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Few MBA students rub shoulders with heads of state and government as part of their day job. But their excellencies Carolyn Davidson and Tom Carter are scarcely typical. The wife-and-husband team share the job of British High Commissioner to Zambia, alternating in the senior diplomatic role on a four-monthly rotating basis.

The couple, who are due to complete their MBAs with the Open University Business School next month, began their groundbreaking work arrangement after their second son was born. Both experienced diplomats, they devised an innovative way to combine high-profile career and family life. It was while they were joint deputy heads of mission in Bratislava – the first time Britain’s diplomatic service had posted people overseas to a job-share – that Ms Davidson began her MBA studies in 2006.

“The Open University’s flexibility is paramount,” she says. “It’s geared up for distance learning and the great thing about the course is that you can take time out.” It does not allow for regular four-month breaks, however, so they have been juggling their demanding studies with the pressures of the diplomatic role, which includes evening engagements and travel.

Mr Carter began his MBA course six months after his wife. “I read my way through some of her textbooks and thought; ‘This is something I’d quite like to do. Initially I was intending to do just the one-year course in the Fundamentals of Senior Management, but at the end of the first year both of us felt this was pretty good stuff and we’d like to carry on.”

Mr Carter notes that they differ somewhat from students whose principal goal is to obtain an MBA. “For us, it wasn’t driven by the desire to have an MBA - that’s a bonus - but to study the material, because it seemed very relevant to our job.”

Funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) under a programme to improve civil servants’ management proficiency, the MBA has helped them handle challenges at work. “What we both found from the Fundamentals for Senior Management was that it gave you a framework and a way of approaching problems – a handle on how to dissect and analyse them,” says Ms Davidson. “Previously you’d just be thinking: ‘This is a big mess, how am I going to handle this?’”

The financials covered in the first-year programme also proved useful. “Assets, liabilities and net discounted value are things we don’t normally come across,” she says. “It gave us a much better appreciation of people in the private sector. It led to better conversations because we spend a lot of time talking to business people and we can ask the right questions.”

Over 100 managers employed by the FCO around the world are currently enrolled in its OU scheme, which was introduced in 2006 and offers a professional certificate in management and a postgraduate certificate in business administration as well as the MBA. About 20 senior officers have completed MBAs.

During their studies, Ms Davidson and Mr Carter have found time to analyse their working arrangement as an unusual, if not unique, leadership model (see panel). “We’re in a bit of a new area,” she says. “We’re the only case study that we’re aware of.”

Their OU tutors too have been fascinated by the job-share as a model of shared leadership. Others have also been intrigued by the arrangement. When appointed to Lusaka in 2008, it was the first time any country had appointed a job-sharing ambassador or high commissioner. Counterparts from other countries including Russia, China and the US described it to their governments in positive terms.

The MBA has been criticised for failing to cover the people management skills needed in day-to-day leadership, but this has not been the high commissioners’ experience. “Why this course attracted me and why I kept going with it was because of its focus on behavioural issues, on how humans behave with each other,” says Mr Carter. “I thought that was really very central to our management and increasingly our leadership role.”

With their sons at boarding school, they have had a little more time to complete their courses. However, the intermittent internet connection from their home in Zambia has slowed things down and made it hard to access the OU online library. “Online tutor groups are fairly difficult at the best of times and certainly no real substitute for the face-to-face option we had in Europe, but internet problems have meant that we haven’t engaged with them as much as we ought to have,” says Ms Davidson.

Rather than going back to traditional full-time jobs in the diplomatic service when they return next year to the UK, they are keen to pursue their working model but to give it a new twist. Armed with their MBAs, one option would be to continue sharing a senior full-time Foreign Office role on a four-month rotation in conjunction with a similar arrangement in the business world, which would broaden their experience and give them two salaries on which to get by in London.

“The FCO, like most government departments, is keen for people to get out and have experience of working in the private sector and bring that experience back into our organisation,” says Mr Carter.

“Yes, there are inefficiencies because we have to spend quite a lot of time communicating with each other about the job, but we see it as a significantly better way than just working on your own because of the cross-fertilisation of ideas and perspectives that goes on.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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