2019-11-25 | Podcasts
Better Together - Microsoft, Industry Solutions Executive,  Helena Zaum and Ellen Wilson

Better Together - Microsoft, Industry Solutions Executive,  Helena Zaum and Ellen Wilson

E1 S1 - Talk Roleshare Podcast

Helena Zaum and Ellen Wilson share the role of Industry Solutions Executive at Microsoft. Hear how sharing this strategic role has given them the personal balance they seek, while progressing in their careers. Learn how this dynamic microteam pitched the concept of sharing a role, how they got into a groove, the criteria for a successful match, and the benefits they gained as individuals and for Microsoft through this working arrangement. Visit Roleshare - the smart matching site for shared roles. 

Episode Transcript

Sophie Smallwood: This is Talk with Roleshare, I'm Sophie Smallwood, co-founder of Roleshare.com. Today, we share a story that redefines working smarter as part of a micro-team. We talk with the Helena Zaum and Ellen Wilson from Microsoft. They explain how sharing a strategic role has not only given them the personal balance they seek while progressing in their careers but has also made them better together for Microsoft. Here's Ellen to talk about their role.

Ellen Wilson: I'm currently on maternity leave, so poor Helena has to do the entire job at the moment. The role that we share is the role of an industry solutions executive, which is in essence, we said in the Microsoft public sector sales team and specifically aligned to the local and regional government sales team. And we help our sales guys and we support them with industry solutions and industry leadership, specifically focusing on smart cities and adult and social care, because we feel that's a very big topic that we are quite passionate about.

Sophie Smallwood: Interesting. And Helena, is this a role that you would say is a client-facing role? Do you have a lot of interactions with customers?

Helena Zaum: Yeah, absolutely. So for us, actually, it sits between two really important moving parts of the business. So on the one hand, it's very much focused on conversations with customers. That might be a one-to-one, that might be a one to many, almost like an overlay over our kind of relationship manager structure. But we also work an awful lot with other IT organizations that do business with Microsoft as well. So, yeah, absolutely. It's a customer facing and what we would call a partner-facing role as well.

Sophie Smallwood: Fantastic. So you are both sharing a role and I'd love to understand how you made it work. So let's go ahead and start with Ellen.

Ellen Wilson: Yeah, brilliant. So I came back from maternity leave after having my first child, Laura. So I took a year off, same as I'm doing with my Alex today. And I came back and it was pretty clear to me that I did want to work. I had worked hard to get to where I am in my career, and I didn't want to to leave my career, but I equally didn't want to work full-time. So I felt I wanted to be a mom, I wanted to be there for her. And I applied to work part-time. So I built a case with the help of management and the director level at the time and presented that and said, guys, I'm really keen, I've got the experience. I think I'm still the right person for the job, but I would only want to work three days a week. That was the starting point. And that was followed with some conversations between H.R. and management team. And in the end, we all came to the conclusion that actually the role itself isn't a three day a week role because you couldn't just cover everything that needs to be done in the role. But we just came up with the idea of a job share and it worked out absolutely brilliantly because both Helena and I, we both do three days a week. So Microsoft actually gets more than one hundred percent role. They get six days a week from us. And we've been together sort of since, Helena it was 2017 wasn't it? Early part when you started.

Helena Zaum: Yeah, that's right.

Ellen Wilson: Yeah, and the process of finding Helena was actually quite traditional. It was advertised the job both internally and externally. We had a number of candidates that we interviewed for the job and Helena just passed with flying colors.

Helena Zaum: Thank you. So my journey was slightly different. Rather like Ellen, I decided on having had my first child. It's all boys in my family Sophie, so they're all three of mine are boys that I really wanted to stay active in the workplace, but did also want to invest some of my time in family life. And so I actually worked part-time for about seven or so years prior to finding Ellen. And we were very lucky, I think, because we were working on teams with a joint boundary, and so we knew one another a bit beforehand before I made the application. And it was actually a shared colleague of ours who said, 'oh, by the way, do you know that Ellen is looking for a job share buddy?' And I had been part-timing on my own, so doing three days a week, without and a huge amount of additional support for the missing days, which was quite difficult to handle, although I'd done it for a while and therefore got kind of used to what was required. But for me, it also represented an opportunity to do more of what I really love and what I'm passionate about. But I knew that I would be able to do it a better level of quality and without so much impact on my private life because I would have a partner in crime, so to speak. So I was really excited and to first of all, see a part-time position advertised, which is sadly not as common as I think it should be. But also knowing that it was going to be with Ellen, somebody who I knew a little already, was a really good place to start from.

Sophie Smallwood: So, Ellen, you mentioned that you interviewed a number of candidates to share the role with you. There is a perception out there that flexible work typically almost has a persona. Oftentimes mothers returning to work, et cetera. Did you in your process find that there was more diversity in the candidate pool?

Ellen Wilson: There definitely was, yes. So it wasn't just mothers who applied for it. It was actually quite a varied bunch. So we had a couple of gentlemen who applied for it, both for different reasons. Some just needed some more time with the family, just like a 'mother' would as well. And then the other one just saw it as an opportunity to actually get into Microsoft. Now, again, speaking openly, that didn't feel right at the time for me because I didn't want someone to come in and use this as a stepping stone. I wanted to work with someone who was actually interested and passionate about the things that we do, so kind of disregarded that person. But then we also had a couple of external ladies that applied for it, one of them who was a mother and the other one was just starting off her career. So absolutely, very interesting.

Helena Zaum: Now, Helena, I know you did part-time for quite a while, but there was a time in your career where you were full-time before you had your children. How would you say that this job share with Ellen is different to your experience working solo?

Helena Zaum: One of the things that that I hadn't appreciated prior to beginning the job share was that actually Ellen and I are better together, not just because the time apportionment happens to work well for us and gives us time for family stuff. But actually two brains are better than one. And we were in a minute micro-team and that gives us the opportunity actually to discuss things and bounce ideas off one another in a way that candidly I really missed when Ellen went on maternity leave, delighted as I was for her about her latest beautiful bundle. I miss that partnership and having somebody to work things through.

Ellen Wilson: It feels like a team Helena doesn't it?

Helena Zaum: It does. Yeah. It's a tiny team, but also you work in a role which requires you to define things for yourself a lot. That's a characteristic of our organization, really, but it's about trying new things. It's about new strategies a lot of the time. And doing that kind of work on your own isn't nearly as fruitful as doing it with somebody else. And actually reflecting on Ellen's experience and my experience, we both brought something quite different to the party in terms of our professional experience. And from a personality standpoint, I think that there is a really good meshing of slightly different characteristics. But I think that that means that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole or whatever that expression is. How to better together.

Ellen Wilson: Yeah, I totally agree with Helena on that. I do think organizations should really consider job sharing a lot more because, as Helena said, the organization gets two brains, two opinions. So whatever we present back to the organization is so much more refined than just from one person and so much more thought through and yeah, diverse as well.

Sophie Smallwood: Great. Ellen, you mentioned earlier that you knew each other through the network at Microsoft and you obviously had a little bit of trust already built in. But how did you and Helena get into a groove? Was it easy? Was it difficult? How long did it take?

Ellen Wilson: Yes, we did know each other. So there was a couple of projects that we worked on jointly before. So there was a little bit of understanding for each of the skillsets already I suppose. We just met, we sat together, we just had lots of coffee. We try to understand each other's strengths. And also we looked at the job itself and we we decided what are the areas that are of importance? Because our job gives us quite a lot of flexibility. So we did a lot of checking with management as well, whether we were going in the right directions. And then we started to actually split some of the different themes that we were working on. And we agreed on that, Helena was, for example, taking leadership on one of the area and I was going after something else as the main partner, so to speak. And then we just kept checking in and we still check-in. Once I'm back at work, we still have regular check-in calls to make sure that what we're presenting is actually sound. And yes, we refined that over the periods of probably, three or four months where we also had regular check-in calls again with management.

Helena Zaum: And I think the other thing that I was going to say was at the beginning, we were probably feeling out if a decision was required. We were probably pulling each other a little bit more than we were once we had got ourselves into the groove to make sure that we were keeping the other one included and communicating appropriately. And if anything, we probably did quite a lot of that in the beginning. And over time that became much more comfortable. And I think one of the things that certainly was great from my standpoint is that, I know if I leave something for Ellen to do because I work Monday to Wednesday and Ellen has a Tuesday to Thursday, historically, I know that it will be done and I know that it will be done to a fantastic quality that I can rely on. So I don't need to worry about it. And I think that was very obvious very early. But making sure that everybody's bound in with decisions and what have you is an important part of the job share and you can't communicate enough I think, especially in the early days.

Sophie Smallwood: From what I'm hearing here, it sounds like having sort of a shared value in the quality of work is really important to make a job share successful. Would you say that that is true? And I'd love to understand maybe, Ellen, you can touch on this. What are some of the other sort of criteria that you think are important in making a job share successful between partners?

Ellen Wilson: So I do think what is really important is that we have a similar work ethic as well. So we both super ambitious. We both want to do our jobs to a very high quality. We both want to progress within the organization. So you need to be at the same level. I don't think a job share would work if one person was just happy to take it easy and the other one was going full steam ahead. You need to on a personal level, you also just need to get on.

Helena Zaum: I absolutely concur with all of that. And I think also on a personal level, I spoke before a bit about the fact that we're better together. Ellen is, probably more direct than I am. And sometimes I can dance around an issue probably in conflict avoidance mode in some form. And actually, I found our partnership brings with it opportunities for me to learn about style. And actually that can be really, really beneficial as well. So it's almost like having a coach next to you as well. And in terms of how things are communicated and positions, and I hope that we've both learned a little bit from that as well. I guess on a style and perspective.

Ellen Wilson: Definitely. Definitely. And the job brings about quite a lot of speaking in public. So that's just brilliant as well, having someone who can coach you through that, because sometimes you might have an idea and you think it's great and you try it out and it just doesn't really work.

Sophie Smallwood: I love to understand a bit about those hours of transition. What do you do during that time? What is the value that that time brings to the company? And then what tools are you using to make sure that you're in sync?

Ellen Wilson: Do you want to take that one Helena?

Helena Zaum: Sure. I am very lucky, actually, because I have a boundary where Ellen is actually in work already. So we have two common days in the office on a Tuesday and a Wednesday, and we work remotely. So Ellen is based a little bit further away and so often we're not physically in the same place. But usually there's an opportunity or several opportunities on a Wednesday afternoon for me to share with Ellen anything that's on my to-do list that might need to be taken care of on a Thursday. And we use a mixed variety of media for that. I mean, certainly we use some of our tools. So Teams is a really great software that we're very fond of, at Microsoft. So that's one, we do speak a lot on the phone as well. Sometimes that's just quicker. And we both know, I think, that if we need to contact the other on one of our non-working days in order to progress something important, that that's OK. And that might be done via a text, via WhatsApp and it might be done via a quick telephone call. And equally, I expect on a Monday morning to come in to my to-do list from Ellen, which is normally written on a Thursday. But I don't think there's anything, Ellen, that you'd add to that.

Ellen Wilson: No, just on the to-do list as well, there's also an understanding that we don't just dump work on each other's shoulders. So the things that we hand over are seriously things that just need to be done.

Helena Zaum: Yeah, normally work in progress. Can you watch out for an email response from such and such a body? And if they haven't got back, can you send them a chaser note? So just it's almost to keep the momentum in each other's projects or any joint projects rather than as Ellen says, a kind of delegation dump in either direction.

Sophie Smallwood: What are some of the challenges that people might face or perhaps you face then work through in this arrangement?

Ellen Wilson: I think initially the challenge is just to get it right and get the subjects and the projects separated in a way that works for everyone. But then also just being open about when things just don't work and say, hey, Helena, actually, I don't think I'm comfortable with this part and having that open relationship. Or I'm just not comfortable with this project. Can you help me here or can we swap some projects? I don't know Helena, it has worked quite well hasn't it?

Helena Zaum: I mean, I think it's been quite organic. So we said at the beginning we wanted to have some projects that were shared and some other projects which were our own areas of expertise, and that happens quite naturally. I think also if I reflect on the month or two prior to Ellen going on maternity leave, there was quite a bit of travelling that needed to be done in that time, that we were also putting on quite a lot of large marketing campaigns and we had lots of events. And so quite naturally, really, Ellen was manning the events and making sure that everything was organized and that the content was prepared and all of those sorts of things. And I at that point was probably doing a little bit more of the trotting off to visit a customer.

Ellen Wilson: It was probably a bit too much, bless you!

Helena Zaum: But my kids are a bit older and I wasn't pregnant for once. So I know what it's like and in a way, that was one of the very special things about it. By then, we didn't really need to discuss that. It was quite natural and part of the natural elasticity of our job share. And I think when Ellen comes back to work, she will need to recalibrate again. Things change a lot, particularly in our industry and especially in our organisation. And we'll need to carve out the right balance again, because the business has moved on a bit. But I'm looking forward to that.

Sophie Smallwood: Now, are there certain industries and roles that you think are absolutely not well-suited for sharing a role and maybe, Ellen, you can touch on that?

Ellen Wilson: Personally, I don't believe that. I think because it's a job share, it's not a part-time role. I understand that some people are a little hesitant when it comes to customer-facing roles or even partner-facing roles. Sometimes that people may say part-time isn't good enough. We need someone who's contactable five days a week. That's the case when when we are job sharing. So there's someone available all the time. So I actually think it's a brilliant thing and I don't think there's any roles that you can do as a job share. Again, feedback has been at times as well that if you wanted to go into a management role, it would be a lot more difficult to do it as a job share. But again, I think that might just be people being a little bit worried or scared of the unknown. I don't think it's been done very much, but again, I don't see why it would be would be an issue.

Helena Zaum: I mean, I think the example I would reflect on, I work a lot in the health and care space and actually if you're sick in hospital, there are a whole heap of different people who are sharing information about what is required for you as a patient at that time. And so it's possible to hand off really, really important information about things that are potentially life-threatening. I would also say that most of the customers and partners who I've come across are actually really supportive of the choice that we've made. I think it's quite novel in some cases, but always in a good way. And I think that they're pleased to see an organisation like Microsoft learning almost on behalf, in some cases smaller organisations, what's this like and how could it work? In terms of management, I think it's a really interesting thing to consider if you have effectively, two managers with slightly different styles as a member of staff, that might be a very positive dynamic. I think it would need some careful unpicking that as Ellen said, I think we should go from a standpoint of why not?

Sophie Smallwood: What do you think it will take to actually help drive the adoption of job sharing arrangements to a point where more people are doing it? More people are aware of it?

Ellen Wilson: I do think there needs to be an understanding that, as we discussed earlier, job sharing is not just for mums and job sharing is for everyone. So we hear a lot about diversity in the workplace and inclusion of the workplace and also actually making diversity work at home. So having an equal share of responsibilities. So I do feel quite passionate about that. We need to get more men working in job shares so that we can have a true diversity and a true equality in the workplace.

Helena Zaum: I was just going to add so I mean, we've recently done a very small and non-scientific survey here, just informally within the UK business and Microsoft, just exploring some of the people's attitudes to this. I think there are a whole heap of people who might want to do a job share for lots of different reasons and reflecting on some feedback that we've had here locally and people who've spoken to me about this there may be reasons, for example, around people's health, caring responsibilities and the like, that mean that doing a job share or working part-time would allow them to continue to be adding really valuable expertise into the workplace. And as Ellen just said, a diverse perspective, so we need to bust the myth that job sharing is for working mothers. It's not. It's for people who want a portfolio career, potentially, it's for people who might have physical or mental health challenges, for that matter, who are more comfortable working a slightly more restricted working week.

Sophie Smallwood: Or people who just have passion projects and aspirations. I spoke with another individual who was in the government sector and her big passion was writing books. And so she was sharing a role so that she could actually allocate time to write books. What is the first word that pops to mind when I say job share?

Ellen Wilson: Amazing.

Sophie Smallwood: Helena?

Helena Zaum: Pinched my words.

Sophie Smallwood: What do you think the future holds as far as roles and how they're shaped? And we'll start with Helena.

Helena Zaum: I have another role that I have outside of Microsoft, which I think really as a non-executive adviser to another organization. And actually for me, it's a brilliant opportunity to see my Microsoft job in a way from a different angle. So Ellen and I get to talk about super innovations that are happening here in the UK. I get to see what it's like to actually put some of those innovations into practice. And I do think that the idea of a portfolio career is something that generations that come after ours are going to want and expect to see more of. And I think there's something in the idea that actually, if you allow yourself a bit of breadth in terms of your focus, all aspects of your life stand to gain from that. So I expect we'll see more of this kind of thing, not less.

Ellen Wilson: I would totally agree. So the whole idea of portfolio careers, I think is really exciting. And I think the notion of having one employer for the rest of your life and going to work 9.00 to 5.00, I don't think the current grads would support that very much. Also, it's a really good opportunity to actually discover and understand yourself and use some different skills as well. As Helena's got another opportunity outside of Microsoft, while I was on maternity leave, I've started with a couple of other mums and we set up a gym and Saturday school for kids, and it's just been brilliant having the time to dedicate and focus on it and it's also given me the opportunity to grow as a person because I've been challenged in different ways, which maybe I wouldn't have been in just the current role that I'm doing at Microsoft. So I do hope that we see a lot more of these job share roles in the future. I do think there needs to be more, not support might be the wrong word, but just more awareness and also sort of advertisement from companies. So I daresay, if we looked at the current job openings, Microsoft there is probably not very many job share roles. So I think it'd be great if companies also could push it and open it up, because if they did, I do believe that there would be a great uptake.

Sophie Smallwood: And that was Ellen Wilson and Helena Zaum sharing the role of Industry Solutions executive at Microsoft. They clearly have a great dynamic formed of shared values, work ethic and mutual respect. The accountability they have to each other makes them stronger as individuals. And listening to them, it's clear approaching a role as a team brings diverse perspectives and more thought process around problem-solving with the added bonus of a in coach, which is great for learning and development. Thanks for listening and join us for the next episode of Talk with Roleshare.

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