When Bobbi Eldrid and Lynda Kaufman discovered they were both expecting their first children, they began chatting about an age-old struggle. “We were asking ourselves, ‘How do you balance being a mom with having a challenging role and a fulfilling career path?’” Eldrid says. Now they have been sharing a job at GE Power for almost two decades.
On a snowy day last December, a brand-new power plant in Connecticut was in the throes of preparing for “first fire,” the moment when a power station first runs fuel through its massive turbines. Slated for January, first fire is the cumulative test to prove that years of work invested by hundreds of designers, logistics and manufacturing workers and builders in the site and its technology would fuse together smoothly. When the plant, Competitive Power Ventures’ Towantic Energy Center, comes online later in the year, it will generate enough power to supply 800,000 homes.
Overseeing that critical moment were Bobbi Eldrid and Lynda Kaufman, two highly sought-after project managers at GE Power, which supplied the power plant’s turbines and generators. Like others with their job title, they each have a finger on the pulse of every last detail, whether that’s speeding up delivery of replacements parts or addressing customers’ questions or concerns along the way.
Yet, these two women take their collaborative skills a step further, expertly juggling what may be the longest-running work-share partnership in GE’s history. The colleagues handle every decision, customer interaction and contractual obligation as a single project-management entity — with Eldrid in her office in upstate New York and Kaufman 900 miles away in South Carolina. For 20 years, they’ve split their workweek evenly, so they both can go home and transform into hands-on moms, taking turns with carpooling, helping their kids with physics homework and delivering forgotten lunches to school.
Eldrid and Kaufman have shared a job at GE Power since 1998. They knew each other casually as engineers in Schenectady, New York, where GE makes turbines and generators. When they discovered they were both expecting their first children, they began chatting about an age-old struggle. “We were asking ourselves, ‘How do you balance being a mom with having a challenging role and a fulfilling career path?’” Eldrid says.
Together, they hit upon a solution that was right for them. Though GE Power did not offer an official work-share program, the company had begun encouraging such arrangements with a new policy that counted anyone who worked fewer than 30 hours per week as half an employee. That meant managers could hire a work-share team without sacrificing another position in their group.
After consulting with work-share teams in other GE businesses, the two women found a position overseeing the 7F gas turbine product line. These huge machines burn natural gas to spin generators inside power plants. The position that appealed to them both and they applied individually. Then they created a proposal for splitting the position.
What they came up with was deceptively simple: Both women put in 24 hours per week. The week begins on Sunday evening when the women hold a standing 2-hour phone call to go over their projects. Then Eldrid works Monday through Wednesday, and Kaufman works Wednesday through Friday. The overlapping of their schedules on Wednesdays allows them to collaborate and switch reins seamlessly.
Intrigued, their boss agreed to try the arrangement for half a year and then reassess the agreement. “Six months came and went, and we never had that discussion,” Kaufman recalls.
In fact, things were clearly working great. Nearly 20 years later, their arrangement has withstood five different job titles, the arrival of four children, and one long-distance move. Their well-tested partnership is a symbiosis that even an undertaking as complex as the Towantic project can’t unravel.
Towantic began in March 2016, when power site developer Competitive Power Ventures (CPV) procured three turbines, two generators and additional equipment from GE. Three months earlier — before anyone could even pronounce “Towantic” — Eldrid and Kaufman held a three-day kickoff meeting (one of the key types of events they both attend) to finalize project details with engineering and the customer. From there, they spent about one year working closely with engineering to meet CPV’s specifications.
Next, they coordinated with sourcing, manufacturing and logistics personnel so that every component would arrive promptly and unscathed, while chasing down answers to the customer’s technical questions. During the final phase, Eldrid and Kaufman have turned their attention to construction and the field engineering team, supporting the GE site team and doing whatever they can to keep things running smoothly on the construction site — holding meetings to resolve urgent technical, materials or parts issues, or managing the project costs, for example — as the date for first fire fast approached. They also have wrestled contractual issues as they’ve arisen and taken turns visiting the site.
The women have developed several behind-the-scenes maneuvers to seamlessly share their complex role. They adhere to a detailed filing system to keep track of vital emails or documents. They leave each other voicemails at the end of the day with updates on the day’s nuances, such as how a customer reacted to a specific idea or the dynamics at a meeting. And on Wednesdays, Eldrid says, “We put on our headsets and talk to each other all day.“ They have even cultivated a unified virtual identity, using one email account. Colleagues offhandedly refer to them as B/L — for Bobbi/Lynda — the office equivalent to Brangelina (with more staying power).
It’s a formula that can be replicated, but with one crucial caveat. Companies like GE cannot superimpose job sharing from above. “The onus is on the employee to put together their proposal, take it to the manager and keep communications going with one another,” Kaufman says. That’s largely because, like a good marriage, job sharing is predicated on compatibility and an inordinate amount of trust. “If Bobbi puts a PowerPoint presentation together on a Monday, I am still responsible for delivering it on a Thursday,” says Kaufman. While they may not agree on every sentence or chart, Eldrid knows that when she walks out the door on Wednesday, Kaufman will see the presentation through — and she will do it well.
Eldrid and Kaufman have applied their approach to many different jobs over the 20 years, but not without occasional challenges. After GE assigned them to manage CPV’s Woodbridge Energy Center project in 2013, for example, they found themselves explaining their partnership to CPV leadership. How would two part-time employees manage the scope of sprawling, complex projects? What contractual details would get lost in translation?
Once again, the duo’s process prevailed. Woodbridge Energy Center, another enormous super-efficient, natural gas-powered plant, successfully launched commercial operations in January 2016 to provide energy to 700,000 New Jersey homes. Their teamwork impressed CPV’s current head of engineering and construction, Dan Nugent, who worked with the women on both the Woodbridge and Towantic projects. “They were able to stay very well-coordinated,” he observed. “It didn’t matter who I spoke with, whether it was Bobbi or Lynda, they were up to speed on all the issues.”
Valuable as that coordination has been to CPV, it’s meant even more to Eldrid and Kaufman. It’s given them time to color with their children and run Girl Scout meetings. And when they ask themselves, “Do I have a meaningful career?” the answer is a resounding yes.