Workspace: The Part-Time Executive

Winter 2013

Workspace

The Part-Time ExecutivetcbrPDF normal

A growing number of top-level people are working less to accomplish more.

By Alison Maitland

Alison Maitland is co-author of Future Work and Why Women Mean Business. A former longtime writer and editor for the Financial Times, she directs The Conference Board’s Council for Diversity in Business and is a senior visiting fellow at Cass Business School, London. She can be reached via alisonmaitland.com.

Rankings and league tables are a dime a dozen in corporate life. But one lineup of fifty senior executives recently published in the United Kingdom is different, for three reasons. First, they all do their jobs in fewer than five days a week. Second, they have had the courage to say so in a macho business world that still often thinks part-time is for wimps. Third, photos show almost all of them looking—dare I say it?—pretty happy with life.

As far as I know, “The Power Part Time 50” is the first list of its kind, the brainchild of Timewise Jobs, an online job board specializing in part-time roles for skilled and experienced people. The list demonstrates that a growing number of individuals and organizations are challenging old dictums and successfully reshaping how jobs are done, even at the CEO level. Notably, this isn’t simply about flextime, whereby execs might still work a full week in and out of the office. Rather, part-time for these top execs really means that they are not running the show for a day or two each week.

As I read their stories, it struck me that business schools should be teaching aspiring executives how to lead people part-time. Sound counterintuitive? I think it would be a perfect way to learn how to inspire and motivate people in our increasingly mobile, virtual world. Perhaps more importantly, current managers should try working flexibly to see if they are as good at trusting and empowering their teams as they would like to think.

I suspect that defining people as full- or part-time will become outdated as more organizations move to rewarding for performance and results rather than for days and hours. But to get there, we need breakthroughs like this list, which features a lot of senior people talking openly about how they themselves are challenging the traditional work model.

Many of the executives on the list put a premium on clear communication and setting mutually agreed-upon goals and expectations for their teams, and then letting them get on with it. Since these leaders are working in extremely demanding roles, and given that they work two, three, or four days a week, they also must be very good at prioritizing and managing their own time.

Women vastly outnumber men on this list, which would suggest that the chief innovators of rethinking senior roles are female. B-school students could learn a thing or two from a CEO such as Katie Bickerstaffe, who is responsible for five hundred stores, twenty thousand people, and annual revenues of £3.8 billion as head of the United Kingdom and Ireland division of consumer electronics chain Dixons Retail. She packs her job into four long days, taking Fridays to unwind and spend time with her young family, while still keeping an eye on the business.

“I don’t judge people by how often they are shackled to their desks but by their performance,” Bickerstaffe told me. “It’s about whether they have led their team well and delivered a great experience for our customers, not whether they came in on Friday and worked until 7 p.m.”

Then there’s Nicola Rabson, the first lawyer to make equity partner at international law firm Linklaters while working part-time. Rabson recently worked on the biggest employment claim in the United Kingdom to date; far from hiding the fact that she works flexibly, as many senior people still feel obliged to do, she has regular conversations about it with colleagues across the firm, hosts talks on the subject, and shares her experiences of part-time and flexible working with her clients.

Nadine Jones, group HR and project director for the Ryman retail group, works three days a week. She points out that “people describe me as Superwoman, and I think that is very funny.” Jones makes efficient use of technology to keep in touch and says she invests time up front to understand and set expectations. “It’s all about give and take. I am an optimistic coper; I don’t stress about things outside of my control. I focus on those things I can influence and get the best out of the people and teams I work with.”

What also stands out for me is the respect and credibility these people seem to have with their peers and colleagues. Some are even comfortable enough to point out that working part-time has made them better at their jobs.

One of these is Mike Dean, who was recently promoted to lead service delivery for Accenture’s business-process-outsourcing arm in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Nordic countries. He decided to cut his weekly working schedule to 3.5 days after collapsing three years ago from an adrenal imbalance linked to overwork and stress. By “working smarter,” he says he delivers more value than many people do during five days a week. “You have to be absolutely focused on the use of your time and make even more effective use of the people on your team,” Dean explains. “Meeting invites are always for an hour. Why? I now say: If a meeting needs ten minutes, you’ll get ten minutes. If it needs an hour, there had better be some preparatory work first so that I can read it before the meeting.”

Dean puts the time saved from unnecessary meetings into understanding what the people on his team need in terms of support and flexibility. On the days when he is not around, he encourages them to take initiative, telling them: “A bad decision is better than no decision”—though if a matter is really urgent, they can call or text him.

He also spends time internally and externally talking about why and how jobs can be done differently. It is a crucial business issue, he argues, because the firm will not be able to attract and retain the talent it needs unless it offers people the balance they want.

“This was an aggressive, macho, bang-bang organization—and there are still pockets where managers think that everyone has to be in the office seven days a week,” Dean says. “It’s typically a few men who have these views. We have to change these attitudes. Someone will say to me: ‘This role has to be five days a week, and it has to be London-based,’ and I’ll look at it and say, ‘I don’t think it needs to be done that way.’”

Finally, there is the matter of happiness. I cannot vouch for these executives’ state of mind, but their smiling photos suggest that many have found the balance that so often eludes others in today’s high-pressure business environment. These senior part-timers are no idle slouches on their days off. They are as ambitious in their personal lives as in their working lives. Many are active and involved parents or caregivers. Others volunteer in their local communities, sit on boards, or pursue academic studies.

It’s refreshing to see them open up about what these other activities mean to them. For example, Lea Paterson is the head of the inflation report and bulletin division of the Bank of England and works between three-and-a-half and four days a week. She says getting home in time for her children’s tea-and-bath time helps to keep her sane after the demands of the working day. “It’s not healthy to get too obsessed with one part of your life, whether work or domestic,” she explains.

“To be a good boss you need to be able to delegate, to recruit good staff, and to trust them to get on and do the work without checking on them every minute,” Paterson continues. “When you’re part-time, you’re forced to do this anyway.” In other words, the attributes that enable someone to lead successfully part-time are the attributes of a successful boss.

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The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.