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Joint General Managers, Challenger

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Catherine van der Veen + Lucy Foster, Joint General Managers, Challenger Limited

This week, we profile an incredible duo: Catherine and Lucy started Role Sharing together over 4 years ago, initially at CBA before taking on the role of joint CEO at financial services company, Generation Life Limited.

Just prior to Australia’s first COVID lockdown, the pair accepted the role of Joint General Managers for Challenger Limited, Australia’s largest provider of annuities with around $80 billion in assets under management. Catherine and Lucy are both incredible leaders, role models for executive level flex and amazing supporters of flexible work best practice. They shared their experiences and best advice and tips for how they have nailed an impressive and high pressured executive level career together in financial services.


You have been true pioneers for flex — demonstrating how successful senior level role share can be, transitioning together through a number of senior roles as a pair and being promoted to new roles at various companies. How did your Job Share path together start ?

LF: Over 4 years ago, we started together at CBA in a strategy role. I had job shared previously and had lost my job share partner during her maternity leave. For the first time, instead of matching two part-timers in the business, we decided to run an internal and external advertising campaign to find a new partner. From a note on LinkedIn, I was inundated with responses — from both men and women.

Catherine was recommended by a colleague, we met for coffee and within 10 minutes decided there was incredible chemistry and it was a partnership to pursue. Catherine had been at Westpac for over 10 years and was ready for a change and wanted to test herself in a new role in a complementary partnership. We have been role sharing in various roles and remits since.

Handover concerns are probably one of the biggest barriers people face in proposing job share. What are the tools or technologies you use to ensure seamless handovers and effective knowledge share in your roles?

We have an operating rhythm that governs our calendar. It’s broken down into daily, weekly and quarterly chunks and we allocate according to what our priorities are for the period.

Daily: Lucy and I use One-Note to capture all meeting notes, decisions and tasks. It allows us to be up to speed the minute that things are happening, and when we come into work, we are across all the conversations that have happened (formally and informally). We set tasks to complete and handover lists so that either of us can jump in and start or finish a task. We set up ‘to-do lists’ for each other on a Monday and Wednesday.

Weekly: We break up the team 1:1’s amongst us. We usually take half each, and then swap these around every six months to not entrench any relationships or biases. Sometimes one of us will take more of the 1:1’s on, so that the other can focus on a big deliverable for a period of time.

Quarterly: We set milestones for the LT and ourselves so that we stay on track to our annual targets. That way we are all heading in the same direction. It also means that handover is more intuitive as we are crystal clear what we want to achieve.

We use a Four Pillars approach to our working arrangement — and consciously decide on what each of us will Own, Dominate, Share and Participate so that we are using the partnership to maximum effect. We share most things, but sometimes we will 100% defer to the other to own.

Challenges, conflicts and crisis. You must encounter this daily — how do you resolve or work through the more challenging times or circumstances as a pair ?

There’s definitely been challenges. It’s more related to each of us as individuals rather than us as a pair. For example, I may have a conflict with a peer where I find progress difficult, but it can be rescued by the other partner who is aware of the conflict and can take a conciliatory approach on behalf of both of us. This has been a perk of having two people!

When we disagree on an issue (it does happen) we are not shy to debate it. We both have learned to listen to each other’s concerns and be prepared to concede the point. Having a very clear view of our goals helps reduce conflict as we are debating in service of getting to the same outcome.

When either of us is more ‘known’ to an important stakeholder, we work hard to ensure that the other is given ample opportunity to demonstrate value so that there isn’t innate bias or preference given to either.

We are careful to keep all of this invisible to stakeholders. A lot of work goes in behind the scenes to make it appear seamless.

You are perceived by many who have worked with you and for you as true trailblazers. How have you successfully managed and advocated your working arrangement to your board, leaders and teams ?

We have been given the opportunities to work in a partnership at a senior level by progressive businesses and supportive Boards who have truly valued and appreciated flex and the returns — they have instilled trust into our partnership. We really don’t take that for granted.

Whilst at CBA, we were given opportunities to run high profile projects on behalf of the Group and work with very senior stakeholders across multiple divisions. When people can see that the arrangement delivers good results, then we have found they do not experience many of the myths about job-sharing.

Having a baseline of understanding about what makes each of us ‘tick’ early in the partnership allowed us to maximise each others strengths and cover any blind spots. We run anonymous 360 feedback each year from our leadership team and board to assess our partnership and tweak it if required.

Anybody who runs a team of high calibre, motivated individuals knows that people are capable of working together to deliver a great result. It’s no different in a career partnership. We’ve evolved over the years to not just delivering 100% as a partnership, but how understanding if we each bring 100% to the table, then that can translate to 200% effectiveness for the company from one role.

Another questions which constantly arises with senior level role share is how to manage people. There is always a lot of curiosity around the best ways to divide and conquer.

Managing any team is both art and science. The first thing to do is to set the expectation that we are both united as a pair. There will be no trading each other off against the other! We say it’s similar to parenting in that regard.

You have to understand what makes each member of your team tick, and what brings the best out in them. The trick of leadership is to get every person to bring their best everyday, but to combine that so as a team, you are delivering more as a whole than you can as a sum of the parts. Both of us will naturally align to individuals that suit our style, preferences or technical backgrounds. The benefit of the partnership is that we’ve already learned to adapt and flex our thinking quite a lot so that makes us better leaders who listen more and can understand many points of view.

Practically, there will be times when one of us has agreed a decision, and then new information comes to light and the other may reverse or change the decision. Even though we back up each others decisions, we do reserve the right to change them as any leader does when circumstances change. The important subtlety is that we don’t change without thinking about why the other has come to a certain decision point. We are careful to listen to feedback on this and drive as much consistency as possible.

Help us with this scenario: A job share is proposed for a senior level role in an organisation by someone who is advocating for this model of flexibility and it’s blocked by another leader in the business. The reason is ‘too much risk and we don’t want to be associated with a failure in this area’. What advice could you give on how to best showcase or pilot a Job Share at a senior level ?

We often point to others who work in career partnerships successfully. CEOs of Atlassian, Salesforce, Oracle and Prospa all have worked with Co-CEO models. As far as job sharing goes, there are things you can absolutely do to reduce the risk

Ensure that the partners are onboarded as a pair — they work together to agree on operating rhythms that suit the business and bring the best of the partnership to the arrangement.

We’d be very surprised if this company was not already relying on individuals to work collectively as a team to deliver results. There is not a big stretch to imagine this can work inside a role, not just between roles.

I believe that the risk of a company reducing their talent pool by only considering more traditional work structures is the greater risk.

Piloting a job-share is a good way to start. Having one person in the pair who is familiar to the organisation often reduces the risk — as they are a known quantity. Try piloting with someone who is working part time or wants to work on a big strategic project part-time and needs a pair to keep their day-job going.

Use 90 day plans to track progress. Alignment of goal and clarity of ownership goes a long way to success …. job-share or not!!

We have talked at length in the past about our shared belief that executive level role share is a key solution for gender diversity at the very top levels. Are things shifting faster in your view due to the impacts of COVID on the workplace ?

Lucy: We think that COVID has accelerated flexible work practices by at least 5 years. When we consider some of the barriers and standard objections people have identified in the past around collaboration and productivity levels …. a lot of people are now disproving these theories. They are happier, more productive and more autonomous. I’d love to think that we will also see now more openness to job share as a solution. Ten years ago, I was the only person ( I think ) working in financial services at a management level in job share. That has now since changed considerably, but still, progress is very slow.

Catherine: I hear a lot of very senior women that I know, I look up to and respect so much, many who have been role models of mine, constantly reporting that they can not keep this pace up. They are in executive roles and these types of remits are exhausting - they take the best of you, you’re always on and many keep circling back to the thought of ‘ I think I’m going to pull the pin or look at some retirement options earlier’. I think that’s just such a monumental waste of talent.

However, what if we could get these ‘veterans of industry’ that bring so much knowledge and experience to downramp in their industry. I’d love to see these women be able to trade their experience, maybe pair them up with up newcomers or someone with complementary experience to role share — it’s so powerful. Think of the succession planning win in this. But this needs more work from the top.

The model these women follow now is basically work so, so hard, get to the end of their corporate career and flip into Board roles. There needs to be a different path. Friends of mine who are in that Board role stage say it can be very lonely, and they miss the interaction and executive world every day. I’d love to see more consideration to women staying in those executive roles and contributing more years of service into these remits, but being able to do so with more flex.

Catherine and Lucy shared their insights with Puffling’s Lija Wilson.

If you’re interested in more on Puffling or being featured in a future interview profile, connect with Lija here.

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Australian based talent platform by connecting senior level female talent who want flex with progressive employers who are leading the way in the future of work

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