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Podcast Episode 4

Part-time paths to progression – carving out your own path and making it work for you.

An episode jam-packed with advice on how to work part-time and enjoy a career that progresses the way you want it to. Featuring Sarah Ellis, co-host of the Squiggly Careers podcast and co-founder of career company Amazing If with Phoenix Group’s Director of Corporate Affairs, Claire Hawkins.

Claire began her career as an accountant and has transitioned across many roles within finance – mostly while working part-time – before becoming one of the FTSE 100 organisation’s most senior leaders. Sarah created Squiggly Careers by ‘playing around’ on Fridays, after going part-time to give a creative niggle a whirl. Both discuss their own unconventional paths and navigating the challenges of prioritising workload and protecting boundaries while working part-time, as well as the power of supportive managers.

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Claire Campbell: Progression and part-time working are sometimes seen as incompatible. Historically, women, and I say this because 6 million of the UK’s 8 million part-time workers are women, have felt their careers stall after working part-time. Our own ‘Question of Time’ research found that the majority of UK workers still don’t think it’s possible to keep progressing while you work part-time.

However, is this actually true in real life? Every week, millions of people download Squiggly Careers, the podcast that Sarah Ellis co-hosts alongside Helen Topper to hear upbeat advice on how to keep developing your career, your way. Both are co-founders of the careers company Amazing If and authors of two Sunday Times best-selling books. Sarah began this venture when she was working at Sainsbury’s head office. She asked for Friday’s off so she could give that creative spirit inside her a go, a journey she talks about today. Sarah is in conversation with Claire Hawkins, corporate affairs and investor relations director at Phoenix Group, the UK’s largest long term savings and retirement business. Claire epitomises the idea you can keep progressing while you work part-time. Indeed, she’s worked part-time for most of her career. She joined Phoenix group in 2000 in a technical finance role. Since then, she has taken various project roles within the business before a move to investor relations, which led to her current role in corporate affairs. All as she flexed her days up and down to fit with her growing family. Now, she is one of the most senior leaders in the business.

Claire and Sarah talk about how to keep progressing, focusing on what you want and need from work one step at a time.




Sarah: Hello, my name is Sarah Ellis. And I’m one of the co-founders of a company called Amazing If.

Claire: Hi, my name is Claire Hawkins. I’m the director of corporate affairs and investor relations at the Phoenix Group.

Sarah: Top three tips if somebody is maybe already working part-time or thinking about working part-time.

Claire: Don’t sweat, the destination, enjoy the journey that you’re on, and make good decisions that that moment without worrying about where it’s going to take you in five or 10 years time.

Sarah: Know your why behind the work. I think if you know your motivations and what matters most to you, it keeps you honest. And it gives you the ability to make often the bravest, but also the best decisions in your career.

Claire: Second will be say Yes, take the opportunities that present, they could be small things they could just be to give a presentation at a meeting they could be to do a bit of research on something that is outside your comfort zone, say yes.

Sarah: See your career as a series of experiments where you don’t sort of succeed or fail in a binary way, but that you’re always learning so even if you do work part-time, and it doesn’t work out the first time, what can you learn? What would you do differently next time?

Claire: Believe in what you can bring to work. Don’t suffer with impostor syndrome, as we all tend to do, but give it a go. So back yourself to be brilliant.

Sarah: And then my final piece of advice, which is always my favourite bit of career advice generally, is to never live the same year twice.




Claire: I decided that I wanted to become a part-time worker when I was coming back from maternity leave with my first child, I have two boys. They’re 24 and 21. So we’re going back to the turn of the century, when I was looking to get into part-time work. And my husband and I actually relocated, so I’d left my existing employer and I was looking for a new job. But felt really passionately that I wanted to carry on working. I’d trained very hard to become a chartered accountant. And I felt very passionately that I wanted to make sure I was there and spent time with my little baby as well.

So I went about trying to find a job which was linked to the qualifications that I had. And whilst there was a company, which is now called Phoenix, recruiting in my local area, really struggled to get past the recruitment consultants who told me I had brilliant skills, but I would never get a part-time job, obviously quite depressing to hear that. So my husband took my CV into his boss, who shared it with her boyfriend, who took it into the company that I now work for, and gave it to a gentleman who asked me in for a chat and said, I’ve got no idea what we’ll get you to do, because we’ve never had anybody work part-time in finance before. But why don’t you start and we’ll see if we can work it out. And that was 24 years ago. And that’s the last time I formally applied for a job in the Phoenix organisation. I’ve had a very varied career, moving from being somebody who worked in finance, to working on some big regulatory change projects, through to somebody who was leading investor relations, and then latterly I was asked to set up the function called corporate affairs and investor relations in the organisation, and spent 17 years of those 24 years working part-time and have also been a home worker, actually, for the last 12 years in that period of time, as well.

Sarah: I first decided to work part-time for very different reasons to Claire, and probably less meaningful reasons, less important reasons than being a mum, which I am now, but I wasn’t then. And actually, it was very unusual to work part-time, as Claire was saying, generally, but even more unusual to not have any carrying responsibilities, which I didn’t. I wanted to work part-time so that I had a day a week to do something different. I had always worked in large FTSE 100 companies, and I wanted some space to create, to play, to be outside of some of the boundaries and the structures that actually I really enjoyed day to day, but I wanted to experiment a little bit more. I just got a real interest in career development and learning and had a few ideas about what that might look like, did some volunteering, and just often found with the full on demands of my day to day, so I was head of corporate responsibility at the time, and I moved into being head of marketing strategy, that I couldn’t really just fit that in around the edges. I just felt like I wanted this clear, this clear window. And so I put in that request to work part-time, I wanted to work a four day week at Sainsbury’s and one day of doing my own thing. And I was so nervous about doing it, I created, it’s really embarrassing to say this now, about I think it must have been a 15 to 20 page PowerPoint document that described why this was like a good idea, that the business case for me working four days a week, and I got such a brilliant boss, that I don’t think I ever got past page one. Before she said, I completely understand, I can see how this will be a benefit to you and a benefit to us. And everyone will be better because of it. And then we figured out practically how to make that happen. And I will be forever grateful for her sponsorship and support. Because when I look back on it, it was a really brave thing for both her to support and sponsor and me to make happen. So that’s how my part-time journey started.




Sarah: So Claire, you mentioned there that they weren’t sure kind of what to do with you. They knew they wanted you, but they weren’t sure what for? How did you go about the process of sort of finding that fit of, it sounds like you had to shape and craft and create that for yourself or in partnership with that boss? How did that work?

Claire: I think to some extent, when you work, maybe a non-standard work pattern, you’re always shaping and thinking about what that role is going to be. Thinking about what you take on, what you can take on, what works for you at that particular point in time. And as I said, I’ve worked all sorts of different part-time working patterns along the way. And so what I’ve been able to contribute to the organisation has been really different at different parts of my journey, in terms of getting that work life balance right. What’s at its core, though, is the key skills that you bring to an organisation, they might be your professional capabilities, they might be your interpersonal skills, they might be your ability to network and get stuff done. I have to say I started off in roles which were probably quite technical in nature. Rather than running a process, I was asked to look at some of the harder more crunchy things. And that felt like it fitted more easily into a part-time roles or something that sat maybe a little to the side of the day in day out, five days a week sort of process. And that worked really well. I’ve also seen it pivot completely the other way around and actually found that if you’re the person setting the timelines for the process yourself, you have much more opportunity to build in the flex that you need to manage your part-time working hours in patterns. So it’s very much been a test and learn exercise. But for that you need two people to be willing. And I have been very, very fortunate that I’ve had great people that I’ve worked with and for in the organisation over many years, who’ve been very much focused on the outcomes, rather than the presenteeism that is sometimes a barrier to people working part-time. So that was my journey, Sarah, but how about yours? We started in a very different place to each other. It sounds like you also had an amazing boss and an idea in your 15 to 20 page presentation as to how you might make part-time work. But how different was the reality from the theory that you’d set out in that PowerPoint?

Sarah: I think the thing that works particularly well for me was positioning part-time as a pilot as a prototype. So rather than asking my boss or the organisation to commit to something that felt very different to anything they’d done before, because you are, it doesn’t sound very pioneering now to work a four day week, but at that time, it was very unusual, and particularly in the kind of roles that I was in and at the stage of my squiggly career that I was in, and so not seeing it as a sort of a full stop, a binary, yes, I’m getting a tick in the box here, or I’m getting a kind of a cross and a no, it was a, how could we try this? What might this look like? Let’s set a very clear point where we review. And then I think everybody relaxes a little bit, because it feels like you have got this moment where we’re going to come back together and see, have we found our fit? Is it working for me? Is it working in the role that I’m in? Is it working in the organisation. And then I think very quickly, and I’m sure, you’d have some reflections on this as well, I think I got a lot better at boundaries. So in lots of ways I didn’t, I didn’t have a forcing function for boundaries, because I hadn’t got like, now I’ve got a seven year old. But at that point, I got no one that I was accountable for, and so it was really just me taking this one day. And so it would have been really easy and tempting, I think to have said yes to the odd meeting, to let work happen on that fifth day. Because my other stuff was never urgent. It was just like sort of me, and me coming up with ideas for podcasts or for books or, you know, sometimes doing work with other people, but often not by myself. And so I felt like I had to sort of have one day that was protected. I did it in a very clear way around and I just took a 20% pay cut. I think that also really helped me with my mindset, because I was like, oh, but I don’t get paid for this day. And 20% is quite a lot, right? It’s quite a lot of cash. And so it made me it felt like it was a very intentional, unconscious choice for me. And I know lots of people who do. And I know you’ve worked in lots of different working patterns, you know, you do condensed hours. And pay works very differently. I think because I sort of did it in this very straightforward way. Where it was very clear, it really helped with boundaries, really helped me with prioritising, and I think your point about and I often say involve don’t solve, when it comes to kind of part-time, or just any kind of flexible working. It’s very rare now that we are solo workers, that we can achieve what we need to get done by ourselves. And so if you don’t protect and signal those boundaries to other people, they can’t help you. And I think that’s what I learned from that ridiculously long PowerPoint presentation. Actually, if I’d have just involved my manager a bit sooner, and had an informal conversation, I would have saved myself some slides and some time. But also from that point onwards, just involving people meant you could prototype quicker, you can get fast feedback. And then actually, I believe that people can make it work. So if you can sort of get a yes, let’s try it out, then the vast majority of people that I’ve come across who do work in a different way to kind of the typical week, are brilliant at finding a way to make it possible. Everybody in Amazing If, our organisation, now everybody works part-time, actually, apart from me and my founder now, and we both work, I don’t know what you’d even describe what it’s like when you’re working in your own company. Everyone has loads of accountability and ownership and everyone just, everyone just makes it makes it work.

Claire: That point you’re describing, Sarah, about that change in it being a pilot. That’s quite a brave thing to do. I’d certainly felt for a lot of my career, I was, well, I was a bit different. I was a bit nonconformist. I was definitely a bit of a square peg in a round hole and needing to stay flexible, needing to change, was something that was really important for me to make flexible working, part-time working, a success. But that doesn’t mean that that wasn’t hard. And that wasn’t difficult. At particular times I felt I had to have an awful lot of inner energy to carry on being a bit different to everybody else. That brings great resilience to you from a professional perspective. And that’s another skill that actually you develop, and an unexpected skill that you develop. But it definitely meant, you know, if people said, how about a meeting on a Friday, I said, well, would I ask you to have a meeting on a Saturday, because I’m not being paid to work on a Friday. And so flexibility has been really important to me through work, but rigidity around the hours when I needed to be on a school run or taking to a football club or whatever it was that I was prioritising for my family at that time was really important. And I think the discipline that it brought was probably forcing me to filter out the bottom 20% of things which weren’t as important. So if I’m working 80% of the time, focus your time on doing 80% of the things that add 80% of the value, and be ruthless in your prioritisation so that you can survive through that and add real value to the organisation. I think that’s what working people, part-time people do brilliantly.




Sarah: So it’s interesting to reflect on perhaps some of the skills that really help people to succeed when they are working part-time, and I know sometimes they get described as soft skills, I never loved soft, Claire, you’ll have to tell me in a second what, what you think of that word. But you know, feels like sometimes the words we use can get in our way. I often think of these skills as our transferrable talents, because these are often skills where actually you could do about five different jobs in an organisation. And they would, they would always be useful. One of the things that I have noticed that really kind of helped people to do these jobs really well, is getting a lot of clarity on what they need to achieve. So you’ve mentioned the word outcomes a few times. And I think that is a skill, having kind of clarity and then the confidence to follow through on that clarity. So asking those really important questions, you know, what’s most important now? I always really liked that question. It comes from a lady called Liz Wiseman, who looked at high impact players across organisations. And one of the things that she found, she’s a really interesting researcher, is people who have, kind of make the most difference, they’re always really good at asking that question. You know, what matters most now, what’s most important now? So one of the skills that really springs to mind for me is questioning. It’s that critical thinking. So it’s not just being on autopilot. But I see the people who are really succeeding working part-time, they bring a lot of questioning, a lot of critical thinking. And they’re not, they’re kind of the opposite of autopilot, they’re always kind of looking for those opportunities to say, how about we do this differently? What about doing this in a new way that’s perhaps more efficient, that’s going to save us time, because they kind of, they appreciate the value of that.

Claire: I really agree with you, Sarah, it’s interesting. I feel like I’ve worked as a part-time employee in an organisation where most people weren’t part-time. That idea of being a bit different, or being a bit separate to others, not being in the office five days a week. And that naturally leads you to have to question things in a different way. It actually gives you some comfort – one of the things I found really beneficial about part-time work was the fact that I did get separation from the organisation. I was a little bit removed at times from it, which gave me much better perspective coming in. So that natural, you know, energy to want to question something, firstly, because you feel less embodied and bought into it – and not bought in, but less than wedded to it in the first place. But also because you have to. So I, I strongly agree with you. I think what I learned as I was moving through the organisation, progressing through the organisation, with the increasing importance of how I did things, rather than what. I think it goes very much to your comments, there are about you could do five or six different jobs within the organisation with those transferable skills, because the what becomes a lot less important, because the how is what’s going to carry you through. And I definitely learnt, you know, really learnt the importance of strong, mutually beneficial relationships. As a part-time worker, I couldn’t rely on necessarily seeing that person five days a week, because it would only be three, I really needed to make sure that I understand what they wanted from a professional relationship, and I was able to give it to them and vice versa. And influence became much more important to me to develop as a skill as well, as a result of that. So I got the opportunity to practice skills, which I hadn’t necessarily needed before, and became much more rounded actually, as a professional, as a leader.

Sarah: And for people listening, if I can just encourage you to watch out for, as somebody working part-time, de-prioritising your own development, because this is something that I still see in our Amazing If team, because everybody is so committed to those organisational goals and the team goals. And so we have had to work particularly hard to create the sort of time and space for people to invest in themselves because you think, okay, having a conversation with Claire, who’s one of my influential internal stakeholders, okay, well, I’m always going to make that happen. But perhaps making time to also be a mentor or be a mentee, we go, oh, that sort of feels a bit, a bit nice to have. Or, okay, there’s a really interesting event that I could go to all but that feels like a real luxury because I’ve got less hours in my week. Now in Amazing If we have learning days, that we’d have very many must dos, but we sort of do very, very kind of strongly nudge people to say, we would really like you to take these. And the reason that we have those learning days is really just to create that freedom, and to say to everybody, at least once a quarter, we want you to be taking a day that is just for you and you’re learning, and people can choose to learn wherever they want. So our Business Support Manager is going to learn to DJ this year. So you know, she’s gone very left field in what she wants to learn, and then you know, somebody else in our team has done a leadership course. So wherever people want to go, we’re sort of, we’re very supportive of that. But the reason for that is, you know, we are a learning organisation. So it’s really important that we are role modelling that and making space and time. And I think I would just encourage everybody to also make sure that you zoom out on your own career, and you think a little bit about, you know, the direction you’re going. It’s a difficult tension to resolve, but know that you’ll be better because of it.




Claire: So opportunities, like this podcast, do give you that moment, that time and space to look back and reflect how much has changed. We’re always so busy running forwards, that sometimes we forget to take a moment. And I’d be really interested in your thoughts, Sarah, on how much you’ve seen change in the world of work. Certainly, from my perspective, I’ve been in financial services for the last 25 years now. And not only did I join a sector where part-time was pretty much unheard of, certainly in finance, and home working was just an anathema. Something that could never have been conceived, it was also a very male dominated environment, financial services is very well recognised as having been very slow to move on gender. And that’s before you look at other diversity characteristics, like ethnicity or social backgrounds. So I feel like I’ve seen an awful lot of change in the financial services sector. Probably I’ve seen that accelerate really quite quickly over the last five or so years. We have an awful lot of people working part-time in the organisation now, probably more at more junior levels than at more senior levels, which I always find quite frustrating, because I’ve actually in some ways found it easier to balance your own destiny when you become more senior than it is actually to control when you’re in a more junior position. But it’s also been fantastic to see the sea change in women around the senior leadership table, which has been a definite step change in my time. And you cannot underestimate how important it is that people have that ‘someone like me’ moment when they look into businesses. Definitely you can see that connection for people when I talk, not just as a female working, senior in the financial services sector, but when I talk to my story about being part-time and the journey of progression that I’ve taken to get to where I am today, you can see an awful lot of people thinking gosh, wow, okay, that means that I can do this in a different way. And actually not just women, but also men reaching out and wanting to think about part-time. And Sarah, talking to your point, not just people because they happen to have kids, but for all sorts of different responsibilities. It might be caring responsibilities, it might be split careers, it could be all sorts of different things. I just think the fact that we’re talking about it now in a much more open way, having the opportunity to have a podcast which is dedicated to it. Wow. I mean, that is absolutely fantastic. And the more we talk about it, the more normalised it becomes, and the easier it is for the next generation of people coming through.

Sarah: I think the key reflection for me is that career journeys now are just becoming so much more personalised. And that’s a really good thing from our perspective, because we always say kind of in a squiggly career, there’s no such thing as sort of a one size fits all model, we want you to feel like you’re sort of drawing your own squiggle rather than we’re all sort of trying to do the same squiggle. And the thing that I find reassuring and motivating, is just all of the different models of working that I now see. So whether that is things like the rise of number of Co-CEOs, I’m very glad that I’m part of a co-founding kind of team, with me and my partner, Helen, and we definitely couldn’t do it without each other. And that’s becoming more and more popular. I think some of the changes in policy make a really big difference. So with flexible working policy, changing the role modelling point really matters, the more we hear those examples and the stories of oh, here’s a slightly different way of working. Oh, Sarah worked part-time and she didn’t happen to have kids at the time. She’s – what does it say about her kids that she now works full time, and she has now got one, I’ll leave you to make your own mind up about how bad a baby he was! But, you know, my work is also very different. Now, I have a lot more choice, and a lot more freedom and flexibility because I’ve created my own job and created my own company, very different to when you’re working in a FTSE. What I just really want to see is people feeling like, that they can sort of work in a way that works for them. Because when I think people do, that’s how they do their best work. And then that’s how organisations get all of the value that they want from those individuals. Essentially, what we just end up with is a more inclusive workforce that works for everyone. I don’t think the work is done or is finished. I don’t think we can say oh brilliant, we can we can sort of all move on now. Because everyone just sort of works how they want to work. I think it is a lot better than it than it was and I think we have made really good progress. And then I think we just need to kind of keep pushing, keep pushing for those stories, for those examples for that, that senior sponsorship. I have seen it can work everywhere. You know, sometimes you hear those excuses. Oh, you know, that might work over in that industry, but it wouldn’t work here. The more I’ve read the more I’ve realised that when people want to make it work, it does work.

Claire: I mean, I guess a key difference now is the fact that everybody has the right to request flexible working. But actually what that comes down to, though, is still a desire between two people to make it work in that particular situation. This still does come down to great individuals being good managers and looking how to get the best out of their working relationships and working situations at any point in time. And that’s the bit where I think the stories really help. It still can be hard to think through how you’re going to make a particular job, which has historically been done on a full time basis work part-time. It’s possible, but it requires you to think about it. To pilot it. Exactly where you started off, Sarah, and think through how you can make that work and what’s really important about it, ask those questions and work out what isn’t and what you can, how you can change it because you know, if we’re all working for businesses that are trying to meet their customers’ needs, customers’ needs are diverse, customers are diverse. That’s the point isn’t it. So I do think that we make not just better working environments, but better businesses, if we actually reflect the reality of people’s lives and what they want to juggle. And the fact that they change, you know, what you want from work or what you can give to work in your 20s is different to your 30s 40s 50s 60s 70s. And so it should be and it’s great if we now have the ability to have those conversations, force those conversations, and make sure that it isn’t just one size fits all.




Claire Campbell: Sarah and Claire have given us some really good tips, taken from that long experience of working flexibly and part-time. Their stories demonstrate their resilience, their willingness to push for what they want, and the benefits to them for having done that. I really liked some of the practical tips they shared for thriving as a part-time worker. Firstly, using ruthless prioritisation to filter out the bottom 20% of work that isn’t immediately important. Seeing your career as a series of small moments and not worrying too much about where it’s taking you long term, backing yourself and not neglecting your own development because you are part-time.

Sarah’s suggestion about setting up a new part-time arrangement as a trial is a great one. We know it’s persuaded many managers to try something they weren’t sure about. If you’re the first to do your job part-time, setting it up as a three month trial with the opportunity to review how it’s going might win over a sceptical manager.

The other tip I’d echo is that of finding your supporters, whether within your organisation or outside, who was going to champion you? Who was going to challenge you to give your best and present you interesting opportunities? Nurture these relationships and recognise their value. And don’t forget, it’s unusual now to have a linear career. Everyone’s journey is unique. Embrace yours one moment at a time