I used to be a lawyer. I practiced for about three years and I liked about ten percent of it. I enjoyed helping people solve problems but I really didn’t like the commercial side and all the paperwork. I hated the technical aspects. I did however quite enjoy the appearance work and the advocacy role. After complaining to my uncle one night, he offered me a position as practice manager at his architecture firm. He taught me about the whole design process and what quality architecture involved. During this time, I saw a Project Manager (PM) in action. I had been wondering how I could stay in the industry but use my skills more broadly.
Eventually, I found a project management company that offered me a job. It was a leap of faith for them to take on someone who really didn’t have the technical knowledge at all. My first job was to rewrite all their marketing material. I then progressed to assistant project manager. That was 12 years ago and I was three months pregnant with my first baby. I made a big change at that time, taking a huge pay cut. The key lesson to be learnt there was; you have to be passionate about what you do. If you are in a career that you’re dissatisfied with, it’s worth sacrificing the income and pursuing something different.
What appeals to me about project management is working with big teams of people in a collaborative environment. I spent my first week of work in a site shed out at the Northern Hospital, trying to understand what everyone was talking about. I had no idea! I was fortunate as the company [I was working for] really let you shadow your superiors. I basically followed the PM to every meeting. I took all the minutes and just learnt on the job.
My current role is Associate Director. I am in a position now, where I get to shape the company that I work for. I’ve learnt that in order to succeed, you can’t just work in a business. You have to work on the business. Working on the business means that you have to keep looking up and out at where the next project going to come from. You think like an owner and actually take on the responsibility of the business.
My approach to conducting business is very much to understand what’s important to each of the stakeholders on a project. You need to be able to establish a rapport with all the different players. It is important to understand how each of them work, what’s important to them, how they fit together, what the politics are. That way you can apply influence to the team and the way that a project needs to go. Some project managers seem to think that their role is to direct and to bully the consultant or the builder. It’s just not how I work. I see it more as facilitating and enabling. My role is to enable the design team to do what they are best at and clear away the obstacles so that people can just be effective. I think you need a trusting relationship with everyone and that’s based on respect. I am also very good at being able to read the audience. And that’s really important. All of those soft skills are critical to being effective in Project Management. It’s being able to influence people rather than direct. In particular when they are very senior executives; you need to make them feel like they are very comfortable with any decisions.
I have been involved in many successful projects. The Melbourne School of Design has been the most high profile and successful on every measure. I am really pleased that everyone has come away with a positive experience. I was also involved on the Royal Children’s Hospital master planning. At the time, we had to go through the process of analyzing the different development options. It was interesting because it was so political, there was huge public interest in the project and there was also a lot of contention around building in the park. You also learn a lot from projects that are failures. You come away from them and you think ‘That’s where that one went wrong, that mustn’t ever happen again.’
I think my value as a PM is in understanding the client and helping the team to understand what is important, so there is no time wasted pursuing agendas that are never going to be accepted. We need to be able to focus people’s energy and remove the roadblocks. Communication is critical. You need to become quite intuitive and attuned to the client. Responding to them in a way that makes them feel comfortable. The challenge to working with multiple stakeholders is being nimble and not leaving anyone behind. It’s that concept of influencing. It is advocacy. It’s a performance. You go in there knowing that you have to convince them.
It’s the quality of the relationships that help you stay ahead of the game. You have to know who you are dealing with so you don’t walk into a situation where you don’t know the dynamics. That is critical. You can be quite intuitive about how you find people. If they trust you, that gives you a huge amount of leeway.
I was really fortunate to be offered good quality part time work. It is critical that companies are committed to providing genuine part time work. Many of my clients, particularly in the health sector and government, are women. Smart project management consultancies understand that and understand that they have to reflect back to their client’s diversity.
Flexibility is important. I remember when BlackBerry first came in. It was a game changer, because suddenly I could be over everything. It was ridiculous. At the same time, it was also a negative because it made it really hard to switch off. Technology helps, commitment to your work helps. You’ve just got to be flexible and prepared to do it.
I have two girls and my partner has two girls so between us we have four girls. I had twelve months maternity leave with the first child and I had twelve months with the second. I did have them five years apart and I believe that helped. It’s chaos. Work life balance is very difficult. I have found it really difficult to have days where I don’t think about work. I’ve got a bit better at just turning off the phone. And my kids are old enough now to also say ‘Mum, stop talking about work, stop looking at your phone!’ It is easy now that I am back to full time work because I can have a more conventional day and take time off to do things that are important to me.
I think women have to not give themselves a hard time about the decisions they make. They beat themselves up over whatever decision it is that they make. I have to accept that I’m not going to be able to have lots of my kids’ friends over to play, for example. There are some things I can’t do because I’m at work. I don’t know everyone at school, but neither do most of the blokes. You just have to accept that you have made the commitment to work because you love it. At times that may mean you have made some sacrifices but you have to try to hold onto what’s important.
I have always really loved colour and normally wear a lot of it! I feel a lot more confident wearing bright colours than I do being very demure. I can remember some of the outfits I used to wear as a lawyer. I got asked if I was an air hostess once! I used to wear the scarf with the knot on the side. As a woman you have to be really conscious about what sort of attention you are drawing to yourself. Particularly as a senior person I often find myself asking, ‘Do I want them to be commenting on what I wear, or just be listening to what I have to say?’ It is often a double-edged sword; I’m very mixed about it. Fashion for me, is a statement about being independent and because I am interested in design, it’s part of how I communicate that to other people.
I’ve told my daughter so many times that it’s okay to be afraid, but you still have to do it afraid. I have spent so much time trying to help her have a go, to not stop putting herself forward. It is really interesting because she has put herself forward sometimes and hasn’t been successful. You can see the disappointment and you want to protect your children from disappointment. My youngest daughter does not need any encouragement. She is amazing. She has a mild physical disability and she is so determined. She is the one out of my daughters on the monkey bars who is so strong and muscular because she is so determined. You have to say different things to different kids.
Pippa arrived at our interview in Richmond, on her bike, as usual. Both of us had the pleasure of working with Pippa on the Melbourne School of Design project, so we already knew that Pippa ran a tight, well oiled machine. Her ability to influence any facet of the project, whether it be setting a brief, holding a stakeholder meeting, a workshop or a presentation, already held us in awe (and we were both obsessed with her fashion style). Pippa has a fantastic way of always making you feel as though you are an important part of the team, whilst making you feel comfortable to have your own say. We can’t thank her enough for taking part in the Gazella project.