Donna Fraser

donna fraser

What a privilege to finish our 50 in 50 series of interviews with four time Olympian Donna Fraser OBE.  An ordinary person who has accomplished extraordinary things. Since the age of 8 Donna had the dream of competing in the Olympic Games. Her parents loved sport and it was always on TV. Having gone to her first Olympics she learnt quickly what it was all about. Teamwork. Always working alongside her training schedule, she ran well-being programmes for EDF Energy before taking equality, diversity and inclusion roles at UK Athletics, later being seconded to the Birmingham Commonwealth Games earlier this year. She is currently Director of Equality, Diversity & Inclusion at The Professional Cricketers’ Association with the aim of making her role redundant by changing the culture forever. A passionate advocate for charity and overcoming breast cancer in 2009, she became an Ambassador for Breast Cancer Now. A truly inspiring leader.


What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life? 

I would recommend all of the Sydney Sheldon books. I’m a big fan, they’re just really engrossing. 

The other book I would want people to have is 365 Days of Positive Thinking, A motivational quote-a-day.

Positive affirmations are my coping mechanism. When I was competing, a positive mindset was essential. My coach (who knew me better than even myself) would put an affirmation in my kit bag or my training diary and that is something I have taken through into my life since. 

When I was working at the Commonwealth Games, I used to send a motivational Monday email to the team and it really helped everyone in times of stress. I think everyone would benefit from more positivity.


What purchase of £100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)? (Brand and model, where you found it?) 

I bought my mum a blood pressure machine. She’s moved back to the Caribbean now and when she visited earlier this year we used it together twice a day until it became a routine for her. Even though she is very far away, I know she’s healthy and I can have peace of mind. 


How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favourite failure” of yours? 

I don’t like the word failure. I think we should see everything as a learning experience. However, at the time I certainly felt that my biggest failure was when I came fourth in the 400 m final at the Sydney Olympics. I felt that I’d let everyone down, my supporters, my coach, myself and it took me a long time to get over it. I refused to watch it for months. When I did I would kick myself. 

Ultimately, I didn’t have that self belief just before the race began, I changed the script and didn’t do what was planned. I was so much ‘in a zone’, I was unaware during the race that as I went into the final bend I was in last place. And it was only then I really started to run, I was gaining, but I ran out of track.

I was truly, truly gutted. (But at the same time I had a bittersweet feeling because my training partner from that year was Cathy Freeman and she won gold and I felt very happy for her).

Since then I’ve put it to bed and I’ve learnt from that experience – resilience and self belief


If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it —metaphorically speaking, getting a message out to millions or billions — what would it say and why? It could be a few words or a paragraph. (If helpful, it can be someone else’s quote: Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?) 

Control the controllable.

If I’m worrying about something, I press the pause button, remind myself of that sentence. There’s nothing to gain in worrying about the things you can’t control.


What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made? (Could be an investment of money, time, energy, etc.)

Buying a house.

My coach recommended that I invest in a property. It was the best advice he gave me. Now house prices are so high I’m not sure I could buy one.

It gave me financial security and I’ve made it my home. When I was a child my parents made our home the centre of a community, they filled it with love. I do the same now, people are always dropping in. My friends and family call it a hotel. I love to look after everyone, I love creating memories. Home is a safe haven. 


In the last five years, what new belief, behaviour, or habit has most improved your life?

Learning to say no.

I’ve had to stop saying yes to everything. I’ve always been so drawn to helping people, I actually really believe my purpose is to help people. In the athletics teams I was known as Auntie Donna. My Dad has said that I have the answers and solutions to everything, that I’m like an angel (which is a very lovely thing to say).

But I’m not superwoman. My time is limited and I can’t say yes to every request that comes my way (and more and more are). It’s been really hard, because it isn’t natural for me to say no, but I’ve had to do this for my own well-being and also so I can prioritise my parents. I speak to them twice every day. My parents are my ‘bigger yes’ and that empowers me to say no to other things.

I normally do so by saying I definitely can’t now, but perhaps in the future if the timing is right we can ( I do sincerely mean that), or I offer advice or other suggestions.


What advice would you give to a smart, driven student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore?” 

“Impossible is nothing”  (which is an adidas slogan).

My coach used to say this to me. It had a powerful effect. If you thought you were running fast, you can always run faster. He had incredible belief in his athletes. He knew me better than I knew myself. He didn’t treat all his athletes the same, he understood that we were individuals and if he wanted to get the best from someone, he did what they personally needed – that’s what you call equity diversity and inclusion.


What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?

Things have changed a lot in EDI (Equality, Diversity & Inclusion), but still too often it is seen as a nice to have, not a must have or is it really needed in an organisation.. People literally say this to me sometimes. 


What frustrates you the most about your industry and the way companies are run in it?

Lip service.

Having a policy is easy, but EDI is not about just having something written down on a piece  of paper (although that is necessary). Your values have to lead to actions, to changes in the behaviours of an organisation.

When I start work with an organisation I ask them why they want to make these changes and also what would the organisation look like once they are made. All too often they don’t have an answer. It should be an impassioned response, so that’s a red flag that they’re just doing it as a tick box exercise.

Everyone is responsible for driving EDI, but it starts with the CEO and the leaders of an organisation and that starts with a conversation and involves everyone in that conversation.


In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to (distractions, invitations, etc.)? What new realisations and/or approaches helped? Any other tips?

Again, it’s trying not to do too much. I still really struggle with this though.  For example, last month, I was asked to be an MC at a great event in Birmingham and really wanted to do it. But it would have meant putting myself under a lot of pressure to fit it in with other appointments. 

I called my sister (I often go to her for advice) and she helped me see it was literally impossible 😀 That’s how hard I find it to say no.


What does a balanced life look like to you? Has a work or a project you have been focused on caused you to neglect other areas of your life?

Family and friends are hugely important to me, if I have that in my life, everything else falls into place. 

I have a huge amount of energy and always keep moving and that is ok for me, that’s who I am, but I have pushed myself too far and got ill from it (glandular fever) before. But now I know my body and recognise when it’s time to say no and rest.


When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do? (If helpful: What questions do you ask yourself?)

I have to-do lists for everything in my life. I have post-it notes all over my house, others think it looks like chaos, but it’s a system that really works for me. As long as I keep on top of my lists I don’t get stressed or overwhelmed (and I never lose focus, that has never been a problem for me).

My brain is always on the go, I also keep my phone nearby and if I have a thought I send an email to myself. 


What does leadership mean to you?

I feel I have a responsibility to support others and be positive. I always look at myself to motivate, inspire and to lead by example, to drive change positively. 

But leaders also need to show their vulnerabilities. Show that it’s through trial and error that we learn, it’s from our mistakes. You’re more likely to bring people with you if you can do that.


Which people have most inspired you in your life and why? 

My parents came over in the UK in the 60s from a beautiful paradise to the unknown. It was very courageous to build a home and a life here. Despite the struggles (which we weren’t aware of till we had grown up), they made that home fun and loving. They have truly inspired me!

My sister had the courage to change career from dental nursing to becoming a housing lawyer. She’s 10 years older than me, and watching someone make a decision that tough, and to overcome adversity (failing exams and coming back and getting through), that behaviour inspired me to be better. 

My coach when I was an athlete. He was an athlete himself and would always offer tips and suggestions for me to improve and I persuaded him to become a coach. I was his first athlete. He was truly amazing. He travelled the world to further his trade, constantly getting new ideas from other people, he never stopped learning. He knew me better than I knew myself and truly inspired me. Very sadly, he passed away in 2015. I miss him a great deal. He was an amazing individual.


What do the words principles and values mean to you?

Principles are guides of behaviour. Values are our beliefs. 


If you had a forum to speak to 50 leaders, what question would you pose to them, to get them thinking about and being better leaders?

What is your purpose? What is your why?

What does good look like for your organisation?


What one thing could you do that you aren’t doing now, that if you did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your personal life?  What one thing in your business or professional life would bring similar results?

Get back into my exercise regime. The London marathon was such a challenge for me it has put me off exercise! I need to enjoy what I’m doing (I always loved my athletics), so I need to find an outlet that gives me that.

I started writing a book in 2005. I’d like to finish that at some point – I have many stories to tell!


Have you ever engaged with self-help, mentoring or coaching? If so, how?

I’ve engaged in it a lot. Not just in my athletics career in which it was of course a huge factor.  

I’m a huge advocate of mentoring, it has amazing results and impact. I have both had and been a mentor (I’ve developed mentor programs)

I also needed to see a Psychologist when I got glandular fever. I thought athletics had made me ill and didn’t want to engage with it. working with the Psychologist got me through that.  We often know the best answers ourselves, but it’s hard to get that perspective without someone else prompting you and finding that space is important. 

It’s underrated how much we can learn from each other.


Topic: 50 in 50