You Can Do It in Law, You Can Do It Anywhere - Allen & Overy, Head of HR, Alison Pullen

You Can Do It in Law, You Can Do It Anywhere - Allen & Overy, Head of HR, Alison Pullen

E13 S1 - Talk Roleshare Podcast

"One of the real benefits of sharing a role is you can learn from each other and play to each other’s strengths…being able to learn from another colleague."
- Alison Pullen, Head of HR, Allen & Overy

Career progression meets career flexibility in a sector known for putting in more time – the legal sector. Alison Pullen, one of the Heads of HR at Allen & Overy, an international law firm, talks about how companies can sometimes get stuck doing things the old way because it’s worked. She explains how being open and different about ways of working can make companies more market leading, and retain and attract top talent. During her 20-year tenure at Allen & Overy, Alison shared a role and also managed a job share.


Episode Transcript

Sophie Smallwood: Hey, this is Talk with Roleshare. I'm Sophie Smallwood, co-founder of Roleshare.com. Today we talk about career progression meets career flexibility in a sector known for putting in more time, the legal sector. Alison Pullen and one of the heads of H.R. at Allen and Overy, an international law firm, talks about how companies can sometimes get stuck doing things the old way. Because it works, but actually being open and different about ways of working can make companies much more market-leading and retain and attract top talent. It's worth noting at varying points during her 20-year tenure at Allen and Overy, Alison shared a role and also managed individuals sharing a role. Here is Alison.

Alison Pullen: I'm one of their heads of HR in the London office, Allen and Overy, which is an international law firm. I've been working here for many years. I started at the bottom and in a H.R. Assistant role and have really just moved through the organization doing different roles. As I've come along, the firm has changed quite a lot in that time. It's grown hugely. It has a very international workforce now, with the focus being as much outside of the U.K. even that was in London centres originally as it is in the U.K. So quite a dynamic and diverse workforce. And that's what I find very interesting about the role that I do; some really interesting people that I work with at all levels of the firm.

Sophie Smallwood: Initially, Alison, we were introduced through a common contact, a friend of mine from way back in intermediate school in the US, who happens to work for your firm. And what was it about this idea of shared roles and the focus that we have that initially made you interested and open to speaking with us?

Alison Pullen: It's perhaps natural to a certain extent because working in the H.R. Teams you're constantly talking to members of staff about flexible working, definitely something that is of interest. And that has changed quite a bit over the years. And personally, I have and continue to work in a flexible way, including in the past I worked in a job share. So it always has an extra element of interest, for me, in terms of talking about job sharing and some of the opportunities and challenges that those job shares can create for people. So definitely a professional and a personal interest.

Sophie Smallwood: So you shared a role and have you also managed individuals who have shared roles?

Alison Pullen: Yes, that's correct.

Sophie Smallwood: OK, great. That's a very interesting insight, having done it yourself and then also having been on the manager's side. Now, before we get into the job sharing aspect of it, I'd love to get an idea from you on your vision of workforce diversity and leadership over the next five years and what you think it will take to get there.

Alison Pullen: In the time that I have been doing this job that there have already been a lot of changes and a lot of change for good. But ultimately, what we need to see is continued emphasis on personal accountability for that change going forward. You can have many initiatives and opportunities, but ultimately, if there are small things that people are doing, which make people question an organization's commitment to that change, that can be very difficult. So, my particular focus is on working with our senior leaders to really challenge, perhaps, prior preconceptions about a diverse workforce or what it means to actually help with change and really working to make it feel very inclusive for everybody going forward. So I think behaviour change and accountability are really key for the next five years, I would say.

Sophie Smallwood: What do you think are some of the perceptions tied to individuals who want to work more flexibly?

Alison Pullen: The perception point is ultimately sometimes can be a concern personally that having somebody work flexibly in your team is going to mean more work or inconvenience for you to work around that, potentially. Particularly when you're in an organisation where you're very focused on client delivery. There's a concern about that. And that's something that we actually have to challenge with our leaders to help them see that there is opportunity actually in enabling people to work in a flexible way that enables us to actually retain our most talented employees. And that without that openness to looking at working in a different way, we are actually potentially losing the investment that we've made in some of these great individuals up to this point where they need more flexibility in their career.

Sophie Smallwood: I've spoken with a number of organisations, different industries. In some industries, it seems as though change is almost initiated by the people first, the employees. Starts with them and then leadership, in essence, fosters a dialogue. In the legal sector, generally speaking, do you think that change takes place differently, and does it start from the top in that instance?

Alison Pullen: Honestly, you need both, but a real commitment to change, from the top, is what people are looking for. And it then becomes more of a virtuous circle because people feel more able to come forward and ask about wanting to do things differently. If they know that people in senior leadership positions are saying, we recognise that you might need to work in different ways, they may therefore feel that they've got the permission, so to speak, to go and talk to their line manager and say, I know this is a focus for the firm and this is what that means for me, personally. So, it does need to come from the bottom, but you absolutely do need that leadership from the top to demonstrate that it's a key priority.

Sophie Smallwood: Right, you need, in essence, a role modeling impact. In some cases, one just to outwardly, verbally support it, but perhaps also in some instances, having senior leaders showing by doing. For example, Salesforce not very long ago appointed a co-CEO. So you have the highest level within the organization, who actually are together, sharing the role. And in that case, that's a very good example for the rest of the employee base.

Alison Pullen: I completely agree. And role models is a really key aspect for many people. They want to see that of the people working in different ways to enable them to feel it is a possibility for them in their own roles.

Sophie Smallwood: If you could snap your fingers and fix the biggest challenge you feel you face in reaching your goals in your role today.

Alison Pullen: It sounds simple, but it's people being willing to be open to difference and doing things differently. We can be stuck sometimes in doing things in the old way just because we know that those have worked and been effective and that's what made us perhaps successful. Being innovative or different is actually how we can become even more market leading as well. So it's an openness to change, is what I'd like to see.

Sophie Smallwood: Give me the first word that pops to mind when I say shared roles.

Alison Pullen: Relationships.

Sophie Smallwood: It's been around for a while and people have been sharing roles in governments and teaching and in the private sector for quite some time. But it seems as though they're quite a big portion of the population that's never heard of it before. Why do you think that is?

Alison Pullen: If they've not heard of it, then perhaps I've not seen it in their own organization. And that can be to do with sometimes people have a concern, with job shares, that it might mean, particularly in, maybe smaller organizations, that it's going to be an extra cost overhead so that's perhaps why there haven't been any in some organizations is that concern and therefore people haven't seen it. That's why they may not have heard about it.

Sophie Smallwood: I understand that you did the job yourself. Tell me a bit about the story behind the why.

Alison Pullen: So I was at a point in my career where I was looking for promotion, moving to the next step, and I had the opportunity to. And at the same time, I also wanted to work flexibly. I'd come back from first maternity leave and I had a long commute. And so I was very keen to be working only three days a week, if possible, at that time. And so an opportunity arose to work with a colleague and at the same time to be promoted. And so we did that go together, for a new department, supporting a new department. So that was the why for me. It was to combine flexibility as well as progression in my career. And I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work in a job share at that stage in my career.

Sophie Smallwood: Now, when you initially had this idea and you had the need to share a role, how did you pitch that to your company? And do you have any tips for people who perhaps are thinking that this could be a great arrangement for them?

Alison Pullen: Even with openness, it's really key to have a really open conversation with your manager, whoever you are pitching the idea to, about how you see this work, how you will make it work with them because they potentially will have concerns about if it's going to be an overlap; am I going to have to worry about who I tell what to do and actually being really clear about how you're going to carve up the role in a job share, particularly perhaps if you were in a role that more senior, less transactional, to actually hear about so that the manager will be able to understand how they will work with you as well as how you're going to work with them and how you're going to deliver your role. And that's what myself and my colleagues try very hard to do, both in pitching the roles, but also in actually then in the doing of the role as well.

Sophie Smallwood: I always think of shared roles and individuals who want that arrangement as the best kind of flexible arrangement for people who are very ambitious. Right. Because it's easier to just have a job for yourself and to manage it from end to end. And so I find that it's almost a greater commitment to be in a shared role because, of course, you have to perform. But then you also have a level of responsibility to your partner and make sure that they can transition over well. So, let me ask you, in your job share, what was the role that you shared and then how did you divide it?

Alison Pullen: So, the role that we shared was a head of H.R. Role, supporting one of our practice groups. So this is where some of the challenge came with the role. We tried to divide the roles sometimes related to the days of the week that obviously we were each working. But we did try to each take the lead on certain projects that were happening at the particular time because we felt it was important. We had a team who was reporting to us as well. We felt it was important that they could understand what they needed to speak to about what, particularly because we could have an overlapping day as well. And so, it can be challenging in a H.R. Role to have a job share because so much of the role is advisory. Particularly, people management issues don't necessarily go away just because you're not in the office one day. The key to making it work is always about the handover between one another, keeping each other up to speed in terms of what's happening, so that even if they don't necessarily need to do the work, but they could jump in if you're not available and something happens on the day that you're not there. And so that's how we try to divide it. So, if there was a people management issue that we were dealing with, we tried to ensure that one of us took the lead on that rather than trying to help both of us going across it, because naturally you will have different views on exactly how something should be managed.

Sophie Smallwood: Right. You can divide and conquer. And ultimately, I guess for me, I would ask you, do you feel that you both were able to leverage your strengths?

Alison Pullen: Absolutely. And the person that I job shared with was a little bit more senior than me. So she was already in a head of role. And I was being promoted into it. And this is where there's real benefit for a job so that you can learn from each other and play to each other's strengths and help learn. So, for me, I saw it as a great way to learn from a colleague who I knew well and I respected greatly and I could learn from her while doing the job. So, to your earlier point about for that sort of ambition points and being able to develop a new career to be able to learn literally there with a colleague alongside another colleague was a fantastic opportunity.

Sophie Smallwood: So, you've also managed a team who shared a role. From the manager's perspective, how did you find that?

Alison Pullen: I found it good. It's very important that you treat each of them as individuals, which might sound obvious, but it's is the feedback about them and their own development or is it feedback about the job or a task or something that needs to happen. And so it's always important to think about, when you're speaking to these individuals together, and when you need to talk to them individually, more around their own sort of development and feedback. Through experience, because I had been in a job share myself, we related well to one another because I had a view or I had the experience of what might be the challenges that they were facing, as they developed the job share together. So, we found it mutually beneficial to understand that situation.

Sophie Smallwood: What are some of the challenges with managing a shared role? Things that other managers perhaps out there who are having this arrangement presented to them by someone who's reported to them for a while or perhaps a new hire. Whatever the situation, if you're going to be managing a job, share, what are the things that you should be mindful of? You mentioned treating them like individuals, but are there any other sort of tips and tricks and things to be mindful of?

Alison Pullen: Keeping an eye out for, if there were any challenges in the relationship of the job share between each other or if they are finding that with the clients that they working with, there is a danger sometimes, that with the job share arrangement, people can play those individuals off against each other. You go to one person and you don't quite get the answer that you want. So you go to the other person on the other day. And particularly for those who are in a job share, who have people management responsibilities. But I can see from a general client perspective as well, the sense of I don't like that piece of advice and therefore I'll go to the I'll always call the person on a Friday because I like that person. So, watching for that and thinking about what is it, what is the output, what is necessary for this role, and how you support those individuals individually and collectively in delivering those outputs. That would just be one thing that I would say to watch out for.

Sophie Smallwood: That's a really good point. And it supports this idea of really dividing and conquering and having projects and parts of the role that perhaps one person focuses on. I spoke with individuals who are sharing a role recently, and they said that they actually split their roles. They were in a people management role. One individual really enjoyed the people management part of it. So that person was the people management side of the role. And then the other individual was much more analytical, focused on reporting, numbers, and so that person focused on that part of the role, more front of the house and then back of the house. And that seemed to work really well for them. And that potentially could avoid some of those challenges of individuals reporting into them going to get one answer from the other if there's that clarity of who does what.

Alison Pullen: Exactly. And for the team, that if they're managing a team, that can be really important as well. Definitely, and as long as you work with the individuals and it works for the organization, that can be a good thing. The potential challenge there is just being mindful of when it comes to reviewing these individuals are thinking about the salary or their own progression, just being aware that if one of them is not doing a certain aspect of what would typically be, if your in a role on your own rather than in the job share, if you're cutting out an element of that role, what impact does that have in terms of somebody's development going forward? That's probably me with a HR hat thinking that rather than from an individual perspective. But that would just be something for people to be mindful when they are carving up these roles. I completely agree with you that there are clear lines that can help all concerned in having a really successful job share.

Sophie Smallwood: So one of the things that we think is important when it comes to flexibility at Roleshare is that there is a sense of equal opportunity for flexibility. Yes, there are used cases of certain personas, such as a mother coming back from mat leave and or person who has to care for elderly parents or just general caregiving responsibilities, or someone who is ill. But there's other used cases, too. I spoke with someone not long ago who is sharing a role in the government sector, and she's doing it because she has a passion and she wants to write books and novels and things of that nature. So, sort of this agnostic view on the right flexibility, but how do we get men to be more open and almost feel more comfortable to role model and to be part of the movement and leaders in shared roles?

Alison Pullen: It's a challenge and I completely agree with you that we need different role models to make this really effective. And we've certainly seen that in one of the groups that I support when we're looking at other flexibility in other roles that we have people, men and women who are part time. And it's not always to do with childcare or caring responsibilities because they've made the decision to work part time, as you say, because perhaps they've got other commitments that they want to have outside of work. And maybe a few years ago, we wouldn't have expected people to do that, men to do that as well as women and for reasons not connected to childchare. So we just need to keep pushing because eventually it will come and really encourage people to think about, perhaps if they're looking for a job share, don't limit yourself to only thinking, oh I'll only go and talk to the women who just come back from maternity leave. If they're trying to find a job partner, we need to encourage people to think more broadly themselves about who might be someone that they could potentially job share with. It might be a little bit slow, but we could get there eventually.

Sophie Smallwood: So in the legal industry, how would you match individuals to share roles? What type of arrangement would work? Because there's a pretty linear growth path right, in law. So are there certain matches that you think would make sense and some that just would not? Do they have to be sea level, the same type of area of expertise? How would you see that working?

Alison Pullen: I'm talking here about our fee earning community, because on the support side, we do have a number of people in job share roles. For example, our legal P.A. That quite a common arrangement. But thinking about expanding our fee earning roles are our lawyers. There are examples of people who have worked in a job share capacity. You can't have too much of a gap in terms of the level of experience or expertise, mainly because if you're in a job share arrangement and you're being presented to the clients when they're structuring a particular deal or matter and saying you have this council, the senior associate, this junior, this trainee, we have to be careful that they're at a similar level when we're thinking about billing and the role that they would play on that particular matter. That's not to say they've got to each have qualified on exactly the same date. But I'd be surprised, for example, if you had somebody who had been a qualified lawyer for six years being matched with a two year qualified because they are just at very different stages of their own experience. So I think it does need to be fairly close to that side. And you want complementary skills within that and knowledge that outside side doesn't have to be too prescriptive I would say.

Sophie Smallwood: What would you say to companies that have never tried shared roles to encourage them to look into it more?

Alison Pullen: To give it a go and to try it. And this is my point about being open and innovative and that by trying to work in a different way, in the same way that we are now more accepting of some of the other ways of working flexibly, that actually there's really something to be gained. And that actually, in this scenario, sometimes you get two individuals coming together and who could potentially do the role even better than one person on their own. So just encourage people to go for it and try.

Sophie Smallwood: And what about companies that say, well, we offer compressed work week, four days a week or we enable individuals to work from home? Is that enough to accommodate the needs of certain individuals who need flexibility.

Alison Pullen: It's great if they're already doing those things. But there will be some people who perhaps want to feel that they can only progress if they say, take my example, where at that stage in my life I wanted to do three days a week. It wouldn't have been possible to progress in that role on three days a week because I couldn't do the full remit of that role in only three days. But by doing the job, I was able to progress. And I hope that the organization gained as well from our combined expertise. So, if they really want to hang on to their people, and those who they want to also see progress, then giving this extra opportunity could be a really good way to tap into additional knowledge or retain expertise in the organization that they might otherwise lose if somebody can't commit to a longer week at that stage.

Sophie Smallwood: Some of the concerns around shared roles that have come up in conversations with individuals who are not familiar with it have been around one, the complexity of making it happen, setting it up and to cost implications, this perception that it just costs much more. What are your thoughts on that?

Alison Pullen: Taking the cost point, we have to think as well as organizations about what is the cost of losing good employees and not keeping up our retention, a healthy turnover, is of course can be a good thing. But if you're losing good people, that can be a cost in terms of that expertise walking out. So, it's a small investment to make to actually retain our best people. And also, if you have only a small overlap, it might not be a material cost in it, particularly for sort of a medium or larger sized organization compared to other costs. And also, my experience is, is that the individuals in education work incredibly hard to be really versatile, to cover for one another and be available. So, sometimes you can have benefits, for example, where it's possible for people in the job share to actually come up and out, you get more coverage. So, just thinking about it in a blunt cost case, that actually can be a benefit for the organization in that way, whether jobs really make sure they're providing even broader coverage for themselves over the years.

Sophie Smallwood: What are some of the benefits and maybe one or two benefits that come from individuals who shared a role that perhaps people might be surprised to hear?

Alison Pullen: It's the commitment that people put to those roles to make them work, to be really versatile. And the fact that actually sometimes those two people coming together can come up with even better ideas or services to their clients, because you've got these two heads are better than one sometimes. And that can really happen in a job. Sometimes when we think about promoting someone, sometimes I hear managers saying, oh, if I could have a bit of that person, a bit of that person would be a perfect person. And actually, sometimes in a job share you get that.

Sophie Smallwood: The same individual looking to do a shared role in an organization that does not do it. It's not part of the list of benefits. It's not listed in contract. But this individual really believes in the value. He or she has a proven track record, great performance reviews. Any advice on how to go about approaching his or her manager and HR to perhaps put this in place and to almost be a guinea pig? Right. And the pilot for jobs for the first time inside of the organization.

Alison Pullen: The word pilot is a really good point, because what was coming to mind you talking about is say, look, let's try this on a trial. Let's do this. Let's see if that can work. This is what we're going to do to try to make this work. But let's keep talking and let's assess it as we go to see how it's progressing and encourage them to be open to the idea. Sometimes you have to take on, as an individual, a little bit more about the risk. And that might mean in terms of being really versatile, in terms of availability. And so there might be some additional work you need to do at the beginning. But to get that up and running and to demonstrate that it can work in the organization could then have real benefits to what happens in the future. So, as you say, acting as a pilot could be a really good way to start things off.

Sophie Smallwood: How can technology today support shared roles in a way to make it more accessible to increase adoption?

Alison Pullen: I've seen this change and comes the ability to work from wherever working remotely, WebEx, all of those things, being able to work from home. Those really help people in the job environment because they can help each other as things come up on days when one of them shouldn't be in. And the need to access information or to support one another, having yyour work at your fingertips outside of the office environment can only help all of those who want to work flexibly. And that's a real key.

Sophie Smallwood: And to close, give me one word that describes how you felt when you were sharing a role.

Alison Pullen: Energized.

Sophie Smallwood: And that was Alison Pullen, one of the heads of H.R. Allen and Overy legal firm Legacy Thinking is one of the blockers of diversity and innovation. But legacy organizations don't have to be legacy thinkers. It's great to see organizations like Allen and Overy who've been around for over 80 years and have a large footprint across 80 plus countries. But they have leaders who are forward thinking about ways of working, leaders like Allison. I'm Sophie Smallwood, co-founder of Roleshare.com. Thanks for listening and join us for the next episode of Talk with Roleshare.

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