Leaders programme at Arrows. It helps people understand their own behaviours and the impact they have, as well as understanding others better. This is the building block of a high performing team; respect for differences and knowledge of what people are good at.

High emotional intelligence also helps you to recognise when someone goes from ‘mindful’ to ‘survival’. When we’re ok, we can build strong relationships and perform at an optimum level. But when we go into survival mode, we can go from high to low performance. It’s about recognizing the subtle changes and acknowledging when someone is not ok.

In your view, what are the keys to having a happy, motivated, productive workforce?

You have to be interested in people as individuals. Businesses are nothing without them!

There’s a fantastic model I use in leadership training called the Roger D’Aprix model, which is about creating buy in. This starts before a person even joins the company, through total clarity about the expectations of their role. If this is clearly defined, someone who is extrinsically motivated can then get the rewards when they meet these expectations. Or, someone who is intrinsically motivated can know they have reached those standards.

Feedback is something we all need to grow and adapt, whether you’re a senior leader or starting out. The way things are done now isn’t the way they will always be done. It’s good for people to know what their growth opportunities are.

People need time – someone to check in and show they care. On a personal level, stuff happens in everyone’s lives. Giving wiggle room when needed is important.

Businesses need to have a clear vision. People should feel empowered to take control of the support and resources they need. And, there should be ownership, so people get a sense of satisfaction.

These elements are a framework I live by as a manager, leader and trainer. If one of these things is missing, that’s usually when people become disengaged and unhappy.

How do you go about embedding things like feedback and a clear vision?

At Arrows, we do regular team huddles as individual teams and company-wide across different geographies. There are constant updates on company strategy and progression. We let people know in advance about any change on the horizon – as some people need time to acclimatize.

No-one’s perfect and we’re always trying to be better. For example, we’re very good at talking about what and why at a business level. We’re working on making sure that translates into what that means for individuals.

In the last couple of years, COVID has of course had a profound effect on the way we work. What are some of the biggest changes and challenges you have seen as a result?   

This has been a very difficult time for lots of people – those who were put on furlough, for example.

One of the positives was recognizing that hybrid working can work and the accompanying increased trust. Traditionally, recruitment hasn’t been a home-working industry. There was a perception that people needed to sit in a team of salespeople to be successful. We now have clear evidence people can perform as effectively remotely, giving a better work-life balance.

Mental health has definitely been affected. I know it impacted me mentally; I’m someone who likes working with people. There was a lot of uncertainty and guilt as we didn’t have all the answers. Those on furlough were questioning their contribution and value. Those working felt a huge responsibility to pedal fast to try and get those on furlough back in.

I feel very loyal as a result of this storm we’ve weathered. We’ve come out with more clarity about what we need to do as a business.

You’ve touched on mental health already and it’s a topic you are keen to bring even more into the open. Do you think it is becoming easier for people to talk about it? What more can companies do to support people? 

I think mental health was discussed more during Covid than it has been previously. I have suffered with mental health, which means in times I’ve been diagnosed with depression. Would I have admitted that earlier in my career? Probably not. I think something has changed a bit.

Most of us will have suffered with our mental health. How we experience that will vary, for example from feeling a bit low to being actually depressed. If people felt comfortable to be more open, and businesses were better able to recognize the triggers that take someone from ok to not ok, that would be a big step forward.

It can also be about the right support.  Ask, “are you ok, what can we do to support you?” Sometimes leaders think if someone is struggling, they need to be a rescuer. But sometimes people just need to say they’re not ok and need someone to listen or give wiggle room. By being understanding you build loyalty and trust.

It’s also important that people take their annual leave, so they can renew and don’t continue to burnout. It’s about ensuring people have balance.

In your role, you champion Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I). How can companies make sure this is truly embedded and not just something they pay lip service to?

You are what you present to the market. If you want to build a diverse culture, but people can’t see anyone like them, how can you attract a diverse workforce? For example, maybe my talking about neurodiversity will get others thinking ‘recruitment is an industry I can be successful in if I’m neurodiverse’.

It starts as a business by recognizing sources of unconscious bias, which we all have. If everyone commits to making incremental changes, it can evolve over time. If you can be open to change, that’s the starting point. Then work on what you can do differently. This could include little changes, like having pronouns on emails / LinkedIn to show a level of awareness.

We have representatives from some people with some protected characteristics, but not all. We have to ask what we could be doing differently. Our office has wheelchair access, but we don’t have any imagery of someone in our office using our wheelchair. We may need to be more explicit about encouraging wheelchair users with our job adverts.

It’s something that needs to evolve, taking account of feedback, ensuring it comes from the top down. I like to think we’re open but what if that’s not what other people think?

Who or what is your biggest source of inspiration? 

My parents have always been my inspiration. We’re a working-class family; my dad worked for the same company for 30 years. My parents gave me a strong foundation and a belief I could reach for the stars. I also respect that they have adapted and embraced change – like their use of technology. They’ve demonstrated being really bold and brave!

I see different things in different people that inspire me, of any age in any circumstance. Understanding people’s stories is inspiring to me.

And finally, you’re a fan of fitness and have a busy family life. What are your tips for keeping things in balance?        

I do group HIIT workouts and a lot of running – every morning I’m at the gym as the doors open! Balance for me means keeping this as a priority; training is an investment in myself. I get so much from the group activities – I talk to people while doing burpees / dancing!

Fitness links to mental health. You have to look after yourself, or you can’t then look after others – it’s the oxygen mask analogy.

Invest time in what you enjoy – don’t run if you hate running! There’s a lot to be said for being happy. It can be a choice. You can cultivate and change your environment to make sure you stay happy.