When Alix Ainsley and Charlotte Cherry applied for the position of head of HR at Dyson, they did it as a team.
Doubling up didn’t hold them back. Last year they were both hired, splitting the role on a part-time basis.
Their circumstances are unusual: job-sharing remains a far more common practice for non-executive roles. But it’s emblematic of a shift towards flexibility that’s gradually extending to the upper echelons of the workplace.
Progress in offering part-time roles for professionals is slow but significant. According to the recruitment company Timewise, the proportion of flexible working positions paying more than £20,000 FTE rose to 9.8 per cent this year, up from 8.7 per cent in 2016.
These roles extended up to executive management level, where 7 per cent of jobs were offered with the option of flexible working, such as a four-day week instead of five.
Too many cooks?
The appeal to senior managers of part-time working is clear: you can still earn a relatively high salary and progress in your career, while leaving time for your family and other pursuits, lowering the risk of burnout.
A harder question to answer is whether such flexibility is a good thing for productivity.
It allows companies to make use of the complementary talents of two individuals while maximising their morale and energy levels. But the recent demise of co-CEO arrangements at major companies including Blackberry, Deutsche Bank and Chipotle Mexican Grill indicate that two heads aren’t necessarily better than one.
No matter what the job-share arrangement is, there’s always a risk that personality clashes or differences over strategy will emerge, complicating decision-making, confusing their teams and putting a brake on progress.
Those problems were evident at burrito chain Chipotle, whose founder and CEO Steve Ells cited a need for greater simplification for dropping co-CEO Monty Moran in December.
"Chipotle is based on a very simple idea: we start with great ingredients, prepare them using classic cooking techniques, and serve them in a way that allows people to get exactly what they want,” Ells said at the time. “Even though it’s a simple idea, operations have become over-complicated."
The perception problem
Chipotle was already facing major challenges prompted by a food contamination scandal. And Deutsche Bank and Blackberry’s woes undoubtedly had more to do with the global financial crisis and technological disruption, respectively, than their splitting of management functions.
But if one lesson can be learned from their experiences, it’s that unusual management structures seem to be the first thing investors target when the going gets tough. Their co-CEO models could well have been a victim of poor perception, driven by a fear of the unconventional, rather than an indictment of the practice of job-sharing itself.
Several big companies are still thriving with co-CEOs, such as software giant Oracle and shopping centre operator Westfield. Others are employing senior executives on a part-time basis: Katie Bickerstaffe, CEO of Dixons Carphone’s UK and Ireland business, takes Fridays off to spend time with her children.
More broadly, an underlying change in technological capabilities is making job-sharing more feasible. The establishment of high-speed broadband networks and proliferation of mobile devices are allowing workers to stay in touch more easily, reducing the need to be present in an office.
In five years’ time, flexibility will be the most important draw factor for prospective employees, overtaking pay and cultural fit, according to a survey of more than 1,000 hiring professionals conducted this year by Korn Ferry.
How to make it work
The most important ingredient for a successful sharing arrangement is choosing the right partners. At the executive level, the stakes are so high that candidates will need to be excellent communicators who are able to leave their egos at the door.
To that end, employers will want to probe whether candidates have worked with others successfully in the past. Ainsley and Cherry, for example, had already spent more than four years sharing senior HR roles at both Lloyds Bank and GE Capital before applying for their latest job at Dyson.
Employers may also want to sacrifice an extra day’s pay to get the most out of the dual-worker model. Job-share partners could work three days a week each, costing their employer six days’ pay, but offering the pair an overlap day to collaborate more effectively.
Depending on each partner’s skill set, tasks could either be split using the so-called ‘island model’, where each takes responsibility for separate tasks, or the ‘twins model’, where all tasks are shared equally.
Providing a consistent service is also essential, so partners, no matter how senior, should consider using a joint email address or common phone number to ensure a seamless experience.
Most importantly, they’ll have to be very good at what they do.
Whether the scepticism is justified or not, the concept of job-sharing at senior levels still has a perception hurdle to overcome. So a crucial element to making it work is to find partners that don’t simply perform well – they need to excel.