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Job share CEOs prove their profitability

by Lewis Panther | 21 Nov 2019
Wednesdays used to be chaos, job share CEO Catherine Van der Veen admits.

But Lucy Foster - the other half of the ground-breaking finance industry duo - has a complementary eye for detail that has seen them turn their weekly routine leapfrog from well-oiled machine to AI status. 

Catherine’s Monday meetings are ready and diarised before she arrives, leaving her to relax on her days at home on Thursdays and Fridays - occasionally responding to a question from Lucy while waiting to pick the kids up from school or watching a swimming lesson.

While the pioneering pair are still learning three years into this unique ASX set-up, impressive company results speak volumes. Award-winning Generation Life has grown 40% and just had its best ever quarter. 

“We always say it's business performance first and job-share second,” Catherine explains.

“Results speak for themselves. But we had to get in here and demonstrate that. 

“The job share is a great construct. It works very well for us. We think it's innovative. But until that translates to actual business performance, you're not going to have the credibility.

“I'm the first to admit that job-sharing’s not a perfect construct.

“It only works when the partnership's right, with the right people paired together. You can't bring two random people together, it's not going to work. The environment has to be supportive, too.”

Catherine and Lucy were at CBA together when their partnership was founded, borne of determination to have the right work work-life balance for career-focused mothers.

“It started with females, so it’s a gender issue,” Catherine says, adding that her eyes were opened by Westpac’s pioneering HR executive Ann Sherry who paved the way for paternity leave in Australia.

“For us, it wasn’t about saying I need the flexibility. 

“It’s: I want it, I want to raise my children. I want to be there and spend that time with them.

“That's not for everyone. That's just for me. But I think more men want to do it as well. It's just a bit taboo for them to go in and ask to be flex. 

“Women have been allowed to do that. And I think until you get more men flexing and more men pursuing life outside of work, leaning into the care of their family, then the structures won't really change.”

But it’s not that the appetite isn’t there.

“It would surprise you how many men we talk to say, "Oh wow. I would love a piece of that action,” she reveals. 

“They tell us they would like to retire or say I've got other hobbies I want to pursue. Or I want to lean more into help on the home front. Or I want to be a board director or take my career into more of that governance role. And how do I keep a foot in both camps?

“They're not as equal necessarily, but I think you can work the construct of a job split. 

“I have seen this work very well in my past in BT when you a more seasoned veteran in the role, a technical expert who only wanted to work three days a week paired up with a more junior doer. 

“So you had the most senior person making all the decisions, doing the more traditional leadership of the team. They were paired with a young hungry up and comer who was both learning from that leader and able to actually do some of that doing while that person wasn't there."

While that might be more of a job split, “it can be moulded whichever way you like it.

“I really feel like that in the next generation of work and how it's designed, you'll start to see a lot more of this come up. The traditional five day a week, always on for the customer is never going away. 

“But the workforce of the future and the talent of the future absolutely want more flex and more innovation in how these roles are put together, especially in a role like ours. 

"It's hard to find in one person, all the skills, attributes and behaviours you want in a CEO. 

“With Lucy and I, you get me, who's more of the ideas, taking a big leap forward, partnered with Lucy, who is very disciplined on detail and execution - and a lovely complement to me. 

“I think at senior leadership levels it becomes quite difficult to find in one person all the boxes you need ticked. 

“So with two people, if they're well paired, you can actually get two brains in one role.”

It isn’t. And hasn’t always been plain sailing.

“Wednesdays used to be chaos, I'll admit to you that Wednesdays was a lot of bumping into each other.”

But they have learned from other job share partners. Meticulously-planned diaries, decisions noted, to-do-lists all logged all mean Lucy is already up to speed when she is in the office together with Catherine.

“Lucy might jump in on her days off and put forward an idea or point of view or I'll ask her a question while she's having a coffee or watching her kids in a swimming lesson or something.

“That's the thing, neither of us ever really shut off. We're not here, but we're still interested, invested.”

Though she doesn’t see this as being a slave to the job.

“The neat thing about the job-share for me is ideas start to settle and percolate and you start to see things from a distance on your days off. 

You get to step back from the chaos and connect dots and think, "Oh well why don't we do it this way?" And I think without that break, you don't get to do that deep thinking that's actually needed in roles like this.”


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