Rabbatts was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1955 and moved to England at the age of three. She left school with just five O-levels. But after evening classes and A-levels, she then went to the London School of Economics and became a barrister in 1981. She made her name as the youngest council chief in the country.
From 1987, she worked in local government, becoming Deputy Chief Executive of Hammersmith and Fulham in 1989. She became Chief Executive of Merton before being appointed to the post of Chief Executive of Lambeth in 1995. Under her charge, Lambeth did not entirely shed its image of a poorly-run council but was seen as more forward-thinking, dynamic and youthful. There were significant improvements in housing, education and council tax collection.
Upon leaving Lambeth, in March 2000, Rabbatts became Chief Executive of iMPOWER, a public sector consultancy, which she founded. She subsequently became co-chair of iMPOWER and moved on to be Managing Director of Channel 4’s education programmes and business, 4Learning.
Rabbatts was a Governor of the BBC from 1999 to 2001, resigning upon her appointment to Channel 4. She is a Governor at the London School of Economics, an Associate of The King's Fund on the Board of directors at the British Council and was awarded the CBE in the 2000 New Year Honours list.
On 3 May 2006 Rabbatts was appointed as the new Executive Deputy Chair of Millwall F.C., and on 27 October 2006 she was appointed as Executive Chairwoman of Millwall Holdings plc, taking over from Peter de Savary. On 24 July 2011 she was the guest on Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4.
In 2010, Rabbatts became a Trustee of Malaria No More UK and later took over as the Chair of Trustees.
In February 2013 she was assessed as one of the 100 most powerful women in the United Kingdom by Woman's Hour on BBC Radio 4. In April 2014, she was a judge in the BBC Woman's Hour power list 2014. 
In October 2013 she criticised the make-up of the Football Association's commission to improve the national team as being "all-white, all-male"; Rio Ferdinand was subsequently added to the commission.
- The Independent: "A Jamaican-born tigress of the business world is daring to make her mark in a Lions' Den of football", 22 October 2006.
- http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/desert-island-discs/castaway/d7984e93#b012qn4z Desert Island Discs Heather Rabbatts. Retrieved 2011-07-29.
- http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2011/dec/22/football-association-heather-rabbatts-director Football Association names Heather Rabbatts as first female director. Retrieved 2011-12-22.
- BBC Radio 4, Woman's Hour Power list
- "Woman's Hour Power List 2014 – the panel". BBC Radio 4.