By Melissa Nicholson
During my year of research and development for Work Muse prior to launch, I ran across Betsy Polk and Maggie Ellis Chotas over and over. The career partners, who’ve job shared for 13 years as The Mulberry Partners co-presidents have been strong advocates of women partnering for better results, including job share partnerships. Their book Power Through Partnership: How Women Lead Better Together with forward by Anne Marie Slaughter does just that — shows women in partnership and why it works so well.
Work Muse: How did you both meet and how has your relationship evolved?
Betsy & Maggie: We met in a high school English class in Charlotte, North Carolina. We teamed up for a class project and had so much fun working together we decided that someday we’d like to work together for real.
Work Muse: You’ve been co-presidents for 13 years. What conversations and considerations did you have when deciding to become partners and begin The Mulberry Partners?
Betsy & Maggie: It was most important to us to preserve the friendship at the core of our partnership so we did all we could to be intentional about how we worked together; first, we sat down at Maggie’s kitchen table and thought through every possible scenario about what the future might look like, addressing how we’d deal with these issues if they ever came to be. We talked about our values and made sure that both of us cared about was reflected in our work. And we decided who our mediator would be if ever we found ourselves in a situation we couldn’t resolve. We still know who the mediator is but we’ve never needed to use him.
Work Muse: Did you initially think of yourselves as job share partners?
Betsy & Maggie: No, we always thought of ourselves as 50-50 partners who, together, would handle all aspects of leading Mulberry. It wasn’t until we started writing our book Power Through Partnership: How Women Lead Better Together and researching women job sharers and partners that we realized that we were job sharers in more ways than we realized — see the next question for why…
Work Muse: How do you job share?
Betsy & Maggie: We always cover for each other and make sure that at least one of us is available and accessible to clients. This means that though we are small, our capacity to get work done is able to flex far beyond what just one of us could do.
Work Muse: What days of the week/times do you work?
Betsy & Maggie: Because we cover for each other and can conduct much of our work from our home offices, it seems we are almost always on, in ways that are responsive to our clients and have also allowed us to be present for our kids throughout their childhood. The partnership has made this magic work, even though many times we’ve described our lives as 3-D chess boards.
Work Muse: How do you share and divide responsibilities?
Betsy & Maggie: We both are fully involved in designing and facilitating meaningful processes for our clients. Maggie handles operations and Betsy focuses on marketing and outreach. We started out both doing pretty much everything together but found over time that it made sense to designate roles.
Work Muse: What strengths did you bring to the partnership? What are your partner’s strengths? And what’s the biggest thing you’ve learned working with her?
Betsy: From Maggie, I’ve learned to listen first — that’s so important. Maggie is one of those rare people you meet who is truly wise and thoughtful and very insightful.
Maggie: From Betsy, I’ve learned to say what’s in my head and put stuff out there. Betsy is someone who has both incredible confidence and compassion, a rare and beautiful combination of advocacy for self and others.
Work Muse: What were the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your partnership and how have you overcome those?
Betsy & Maggie: We are always learning as we face new challenges in the day-to-day leadership of Mulberry. As a consulting firm, we’ve learned more and more how important it is to take in feedback but follow your own gut. In the beginning, we were so receptive to feedback from others and sometimes assumed that others had answers we didn’t. Now we trust our instincts and our abilities to find the answers to our own questions.
Work Muse: What is the biggest misconception you’d like to change around job sharing?
Betsy & Maggie: That it’s impossible to find the right partner – partners are everywhere when you know what you’re looking for.
Work Muse: What do you wish others knew about job sharing?
Betsy & Maggie: How many benefits – flexibility, confidence, built-in support, to name a few – come from job sharing. Communication can be learned and conflict is crucial and doesn’t have to be so hard.
Work Muse: How have you advanced job sharing?
Betsy & Maggie: By writing a book that features job sharers and showcasing their stories.
Work Muse: What have you learned coaching job sharers?
Betsy & Maggie: In our work as coaches, we’ve had it reinforced that communication is the key to being able to reap the benefits of job sharing. At the heart of good communication is unpacking the assumptions and expectations that we bring and being willing to listen to other points of view while trusting our own selves. Good communication includes dealing with conflict in productive ways.
Melissa Nicholson is the founder and CEO of Work Muse, a job-sharing solutions firm.