Hannah Essex and Claire Walker at the British Chambers of Commerce talk to workingmums.co.uk about working and moving role in a job share partnership in senior positions.
Hannah Essex and Claire Walker are job share veterans and are keen to get more companies to take them up. The pair, who are Co-Executive Directors at the British Chambers of Commerce, not only mentor other pairs, but have created a pack of tips and blogs and offer to speak to anyone who is considering a senior job share.
They themselves have benefited from professional coaching in the past so know how important it is, particularly if done by people who have experience of a job share. So what are the questions they get asked the most?
Hannah says they often get asked about handovers and whether to split or share responsibilities. Hannah and Claire share accountability and responsibilities “like a relay race” because of the nature of their job, but they say the answer to the question depends on the role.
Since they have moved jobs together, they also often get asked about how to apply for other roles as a partnership.
Hannah and Claire first met while both were working on a joint project. When Hannah was due to return from her first pregnancy she rang Claire in a panic. “My baby was six weeks old and I had not slept. I was terrified I would never be able to do it all,” says Hannah. Claire told her not to worry, but later suggested a job share.
Teach First, where they were working, had not had a job share before, but were open to the concept. Hannah and Claire built a proper business case for a job share in their Director of Communications post, but say Teach First were keen to retain them so their questions were more about logistics.
Nevertheless, over the course of their job share career Hannah and Claire have encountered less positive reactions from recruiters and others, including a cv writer who said it was impossible to write a joint cv. They have proven them wrong.
“Recruiters tend to fall into two categories – they are either very supportive and think it is good for women in leadership; or they don’t know what to do with us,” says Claire. She hopes that things have changed in the course of the last few years and employers are more open to different ways of working, particularly in the midst of the current battle for talent.
When it comes to the British Chambers of Commerce, Claire and Hannah say they fit the job spec, the senior leadership was open to job shares, the organisation needed more women and the job is demanding so being a job share meant they could fulfill the job with a greater sense of energy.
Hannah and Claire work a six-day week – each working three days with a crossover day in the middle. Not only do they get the time off to recharge their batteries when they are not at work, but on their days off they also have the head space to reflect on the job and come up with new ideas. Plus they can talk about and figure out any problems that come up together.
Seven years in, they believe they no longer have to prove themselves – they know and have evidence that their job share works for demanding senior roles.
Their confidence is clear. “The struggle over the last seven years has been real. We have written the book on it, but there is recognition now for senior jobs that if recruiters are not proposing diverse candidates they are not doing very well,” says Claire, who adds that recruiters now ask her and Hannah’s advice on getting more women applications for senior roles.
However, there is still much further to go. Hannah says very few senior job shares that they have come across are Black, Asian or from other Minority Ethnic backgrounds. Moreover, when she and Claire applied for job share they were already well established in senior roles and had some financial security. “We had nothing to lose and were very confident we would get support. Less secure, less senior people might struggle. We know people who have been shot down if they have suggested job shares. It’s not a walk in the park,” she says.
While Claire and Hannah recognise the additional costs of hiring job shares in terms of National Insurance Contributions, they are very clear that the business benefits, including having access to two people’s experience, far outweigh these.
Asked about other logistical issues when it comes to job shares, for instance, communications with clients and team members, Claire says that job share partners are able to build trust with more people and use the fact that one of the pair might have a better rapport with key individuals.
Other advantages include the fact that job share partners can schedule their holidays at different times so there is some cover. Hannah talks about stepping up to full time when Claire had time off at Teach First for medical reasons. “I could cover with no bumps or blips,” she says.
Similarly, Claire stepped up when Hannah was on maternity leave. At the British Chambers of Commerce they rotate a weekend call system so each gets a weekend off.
During the pandemic, Claire and Hannah’s job demands ratcheted up considerably and they have had to balance that with homeschooling responsibilities. They both worked full time during the first lockdown, splitting their days so they could both have time with their children. By the second lockdown they both had nannies. Having experienced the initial stress, they both campaigned relentlessly for the Government to take childcare issues more seriously.
Claire and Hannah would like to see job shares mainstreamed and championed for everyone and say bigger firms need to lead the way. And they add that having them at senior levels will encourage more people to ask for them at lower levels. “We were the first pair at Teach First and when we left there were seven or eight pairs. It’s now part of the standard offer,” says Hannah.
One way to scale up senior job shares might be for employers to make job share partnerships in their organisations more visible and to question the stereotypes around what leadership involves.
The pair talk about whether rebranding job shares as co-leadership might bring more people on board, particularly men. This would acknowledge the fact that many senior leadership roles these days are almost more than one person can do anyway, something that is leading to problems filling, for instance, head teacher posts.
“If you ask people to describe a leader they often think of one man leading the troops,” says Claire. “That needs to change.”
*Picture: Hannah [right] and Claire [left].