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Reaching for Flexibility Executive Search Firm Taps Pool of Parents Who Seek Balanced Lives

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When Kate Grussing finds a job for a male client, the first questions he typically asks are "What's the compensation?" and "What will my title be?" When the client is female, Grussing said, the first question is, "Where is the position located?"

"The women are always trying to figure out whether they'll still be able to do the run," she said.

Grussing, 42 and a mother of four, knows exactly how they feel. During her years as a top executive at J.P. Morgan in London, she felt "lucky" if she was available to drop her children off at school even once a week, and she felt guilty about it, she said. "I rarely managed to help with homework during the weekdays." Trying to find a better balance led Grussing to leave J.P. Morgan in 2004, her first break from corporate life in 18 years. Less than a year later, she founded Sapphire Partners, an executive search firm with a twist: matching senior professionals seeking flexible positions with companies needing their skills.

"We're focused mostly on senior women who were fast-trackers with high-flying careers," Grussing said. "A 45-year-old high flyer who took five years off can be a valuable asset to any company." In a little more than a year, Sapphire has built a client base of 400 executives with strong backgrounds ranging from marketing to human resources to financial services. Its corporate clients include J.P. Morgan, Lehman Brothers, and Cisco Systems.

Although Grussing declined to provide financial details, she said the privately held business was profitable, growing and looking to expand into "a wider group of industries and professional disciplines, such as law and technology." Expansion outside Britain, she said, was "a longer-term goal."

Grussing is tapping into a rich vein, as employers around the world are finding that senior women, especially, are attracted by companies that offer them more control over their time. "Women today need a schedule that permits them to balance their professional and personal lives," said Aude Zieseniss de Thuin, president and founder of the Women's Forum for the Economy and Society in Paris. "Businesses will have to change and adapt in order to attract the best women."

The appeal of flexible working extends to men, too, who make up a fifth of Sapphire's client base. "Some of the men were burned out or got a divorce or just want to change directions," Grussing said. "We hope more men will want to work flexibly so that the women who want to do so, don't look like such mavericks and exceptions."

Not everyone agrees that flexible work and corporate success go together. Last autumn, Neil French, worldwide creative director at WPP Group, told an advertising industry conference that if women did not make it to the top, it was because they did not deserve to, since they spent time caring for their families. The remarks caused a brouhaha that led French to resign.

Attitudes like that are fading from the workplace, according to Shirley Soskin, an entrepreneur and a partner in Sapphire. "There are many companies who really do 'get' it," she said, "and really do understand that we send them people who can parachute in and hit the ground running."

A native of Princeton, New Jersey, Grussing grew up in Maryland and attended Wellesley College. After earning a master's degree in business administration from the Tuck School at Dartmouth, she spent years ascending the hierarchy at Morgan Stanley and then at McKinsey & Co., the consulting firm, which brought her to London in 1993. "Kate's always been extremely level-headed and thoughtful and has a good people sensibility," said Elizabeth Chambers, who worked as an analyst with Grussing at Morgan Stanley in New York.

In London, Grussing joined J.P Morgan and worked her way up to chief operating officer of the bank's European equity business. The announcement in 2004 that J.P. Morgan would merge with Bank One presented Grussing with an opportunity to choose: continue working long hours to make the merger work, or take a break. With four children younger than 11 and a husband with a busy career as an investment banker, family demands tipped the scale. Grussing took a leave in the summer of 2004 and, for the first time, was free to do the "school run." It was while waiting for her children at the school gates, she said, that she got the idea for Sapphire.

"I met so many talented women who had worked full time but who were now wanting to work in a different way because they had children," she said. Companies, in turn, come to Sapphire looking for something different from employees. "Flexible working can be everything from project work to part-time work anything but full time," Soskin said. Does that mean that Sapphire, a start-up, practices what it preaches? "We are working incredibly hard," Grussing said, "so I don't want to say that we're working part- time. But we certainly are working flexibly."

Grussing's change in careers has enabled her to be home more and also to renew acquaintance with two favorite pastimes bike riding and opera. But old feelings die hard.

"I indulge occasionally during the evenings when the kids are asleep," she said. "Then I can't feel guilty for being out."

(C) 2006 International Herald Tribune. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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