Two Women, One Job: Lessons from an Unconventional Career Arrangement

by Shelley Murray and Cynthia Cunningham

Job sharing - it's a nice idea, but can it work? And can it work for anything except clerical jobs? The answer is yes, and this excerpt from Enlightened Power tells how two women talked a financial institution into letting them share a vice president position.

Book Excerpt:
Enlightened Power: How Women are Transforming the Practice of Leadership
by Linda Coughlin (Editor), et al

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by Shelley Murray and Cynthia Cunningham

We are two women who shared one job. For six years, we held a single full-time position as vice presidents in the Global Rate Markets Group at Fleet Boston Financial. This was not a temporary solution to provide us with more flexible working hours during a particular stage of life; this was the right lifestyle choice for us.

Imagine how radical our work arrangement seemed in the very conventional world of a major financial institution. We are very different individuals who shared one set of responsibilities, one set of performance objectives, and one performance review. Not only was our circumstance unusual, but so were our working hours. We each worked two full days and one half day a week, overlapping on Tuesdays. Although we considered this time together to be important, it meant that we were not physically present at our desks for the standard forty hours per week. On a busy trading floor, where the pace rarely slows down, the act of going home early carries with it special burdens. It was never easy to rise from our desks, nod good-bye to coworkers who barely looked up from their own work, and leave for our personal lives—but it was always worth it.

We made that choice because the opportunity for a more well rounded and integrated life was too important for us to pass up. Just the same, the path we took was filled with difficult challenges and is certainly not for everyone. There is no such thing as having it all.



Selling a Radical Proposal

Six years ago, we were both successful BankBoston branch managers working sixty-hour workweeks. We knew each other by reputation as high performers. We recognized a similar drive, work ethic, and ambition in each other, as well as a similar strain. Our long and intense work hours were helping to further our careers, but those careers were also creating a major barrier to motherhood. We both wanted to continue to excel in our jobs, and we also wanted more time with our children. It seemed an impossible balance.

That’s when Cindy approached Shelley with a novel idea. Why not package and promote ourselves as one candidate to share a single job? We could spend half as much time at work and twice as much time with our families. Friends and peers asked, “Are you sure you want to do this?” Even putting the proposal forward to the bank seemed risky to our careers. We knew that our arrangement had to make business sense to the bank. In retrospect, this was the most critical element to making our idea succeed. How were we going to help the bank exceed its goals while we worked in a different capacity?

When we had sketched out our proposal and combined our résumés, we found that we had an appealing package, so we sent letters to all of the key senior executives notifying them of our interest. Many of them were intrigued and agreed to meet with us. One of those senior executives was a woman. She listened to our pitch and sent an email out to five of her peers. That letter helped get us in the door at the Global Rate Markets Group. Our experience made us an ideal candidate for the job. We received an offer that doubled our combined salaries. We became responsible for the sales and marketing of commercial foreign exchange products through a delivery network of the bank’s retail branches.

In our proposal, we agreed to work twenty hours a week, splitting the salary. Fortunately, and to BankBoston’s credit, twenty hours a week did make us eligible for full benefits. Our responsibilities and objectives would be decided on as if we were one full-time employee. Our performance would be evaluated as if we were one employee.

Communication between employer and employee—and, to be sure, between the job-sharing employees themselves—is crucial. The situation works best when the manager demonstrates open support in the presence of team members and colleagues, and when the employee is as flexible as possible in meeting the business need. There is a fine line, however, between flexibility and personal compromise. If the employee allows that line to be crossed too frequently or in a precedent-setting way—either from personal volition or because of the pressure from managers or peers—then the progress that has been made may prove unsustainable.

Meeting and Exceeding the Daily Challenges

We quickly realized the need to overachieve and prove ourselves above and beyond the call. Because we were constantly being watched and tested, we needed to perform at high levels 100 percent of the time. We learned that you must always be on top of your game—and make no mistake: despite how seriously you may view the stakes, it is a game.

How does that game play out? One of the pitfalls of our arrangement was how severely it limited networking with coworkers. This set into motion all kinds of ramifications and complications. On the job, we were working full speed as much as possible. Most days, people got up from their desks to exchange small talk, ideas, and even crucial information only after the trading day winds down. By that time, we had been gone for several hours. One of our previous managers drove this point home when he told us, confidentially, that we were seen as an “enigma” by others in the group because they didn’t really know us on a personal basis. To our minds, there were many people on our large trading floor who did not know each other well or at all. Yet because of our special status we were held to a different standard by peers and managers alike.

Some of the inevitable jealousy from coworkers was quite understandable. Although most of our colleagues said they supported our career choice, in reality some of those same coworkers tried to undermine our success. The fact is, you have to watch your back. Teammates may want you to fail, and you are not always going to be there to defend yourself. One of our colleagues, for instance, made a point of publicly asking what time we were leaving for the day even though our hours were posted on our desk for all to see. This was not an occasional or unintended moment of forgetfulness. . . . He asked us this question every day for five years.

In some ways, we can’t even blame this colleague for his lack of understanding. Unfortunately, seat time or “face time” is still considered an indication of productivity. Even organizations that say they measure performance by objective standards of productivity still, unconsciously perhaps, judge effort by how early you arrive and how late you leave. Management did not necessarily believe that we really wanted to climb the corporate ladder—or that we were able to. We were made aware of how real this problem was come annual review time. Despite the fact that we continued to meet and exceed goals that are the same as those of our colleagues and that we consistently received high performance ratings, in at least one instance we received a lower evaluation and bonus than a colleague whom we outperformed. The difference? This colleague was in the office all the time.

Staying the Course and Reaping the Benefits

We felt many threats to our job-sharing arrangement over the six years of our journey. Two years ago, we were suddenly asked to submit a proposal for our current job, as if we were coming into it for the very first time. It seemed likely that the expectation was that we would feel pressured by this request and would come back with a proposal that would involve us spending more time in the office. We held firm, however, and managed to preserve our limits. It wasn’t easy, but it was always worth it. A bad manager can use an arrangement such as ours as a weapon to force you into a more difficult position. A good manager will evaluate your performance objectively and applaud you for your contributions to the team’s success.

From our perspective, this was a positive experience. Fundamentally, we obtained exactly what we wanted. We spent more time with our children—time we simply didn’t have before. We chose to set our priorities, and by being able to make those choices, we felt empowered and in control of our lives. We also developed new personal skills. We became better communicators by necessity. To make our arrangement work so well, we had to be completely honest and trusting with each other, and noticed that this openness helped us in other relationships as well. We found that on a professional level, the skills and strategies that each of us brought to the job rubbed off on each other making us better skilled at what we do.

How important to you is that time outside of work? How would you benefit by developing a different relationship with your work? Imagine what you would do with your life if you worked only twenty hours a week. If changing your lifestyle is important to you, we are certain that you can manage an alternative career path in this day and age. Doing so is only going to get easier, as more of us prove that success in our personal lives does not preclude success in our working lives. As a wise person once said, no one on their deathbed wishes they had spent more time at the office. We think that work should balance and serve your life, not the other way around.


Cynthia Cunningham and Shelley Murray, contributors to Enlightened Power: How Women Are Transforming the Practice of Leadership, are two women who shared one job as vice presidents in the Global Rate Markets Group at Fleet Boston Financial (formerly Bank Boston). 

 
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