If you spotted a woman in a hard hat, on a building site, managing the construction of a major building project would you look twice? That’s how I met my Page 1 Woman, as I walked through the partially completed shell of the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton.

Her name is Derryn Cope. She got into the male world of managing construction projects by accident, you might say. Because this wasn’t the career she envisaged.  In fact, as a school leaver, her love of horses led to competing on them for their owners.  But love of horses didn’t pay the bills; so several years later she moved on and then up into sales management in an electronic distribution firm. From there she became a Business Process Director where she got a taste for managing IT projects.  And when redundancy followed, she capitalized on her time and got her project management qualification – a life transformer, because it helped to kick-start her career, at Manchester airport in its construction division. Ten years on, she’s with The Clarkson Alliance, a construction consultancy delivering project management services to the Leisure, Education and Heritage sectors.

So what does project management in construction involve? In Derryn’s words, ‘It’s not just about construction. You’re involved from the very beginning of the project, from the initiation, the planning, putting the programme together.’  Project managers ensure that the project is delivered on time and within budget and that those involved do what needs to be done. In fact, they’re people managers and leaders. And what’s the appeal to Derryn? ‘… you’ve got something you can really get hold of and deliver…….. something you can really make yours and be responsible for’. And when she turns up for the initial project meeting, ‘You have to go in believing you can do it, because in a male environment if you don’t look together and confident in the first 5 minutes you’re lost….. You have to walk in and instil confidence’.

Here’s what she said when interviewed.

What do you do on a typical day?

Derryn: I have three projects at the minute, all at different stages. It could be planning, creating,  looking at or assessing a programme; it could be writing meeting minutes or preparing for a meeting; I could be on the phone to various people – are they doing what they are supposed to be doing and where can I help to make this happen?

It’s about making sure that you are that central person, the communicator, pulling everything together, making sure that all is disseminated to the right people and on time.

My role on any one day can cover different phases, right from working with the client at the mandate, brief, initiation and putting all the planning together. You could be putting contracts together for other consultants on the team, and you could be on the construction phase actually on the building site.  All very varied!

What essential steps did you take to get to where you are now?

Derryn: I kept persevering. I’m determined. I’ve also, in the last 15 years, moved towards something that I enjoy. I was in sales and it wasn’t my favourite role. I’ve learnt that there are many different opportunities out there so you should try and do something you enjoy; it’s a lot more engaging.

Secondly I took relevant qualifications to get me into this area. I’ve done my APM RPP – (Association of Project Management Registered Project Professional). I’m also a PRINCE2 practitioner. Both are really useful and relevant.

It was also about thinking about my strengths and working to those – all the better if they link to something you enjoy. I’m a born organiser. I’m neat, tidy, organised and disciplined and I think being a project manager links to all of these.  I like the responsibility and I’m willing to take the responsibility. There are times when the project team look to you to stand up and take the responsibility for moving the project forward and I really enjoy the challenge of these moments.

What was the most significant thing you did as a woman that got you to where you are now?

Derryn: I think I’ve never underestimated the strengths and the value of being a woman. Right from my school days, I’ve always thought of men and women as equal and valued what women bring. I haven’t been sucked into playing by men’s rules. I don’t join the boys club and I’m comfortable not doing that.

I’m more than happy to use the strengths that I have although realising them came in my 40s and 50s. Women are often good communicators and negotiators, work hard at keeping everybody on side; we value the contribution the team members can bring. Being team players we are definitely less likely to want or go for conflict.  We’re likely to be organised and we can multi-task and those things are hugely positive.

What’s been the most significant thing you’ve learned that has been crucial to your career?

Derryn: Don’t give up and don’t back off. If you’re in a man’s world, they will compete and they will push. The first thing they do is assert themselves, so don’t back off at that point.

The second thing was about having worked from 1989 in a very diverse electronic component distribution company it made me realise that women are very capable. It also made me realise, if you worked hard and you were competent, how attainable the right roles were.

What were your three most revelatory moments?

Derryn: Each time I was promoted, I looked around and realised everybody was like me. When you look up from a lower level, irrespective of the environment, it can appear somewhat daunting. However when you get there, you look around and think, ‘I can do this’. I realised I was in an environment where I could contribute.

The second thing came a bit later and it’s appreciating that people really do view the same situation differently to me. Because I’m determined and I want to get things done, I just presume everyone’s the same as me. But of course some people are for all sorts of reasons not that engaged or concerned about delivering, or they want to achieve the same thing but do it differently. So it’s about me taking the time to understand how different people approach what is roughly the same situation and how I might interact with them to get the most positive response and bring them along with me. That’s a lot of what project management is – people management.

Lastly, it was the realisation that men aren’t quite as brilliant as they may think they are!

What vital resources have been crucial to getting you to where you are now?

Derryn: At a personal level, it’s about hard work and commitment.

Secondly, there are fabulous, inspiring women role models. There’s Sheryl Sandberg, Inga Beale, Carolyn McCall, Harriet Green, Mary Beard, Marjorie Scardino, Condoleezza Rice.

In some ways it can be a bit intimidating because if you think of successful women, you automatically think of such examples. But actually women can be successful on all sorts of different levels and it’s just about you believing you can be successful within your sphere. These women help. They’re not tokens. They are there because they’re capable.

The people I’ve always had as my heroes are Steffi Graf and Condoleezza Rice. Steffi Graf – determined, worked hard, so contained. She never threw her racquet on the floor. She came on to the court and did her job in that lovely understated way and then went off again. I just thought what a cool and capable girl.

Condoleezza Rice – so capable, contained, elegant and together and very focused on delivering. She’d go to a meeting and go, “Right, what are we going to do?” She’d say, “Let’s have an agenda and let’s achieve something, here.”

What do you understand by leadership?

Derryn: I think leaders are clear on where they’re going. They communicate their aspirations and have a confidence which inspires people to follow.  You’ve got to believe in what you want to deliver. You have to have the ability to communicate that message to inspire people and bring them with you. If you don’t know where you’re going, people soon suss that out.

How has this informed your work as a leader? 

Derryn: Irrespective of how long the project is or how long we have left, when I’m in a meeting or communicating at any level, I need to be clear where this project is going and I need to be confident about that. I need to be able to communicate it in every conversation that I have.

Here’s a good example from one of my projects. We’re down to the last few weeks which can be quite fraught. I was on site with a couple of managers tearing their hair out as there was so much going on. I was just talking to them about how fabulous it’s going to be and how well they were doing. It was sharing the vision and communicating “we need you and value you. We all need to work together to get to this end point”.

For women who want to be leaders in their field, what are your top tips?       

Derryn: Never underestimate how you could contribute. Even though it might be perceived not as the stereotyped leadership attributes, you can lead in a different way. You don’t have to be that aggressive standing up in the front type person. Sure, you’ve got to take responsibility, be strong and together, but don’t underestimate the strengths that women have and how fundamental they can be to making good leaders. It’s believing in what you’re doing and don’t back off. Don’t be pushed into a slightly lesser role. You’re good enough and you must remember that.

Because we women always look inward, “Am I good enough?” When you do that, you should go, “I absolutely am good enough”. It’s not always easy; I’ve plenty of moments when things don’t go as I might have wished; but I’ve learnt to utilise the experience and move on. So identify your strengths and your team members’ strengths and utilise these as best you can.

You also need to act and look professional which means looking fit and healthy. You need to stay healthy to deliver a decent job day in and day out.

Who do you know that deserves to be a Page 1 Woman? Send me her details here and let’s get her recognised.