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Kate Grussing is managing director of a headhunting firm with a difference – it seeks to find top jobs for experienced women who value their work life balance. Mandy Garner spoke to her.
Kate Grussing was working as a senior manager at JP Morgan and wanted a new challenge. She was a mother of four and her youngest child was soon to start school.
She wanted to do something more entrepreneurial, but had such a demanding job that she didn’t have the time to do a thorough job search.
She decided to take a career break as a way to give herself the space to consider her options, recharge her ‘batteries’ and spend time with her family.
She then had a brainwave, inspired by her time leading the diversity initiative for the European region at JP Morgan, where she had been “stunned” by the quantity and quality of the women she met.
Grussing knew there was both a demand from companies to retain, promote and advance women and a supply of talented women who had taken a career break or who wanted to work more flexibly.
The companies were struggling to source such women and Grussing saw a role for a headhunting firm offering talented women flexible jobs “I was a risk averse, cautious, corporate type,” she says. “The idea had been sitting under my nose for ages.”
Grussing liked to work in a team so, after testing out her idea on friends and colleagues, she found a business partner who had complementary skills.
Together they did focus groups and a survey to validate their business case and they developed a talent pool before approaching their first client. The venture was self-funded, the biggest cost being their earnings.
Sapphire Partners has been in business since 2005 and has built a strong reputation by word of mouth. Most jobs it fills are in the £75,000 plus wage bracket, although this depends on the job sector.
The company works principally with women who have not taken a career break because, as Grussing states, most women cannot afford to do so and people who’ve taken a break are harder to place: “Many women take career breaks and think they will get back to work sooner or later, but in reality it is very hard to get back on track.
One of the silver linings of the economic downturn is that more men will be taking career breaks and it could become more normal to have a non-linear career.”
Sapphire Partners works with talent-driven companies in banking, law and consultancy and has been expanding into other areas, such as the media, government, consumer goods companies and charities.
Grussing says financial services were one of the first sectors to wake up to the need to attract and retain talented women.
“It makes good business sense,” she says. “It’s not just about being nice. These women are productive, they probably cost less, they have high morale and are loyal if they are allowed to work flexibly.”
She adds that, in the current economic climate where companies cannot afford to pay the bonuses they used to, it makes sense to offer flexibility as a perk to retain good staff. She thinks the best companies will use the recession as an opportunity to promote flexibility in order to retain staff and cut costs, but she admits individuals may be more cautious to ask for it.
“It is more challenging because of the inherent anxiety at the moment,” she says. The good news, though, is that legislation granting the right to request flexibility is now firmly embedded and is about to be extended to all parents of children under 16.
She says employees need to be brave and pragmatic about asking for flexibility, but must make a good business case for it. “It’s not a right and it won’t work for all jobs. Employees need to be realistic and flexible.
They may have to start full-time and prove themselves so they can earn the right to work flexibly.”
She feels that if you are looking for a new job and want flexibility, you should discuss it during the interview process, but “it should not be your starting point”.
You need, she says, to see first if you are the right fit for the job and be realistic about the flexibility you require.
Grussing says that since setting up Sapphire Partners, she has been working harder than ever and she feels that it is as important for herself and her children that she works.
“It is important for my sanity and for the school fees,” she says, adding that she also views it as vital to present a good role model to her children and to show she is using the education she has had, which includes a first class degree and an MBA.
Grussing has worked full-time most of her career. After the birth of her first two children, she took six months off and returned to her consulting role at McKinsey 4 days a week. She had four months off for her third and fourth children as she was managing teams and had to “check in” with work during her maternity leave.
She is a firm believer that each woman needs to decide what is the right amount of time for her to take off and that she should not worry about peer pressure, but she is concerned that the extension of maternity leave to one year will make women too optimistic about their ability to reintegrate and take up the reins where they left them.
Grussing’s children are 14, 12, 8 and 7. She thinks children are very adaptable and flexible and do not miss their mother once they are at school. Her children are at three different schools and her eldest daughter has learning difficulties which means lots of appointments with doctors.
That was the initial impetus for her needing flexibility. “I needed to reconsider my high-octane career,” she says. “I needed to be around more.” She says that her need to balance work and family life means that, like many women, she does not define herself by what she does. “I have a broader set of goals,” she says.
“Women think of their career in a non-linear way and are more connected to family and friends.”
Grussing gets as much support as she can. As an American living in the UK, she does not have relatives nearby, but she has a good network of nannies and afterschool clubs. She believes firmly in childcare and, although considering it ridiculously expensive in the UK, thinks women need to think of the long term cost of not having childcare rather than focusing on the immediate financial loss.
“Women think of childcare costs in too short a timeframe,” she says. “It is an essential investment in their future earning power.” If they take time out to avoid paying childcare costs, they will, she says, find it that much harder to get back in the game and certainly at the level they got off at.
“You have to keep at least a toe in the water, if you want to keep your career on track!