"Fate and family dynamics intervened, so that didn’t happen."
Diane was born in Sydney. Her father was a builder, her mother a homemaker, and the family lived on the idyllic Northern Beaches. From age nine, Diane and the family spent the next twenty years in Canberra and, as she recollects, “I was doing extremely well at school. I wanted to go on to do medicine. That was my plan. Fate and family dynamics intervened, so that didn’t happen.”
Diane went on to do her Higher School Certificate at night while she had a full-time job in the public service, and then studied for her degree, over seven years, while also working full-time. By the time she actually finished her Higher School Certificate and University, she’d been working for nine years.
At that stage Diane was working in specialist libraries in government departments and all the top librarian were held by men. Diane’s thought was that “this just won’t work for me.” Three astute men, who weren’t averse to women working their way up when they had the desire and the talent, rapidly facilitated Diane’s career trajectory, beginning the phase which would define and shape her future.
Diane approached the IT department, which was then a developing area, taking a demotion by several grades to move to IT because “I’ve always instinctively understood that mountain climbers don’t go from peak to peak, they come down and then go up the next one.”
During her first few weeks there, Diane recalls, “I worked for a wonderful guy called Terry Hilsberg and actually learned how to do online searches way ahead of the IT guys. I used to get into work way before Terry every morning and run a summary of his day and what all the big issues were. That lasted nine weeks until there was a project starting to automate all the Federal Industrial Awards.”
During this initial experience another manager, Barry Ellis, observed Diane’s confidence, skills and motivation to perform. “Perhaps he noticed I had talents which could be used on projects and I’m forever grateful, because he sponsored me to move to a project, although I had no idea what project management was!”
“I was called a subject matter expert, but, of course, I wasn’t – I knew nothing! I loved the environment though ” Diane reminisces. “The Project Manager, Mark Quirk, led by teaching and I learned so much. I learned the foundations of project management and then this new thing called a Project Management course was coming up. I recall suggesting to him that it would be far better to send me than one of the blokes and he agreed. I completed the course and this was the turning point in my career.”
Diane discovered she had a natural ability to organise so things happen. And her decision to make this her career was made during that week. She was 24 years old.
Fortunately, John Franklin and Kevin Hollis became part of the further succession of male managers who saw Diane as someone with potential they could support. Diane just kept absorbing all there was to learn. She moved into industrial advocacy and negotiations and loved it. From then on she approached each challenge as though it was a project.
In 1989 Diane was given an opportunity, by Fiona Balfour, the first female executive to help Diane’s career along, to be part of a project to set up a new business for Qantas in Sydney. As she recalls, “there were so many times when I could have said ‘Oh no, that’s a step too far’. But I learned over and over again that I absolutely love finishing things. The Qantas role lead to opportunities in the US, Canada, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Singapore. In those days, projects were all about getting to the end and getting things done.
“You have to be prepared along the way to take a few chances,” Diane advises. Initially project management had a very narrow focus in Australia. Diane discovered that when she attended an Australian Institute of Project Management meeting and was the only one there not in construction.
Diane then took up a role with a large consulting company, KPMG, which she absolutely adored, loving the people and the integrity of the organisation. However, a request to change to part- time for a while was met with a stern no.
That was the catalyst for Diane to start what she wanted to work for – a Really Nice Company. That’s what RNC stands for!
Starting out again, at the bottom of another mountain, in 1999 Diane rang business contacts and arranged coffee meetings. Her message was simple “if you’ve got broken or breaking projects I can fix them.” By then there were a lot of people who called themselves project managers. Diane differentiated herself as the person who’d fix the projects everyone else broke and take on the projects others wouldn’t touch. That’s how she started the business.
“When I talk to women, I say, ‘If you have a career break for whatever reason, do not come back into the first meeting with I’ve been off for 18 months, or I’ve been off for 12 months’, they don’t care, it’s irrelevant. If you’re putting yourself there to do some work, don’t start telling them why it won’t work for them to start with.”
Diane comments that it becomes very important to read the politics of the group you’re working with as well as the people you’re working with. Diane’s feels that “Women don’t do it. They don’t do it traditionally, because we don’t understand boys’ politics. We didn’t grow up learning how to knock each other over in the playground, playing team sports and all that sort of stuff.”
One of the more unusual strategies Diane took when she started was to deliberately avoid any of the big companies. She drew a line under the top 100 and said, “I’m not going near them.” And then she went for the next 100, believing there was no way she could distinguish herself effectively against all the other minnows trying to feed from those big ponds. Over time, the business has been drawn into, and now works for, many of the biggest companies as well as maintaining loyalty to her first clients.
When it comes to defining her role and that of the RNC team now, Diane has a new perspective to fit with today’s changing workplaces. “In general terms, a project manager is engaged by people who want something specific done outside the line of normal work. That takes a particular skill set and a particular personality style to be able to do that, to be able to fit in with different organisations.” However, the profession has, in her opinion, moved away from delivery to focussing in administration with the basic belief that if you get the paperwork right the right outcomes will follow. It’s a pity on two levels, firstly because it isn’t, now and never has been, true and secondly because the net effect of the focus on administration is a profession proud of its success but a market perception that it adds little value.
When asked to review projects, Diane comments that she’s never encountered one which has been failing because the paperwork wasn’t right. “It’s always about the people. When someone wants an outcome they can’t achieve in their normal course of events, that’s a project. And whether it’s called a project, a program or a portfolio, describes its complexity, scale, and sub-projects.” Diane now feels she may have lost the battle of the distinction between administrative project management and the ones who focus on delivering the outcome and may well give up the use of ‘Project Management’ as the descriptor for what RNC does.
RNC’s primary focus is on actually delivering the outcome rather than tracking and paperwork. She says, “I’m quite ruthless in the fact that I only work for the people who actually want something done.”
When asked about recruiting staff, Diane also has some interesting observations. “If they come along and they say ‘I’ve got a PMP, look at my Gantt charts, or I can do S-curves and J-curves, or EVM, I am not impressed with that. I’m impressed with their ability to think laterally. It’s more about understanding the candidate’s perspective and values.”
When Diane meets a potential recruit she deliberately jumps all over the place to see if they can keep up. She’ll also try to see how hungry they are for money, because people who are desperate for money make poor project managers as they’ll likely run the agenda to keep the project going rather than to get the job done.
Diane recalls she’s “made some classic hiring mistakes, but it’s not how many stuff-ups you make, it’s how you fix them.”
With regard to delegating, Diane reports people often say she’s a perfectionist. “But I’ve never done anything perfectly in my life. I probably could delegate more.” She believes every person she put on a project, needs to be put through the lens of ‘I’m risking my house on this person’. “Because of that I guess I feel inclined to stay close to RNC people and support them.”
Diane comments RNC staff would say it’s quite a different working environment. Diane quotes the book by the founder of the Marriott chain who said he ‘built it for the employees first’ as her guide in this area. The philosophy that, “if you look after your employees, they will look after the clients”, has never let Diane down.
Diane has also used her experience to date to develop her own proprietary software. She believes “Magia is the type of tool most organisations will be using within the next five years”. Going beyond collaboration to what she calls ‘targeted collaboration’.
Magia works with the reality of Matrix management by increasing visibility, clarity, focus, and confidence in projects and programs that overlap with business as usual. Diane says “with RNC and Magia clients get clarity, certainty and control – after all it’s their outcome and they should have those things.”
Magia ensures people are central to the project plan. Every person is included, their work is scheduled, and they know what they have to do when, how it fits in with the bigger picture, who they are depending on to be able to do their work, and who’s depending on them. It focusses on collaboration.
Success for Diane, which she defined when she first started RNC, was having enough money so she could say no to clients who don’t fit with her desire to deliver outcomes – some people just want the paperwork. As Diane states, “RNC’s clients are people willing and determined to achieve (basically the winners). They care enough about the outcome that they’ll work to move whatever has to be moved in the organisation to make it happen.” They know they don’t have to deliver it themselves, they just need to be responsible for it. RNC prefers to be in the background making clients the heroes.
Diane gets up every morning and thinks, “Who are we going to help today? Whose budget are we going to save? Whose project are we going to rescue? Who will get their outcome?” She loves what she does.”
RNC Global Projects has been operating for seventeen years and Diane keeps her hand in by taking on at least one major project herself each year. She says “it’s important to stay current and competent – otherwise clients might not distinguish RNC from ‘agencies’”.
When asked who she admires in business, Diane nominated several people. One was an American woman, Nancy Tuor, who ran the project to close down the Rocky Flats nuclear site near Denver. To quote Diane, “I absolutely admire her. I went to Denver to learn from her, and the biggest thing I learned, well relearned, was to focus on the people and they’ll deliver. Oh, and be ruthless about removing the people who aren’t on the bus…..everyone knows who they are and if as the leader you don’t remove them you’ve weakened people’s commitment to you and their respect for you.”
Another person Diane truly respects is Catherine Livingstone who is currently the Head of the Business Council of Australia, and Chairman of Telstra noting “I’m a great fan. Catherine’s a big supporter of women and getting more women into maths and science. She doesn’t see gender, she sees capability.” Diane is also highly respectful of how Catherine’s conducted herself in the business world.
Diane believes “Surf Life Saving keeps the kids off the street, gives them a purpose, and teaches them valuable skills. And it’s just such a good culture. The kids are just beautiful – they’re healthy, they’re glowing, they’re confident and they’re contributing.”
That commitment, together with Diane’s contribution to her client’s businesses, and those who work with her, ensure she, and RNC, will leave a wonderful legacy for the future.
- “It’s not how many stuff-ups you make, it’s how you fix them.”
- “You have to be prepared along the way to take a few chances,”
- “I’ve always instinctively understood that mountain climbers don’t go from peak to peak, they come down and then go up another one.”
- “Who are we going to help today? Whose budget are we going to save? Whose project are we going to rescue? Who will get their outcome? I love what I do.”
Diane’s built a career from doing what she loves to do, organising people and get the outcomes other people want. Projects and programs are the natural environment and career for her.