Dynamic Duos to the Rescue

Job sharing, once usually found in the lower levels of a firm, is making its way into top management.

Recently, the CEO of a data server company was looking for a second-in-command—someone who would not only grow sales 20% a year but also ensure that the business could effectively deliver on that type of growth. He narrowed it down to two candidates: one a sales whiz and the other an operations master.

But instead of hiring one person, he brought on both to share the same job. One co-president would handle sales while the other co-president would handle everything else.

To a small but surprising degree, firms are deciding that when it comes to some critical roles, two heads are better than one. Indeed, such so-called “job sharing” is finding increasing support as organizations seek ways to cultivate flexibility, diversity, and the retention of key talent, and it’s finding a home at more organizations, from top to bottom. One industry, private equity, is using job sharing extensively for executive roles; as a founding CEO retires, his or her role is assumed by more than one person.

Of course, the idea creates an added expense, not to mention traditional headcount issues. But some firms feel all that is recouped from the greater innovation that the job sharers’ combined strengths can bring. In all, about one in five firms currently are open to job-sharing arrangements. “If you’re concerned about retention, rather than letting someone walk away you will say, ‘Sure, we’ll listen,’” says Mark Royal, a senior director of Korn Ferry Advisory.

There’s no universal definition for job sharing. In some cases, it means two people divvy up days of the week to work but share all responsibilities. For others, it means two people take on the responsibilities that management recognizes might be too difficult for one person to handle. For management, the pros of job sharing are straightforward: you get two talented people rather than one.

Experts say a duo, when working effectively, will complement one another’s strengths and may make more thoughtful decisions. “The two-in-a-box [strategy] brings out the best in people, especially if you match them with offsetting deficiencies,” says Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry who places many chief human resources officers. It also can give an organization cover if one of the coworkers is out for an extended period of time.

At the same time, job sharing can create more engaged employees. Royal adds that it can also enlarge the potential talent pool. There may be some talented employees who want to take a role but want to work only three days a week. Dividing a role among two people gives the employees the best of both worlds, a role he or she wants with some added flexibility.

Of course, if job sharing were perfect, then every organization would do it. Sometimes there’s a clash of coworker styles. And if a company hires two full-time executives to share a role, that means twice the compensation costs. Even when the firm isn’t paying two full salaries, it usually will involve paying more in benefits, Royal says.

Then there’s the competition factor. Job sharing may explicitly or implicitly pit the job sharers against one another if there’s a chance to take over the role full-time. A little competition may help create accountability, Royal says, but if the two determine that there will be only one winner, then they may not work well together.

Ultimately, making job sharing work requires the organization to do a significant amount of talent review upfront. “It is on the organization to be careful and intentional of how they select people, and to be thoughtful about what roles they split,” Royal says.