How job sharing can boost your career

Joy Burnford explains how a job sharing arrangement can offer many rewards – both across home and working life

You have to wonder why job sharing isn’t more prevalent when you consider the benefits to the individuals and the organisations they work for. Alix Ainsley and Charlotte Cherry started their job share at GE more than eight years ago where they had both worked separately building their careers for a number of years, and were appointed into the role of HR director at Lloyds Banking Group, in their first external appointment as a job share. Over the last eight years, they have shown how it can not only offer employees greater flexibility, but can act as a career accelerator, rather than the preconceived decelerator. 

Ainsley and Cherry now share the role of director of talent and learning at the John Lewis Partnership, having moved as a team from Lloyds to Dyson and most recently Quilter plc. Both are quick to extol the virtues of job sharing; most obviously, perhaps, the increased flexibility it has allowed at home. They first approached job sharing to achieve better balance between work and their young families (both have two children). “When I was full-time I didn’t make the best choices for me and my family,” Ainsley says. “In order to deliver at work, the balls I dropped tended to be those around my own wellbeing or prevented me from having the right connections at home. The job share forces a firebreak for two days each week to let go of work and be present at home.

While their children may now be older, the benefits of job sharing continue to evolve for both women: “Even though my kids are now nine and 12, the challenges are different, but the benefits are as great as ever,” says Cherry. Ainsley adds: “My kids are older and now we’re dealing with transition to university. Also, my other caring responsibilities have shifted and need a different focus. There has always been a huge value in job sharing from a balance perspective.”

Ainsley and Cherry are clearly a brilliant team, creating a built-in support system that is so often lacking for senior staff: “Leadership can be lonely and often support feels less accessible,” Cherry explains. “Sharing your role can help with this and, I believe, is a missed opportunity for businesses.” 

This clearly successful dynamic is something that requires work – and both women stress that job shares should not be considered an easy option: “If you have people that are considering a job share, find out what the motivation is behind it,” Ainsley advises. “If they’re doing it because they want to step back and take on less responsibility, it won’t work. It’s hard work and not for the faint hearted. This is why it complements career acceleration.”

And here is perhaps what many will find surprising about Ainsley and Cherry’s career trajectories – job sharing has resulted in increased acceleration. “When Charlotte and I took on our new role at Lloyds, it was a very big step up for us in our careers and we were both completely terrified,” describes Ainsley. “A lot of people think job sharing is about stepping back not stepping up. For me, the job share has been a career accelerator,” she adds.

So what are the key elements that make job sharing successful? Ainsley and Cherry describe the “fundamental magic ingredients” as:

  • Shared values and beliefs – take time to establish whether the two people have shared values and then if they are aligned, it can work. 

  • Low egos – big egos are a catalyst for failure. Job sharing is about collective delivery and output and if it’s all about ‘me’ it just doesn’t work. 

  • Honest and regular communication – ensure you have a free-flowing dialogue constantly challenging what is working and what is not.

  • Give it a go and don’t overthink it – think of job sharing as nothing more than a high-performing team and a way to be more productive, and enjoyable, than working alone.

Cherry and Ainsley have championed job sharing internally within the companies they’ve worked for, but are frustrated that it hasn’t become more prevalent: “Even though we enjoy it, it makes me a little sad that we are still called out as trailblazers for senior job sharing and that we are still a bit of an anomaly in organisations. It should be far more normal,” says Cherry.

For businesses, encouraging job shares can result in more diverse leadership, redressing the gender inequality that has so often dominated senior teams. “We often see women checking out of their careers early because they just see the sacrifices they will have to make between family and work,” Cherry says. “Sharing responsibility at work, and at home if you can, certainly reduces the sacrifices you have to make.” 

HR teams are integral to leading the change that will result in more job shares: “HR is a disruptive profession and you need to put emphasis on your value as a behavioural coach, advocate and change agent. It’s about creating an environment where people feel inspired, included and at their best. It’s not about process and management,” Cherry advises. “Help your business leaders understand why facilitating smarter ways of working in teams matters as a tool to retain, attract and develop a truly diverse workforce.”

Joy Burnford is founder and director of My Confidence Matters