Make Part-Time Work for You
An Interview with Kristin McElderry by Amy Gallo
We spoke with Kristin McElderry, an incredibly organized consultant and mother of three, whose part-time schedule hasn’t kept her from getting promoted. We talked about what it’s been like working three days a week for a large professional services firm. Working part-time as a manager, especially in consulting, where people often put in long hours and are on call for clients, is pretty unusual. And she says that while her role is complicated and not typical, her career is going pretty well.
AMY GALLO: How long have you been working part-time?
KRISTIN MCELDERRY: I’ve worked part-time for the last five years. But within that span, I’ve taken two maternity leaves, which were almost a year each, so about three years. I just came back from my third maternity leave; this was my first full week back. So, I’m definitely in a transition state right now.
KM: After I had my first child, I was on the fence about going back to work at all. A lot of my friends are stay-at-home moms, and I had considered it. Many work part-time, but in more traditional part-time roles, like nursing, something with just a couple shifts a week or every few weeks. In my field, it’s not very common to work part-time. But a leader from my project team reached out and said, “Hey, I’ve got this. I know you’ve been on the fence. I think you could do it part-time. Would you consider it?” So I had a meeting, and I brought the baby with me. We talked about what part-time might look like, and I came back.
They said, “You tell me how many days you need.” At my firm, you just take a percentage—you do 40%, 60%, 80%, whatever you need. I wrote the terms, and they signed them.
AG: There wasn’t much of a negotiation?
KM: Not really. They came to me with the role. My skills were in demand, which was a great position for me to be in. So, I was able to set the terms. I recognize a lot of people don’t have that opportunity.
I was very intentional about working in Massachusetts. In my firm, you can work all over the country. And prior to starting to work exclusively in Massachusetts, I was on an airplane Monday through Thursday. I was very intentional about trying to get involved with a local account team so that I would be doing local work. That’s what enabled me to continue doing what I do, because if I were being asked to do full-time travel for work right now, I would say no.
One thing that’s challenging about part-time is if you want to transition to another firm, it is hard. I get approached by headhunters and recruiters fairly often. And I always say, “OK, I work part-time. You have an 80% travel clause. I’m not really willing to do that.” And that abruptly halts the conversation.
AG: Were you worried about your career and the implications of being part-time?
KM: Definitely. I’ve had many conversations when I’ve been concerned about what that means, including a really interesting conversation with my boss. I’d been back on an account after a leave with my second child, and I thought I was doing good work. But my confidence in being able to get promoted to the next level while part-time was low. In my firm, you do your project work, but a lot of what helps you get to that next level is extra stuff. It’s contributing to the firm, taking on what we call “plus ones.” And I felt like my plus one was doing a full-time job in three days. I didn’t really feel I was going to be able to do anything else. I was at my limit. So, I had a pretty frank conversation with my boss. He said, “You want to make senior manager this year?” I said, “Yeah, I do.” And he said, “OK, let’s make it happen. I think you’re on the track; I think you’re doing the things you need to do.” I did make senior manager this year, while I was on leave. This is my second time getting promoted while on maternity leave. I’ve definitely felt supported. So I’m working with the same team again. And it’s tough. I feel like moving to the next level—I don’t know for sure how that’s going to happen. It’s a much bigger jump. I’d be moving into a managing director or partner role. And I don’t see a lot of people doing that part-time.
AG: How have your peers felt about you working part-time?
KM: They’ve been primarily supportive. It’s tricky sometimes just because of scheduling constraints. There haven’t been specific challenges, but I’ve never felt specifically targeted. I’ve been able to pull my full-time weight in three days. If I wasn’t, maybe there’d be a little bit more conflict.
AG: How do you do a full-time job in three days?
KM: I’m highly efficient with my time. It’s getting trickier, especially now that I have three kids and it’s harder to even go out in the morning. I feel I’ve already lived a full day before the day’s started! I was highly efficient with my time, but I also wasn’t doing a lot of those extra things I mentioned. Where before I might’ve had bandwidth to do those extra things, now I’m getting my job done and calling it a day.
AG: A lot of the advice given to women who are considering going part-time is, “Don’t do it. You’re going to get paid half the amount or 60% of the amount, and you’re still going to do a full-time job.” Do you feel like that’s been the case for you?
KM: I got the same advice from one of my main mentors. She said, “Everybody I know who works part-time works more.” And I definitely can see how that can happen. Before when I returned from leave, I really eased into it. This time, it’s been a little quicker. I’ve gotten dropped into some pretty challenging work very quickly. And I’m probably going to up my allocation a bit because it’s going to be tricky to do what I need to do. But I’ve advanced, so there’s more expected. I definitely think working part-time makes sense for certain roles and doesn’t make sense for other roles. And it is more challenging as you get more senior.
KM: Because you manage more people. In one of my last roles, I was managing 10 or 11 folks. They were all pretty junior, a year or two out of college. They all worked five days, and I was working three days. Giving them the mentorship, coaching, and feedback that they needed was tricky to do in three days, in addition to client meetings and everything else. So how many hours a day you have and managing a big team is really challenging. The scope of what you do gets bigger. One of the things that’ll be tricky for me in the next few years is that I’m involved in a lot more work where we’re responding to requests for proposals, and we’re writing proposals that are very time sensitive. Sometimes people ask us for a proposal in a week. And it doesn’t matter what days of the week I have childcare lined up. If the proposal is due Friday, it’s due Friday. And that makes it trickier.
AG: Do you find yourself working a lot on days you’re not supposed to be working?
KM: No. I may take a phone call here and there or a text message because that’s the norm I established with my team. I did have some experiences where I would totally sign off, and then work wouldn’t continue. Then I’d get back and they’d say, “Oh well, I didn’t know what to do, so I just stopped.” I said, “Me working part-time is not an excuse for you not to do your job. If you’re stuck, text me.”
AG: Do you communicate pretty regularly with the team you’re working with about your hours and your boundaries?
KM: I’ve definitely had to do that. They’ll set something up, and I’ll say, “I’m not able to attend. Let me send somebody because I won’t be there.” My boss asked me for something yesterday and I said, “Frankly, I don’t have time—I don’t have the bandwidth today.” I was teetering, thinking, Should I send this? Should I not send this? Then I thought, I have to.
AG: Do you have any concern that setting boundaries around your availability will impact your career or people’s impression of you?
KM: Sometimes. Deciding to be part-time is making a decision about your career in some ways. If I was trying to be the CEO or make partner next year, I wouldn’t choose to be part-time. I am consciously choosing to opt out in some ways just because I’m not willing to give work 100% of my 40 hours a week right now.
KMY: For a while, given the demands in our family. We’re trying out an au pair. I’m hoping that makes some things flexible. I’m hoping to move up to four days. But with the ages of my children—and my husband has a fantastic and demanding career as well—it’s just not going to be feasible for me to go full-time. There’s going to be a point when I’m going to want to ramp up my career advancement. But this just isn’t that phase right now.
Adapted from “How to Make Part-Time Work for You,” on Women at Work (podcast), November 18, 2019.