Marion Thomas and Sarah Walton Celebrating Women in Project Management

Marion Thomas and Sarah Walton  Celebrating Women in Project Management

Marion Thomas & Sarah Walton


Location: Haslemere, Surrey, UK

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Marion and Sarah are both hands on project/programme managers who also run transformational training for project people who want to enhance their leadership and people skills. Since the early 90s both Marion and Sarah have been working as freelance contractors across a huge variety of industry sectors and projects ranging from business re-engineering to system implementation, regulatory change, new product development, cost management/reduction and business efficiency.

This variety gave them the perfect opportunity to observe what makes a project really successful and the impact good leadership and people skills has in engaging teams to get things done. They both invested in their own personal development in these areas and brought those skills into their delivery work. One senior sponsor noted that they seem to get 20% more from their teams, and so they realised that their approach to project leadership was certainly working. As they continued to encounter failing projects and programmes and overly stretched project teams they decided they could really help their fellow project people through sharing what they had learnt during their careers. And so Extraordinary Project Management was born and Sarah and Marion now balance project delivery with running training programmes to help good project people to stretch into becoming great or Extraordinary project managers. Empowering yourself first and then your colleagues and sponsors is at the heart of our programme – it’s like being on a plane – put your own oxygen mask on first then you can empower others and can also be empowered.

What is your project management super power?

We are the Mary Poppins of project management – we come in make some magic happen and deliver great things, empowering our project teams to grow and develop, to become great at what they do and then a little sad when we leave. We are “plaiters of fog” and create certainty and a container that enables our project teams to move forward and repeated get asked to deliver projects where the client knows what they want but not how to deliver it. We mix pragmatism and common sense to be able to swoop up to 40,000ft and then down into the detail and then back up again. We use our Extraordinary Project Management framework to layer over the traditional methodologies because it is people who deliver projects. We know that we have to develop ourselves first to be able to help others – like putting your oxygen mask on first on a plane – and we know we need to be grounded in our personal “BIG WHY”, and be in touch with our personality preferences, strengths, values, needs and to honour our boundaries. We are very passionate about our profession – we guess you can tell that!!

How can gender diversity be improved in the project management profession?

We are huge fans of the work Vicki Griffiths and her team does for the Women in Project Management Special Interest Group (Association for Project Management) and we believe that it is creating a forum like this than can help encourage gender diversity. So, how do we improve gender diversity – well first up we talk about it, support one another, and get good at encourage and amplifying our whole team in the work place.

As the profession evolves, what skills do you think will be key for future success?

We’re all for change and evolution but we believe there are some fundamentals that we need to keep in sight. In a flurry of time and cost pressure, over-aspirational scope, and a deluge of data, we still think the extraordinary project manger will be those who can stop and think. The need to be clear about the Target or BIG WHY for the project being delivered is the thing that will anchor your project Tribe. Yes we mean Tribe not team – in our experience dedicated teams are a thing of the past and today’s PM needs to build their Tribe of engaged “BAU” people with a “day job” who will give you some of their precious time. Being ever watchful of the constantly changing Terrain you are navigating as you deliver your project is also vital for success. So the basics remain key for future success – the ability to think, to tap into your intuition, to engage a tribe to work with you, and to “Keep your head whilst those around you are losing theirs” (Kipling). Great leadership will always be required.

How do you recover from difficult situations?

We’ve talked about “Target” and this is so important in helping recover. The Target is the “BIG WHY” (Simon Sinek) for the project or programme you are leading. It is the ‘stake in the ground’ of what really matters. It is important to know your project Target and also your personal Target. This thing is so big and important that it is the thing that you are tethered to that will hold you strong. You get super clear about why this all matters at the outset and it really helps when the going gets tough. It is also important to be super clear about your values – often when things are difficult or if you feel uncomfortable it is because your values are being trampled on. If you know why you are feeling “icky” then you can look at that situation and choose how to respond to it. And of course ensuring you build a support network is really important too. Knowing your strengths and knowing your power and standing in those makes a huge difference. And finally, sometimes you have to take a hard look at why the situation is difficult. Tenacity and staying power are great competencies but not at any cost. Sometimes this is about having the courage to know that this is not about you recovering, it is about you standing up and being able to say that this is not right. If necessary, to walk away.

What are your tips and techniques for conflict resolution?

Oooo we wrote an article about this for the APM’s Project magazine a few issues back. So, without peeking this is what comes to mind. Firstly, seek to understand the issue and de-personalise it. Put the issue on the table – imagine you can see it and point to it so it like it is a box on the table. Work with those who are in conflict to get them to describe what is on the table. Walk around it and, together, explore it from different perspectives. Explore what possibilities might emerge now. See where there is some common ground. Secondly, try to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes. Try to understand their perspective. See you differences and try to get a sense of what they can see and where they are coming from. Thirdly, be intentional in the energy you are bringing to a conflict situation. Joanna Martin has done some great work on archetypes – are you going to show up as the serene and powerful and calm Queen, or are you going to be the swift, cunning Warrioress (a bit Neytiri in Avatar)? Fourthly, just keep breathing slowly. This will slow things down and calm you. Box breathing is a technique used in combat – it is very powerful. I also recommend you get familiar with Marshall Cavendish’s Non-Violent Communication and also the JoHari matrix. Lots of possibilities!

Which 3 words best describe why you enjoy being a project manager?

Challenge, learning, stretch




Hello amazing women of the project management world! My Celebrating Women in Project Management Series highlights your stories to inspire others, raise the profile of women in the project management profession, and to further strengthen our global network.

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