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Ever Heard of the Glass Ceiling? Get Ready for the “Glass Cliff”

Picture this: an organization is navigating a leadership crisis. Perhaps it’s facing several quarters of ongoing revenue loss and declining performance, or missteps, mismanagement, and misdeeds are all coming to light—and fast. In an effort to signal a new direction, they appoint a woman as CEO for the first time in the company’s history.

The new CEO steps into a high-stakes environment where the perception of her leadership is already associated with crisis. Not only is she faced with righting the ship, but, like others who have been underrepresented in leadership, her performance will be seen as representative of women as a whole.

Welcome to the “glass cliff,” the lesser-known counterpart to the glass ceiling.

If this doesn’t sound familiar, think of Marissa Mayer’s appointment at Yahoo, or Meg Whitman’s tenure at Hewlett Packard. They were both “glass cliff hires”.

The idea of the “glass cliff” comes from a study by Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam where the researchers compared the circumstances in which women were promoted to leadership positions. They observed a recurring pattern where women were disproportionately promoted to key leadership roles in times of turmoil. The long-term impact of this pattern is that women are less likely to be promoted to executive leadership following the appointment of a woman CEO during a period of instability, and that women appointed during those times are more likely to be ousted from their roles than their male counterparts.

As you might imagine, this phenomenon isn’t unique to the C-suite and can appear within teams at any level, at any time. Often, the appointment is well-intentioned and sincere. However, without a thoughtful approach, a historic “first” appointment can sometimes become the last.

What can we learn from the glass cliff, and how can we avoid it?

The answer is simple: don’t wait for a crisis to promote a woman to leadership. However, there’s more to it than that.

A follow-up study on the glass cliff showed that when companies are experiencing success, people prefer traits associated with stereotypically “male” leadership styles, such as competitiveness and decisiveness. However, when a company is in crisis, people prefer qualities associated with stereotypically “female” leadership styles, such as communication skills and the ability to encourage others. As you might guess, these skills didn’t become valuable overnight, and they’re not innate to men or women. Instead, the difference comes down to how people perceived the significance of these leadership skills.

What does this mean for you and your team?

The first step is to become curious: what traits and qualities are recognized as valuable day-to-day? Does the employee who interrupts and talks over others in meetings have an outsized impact on decision-making over someone who works to build consensus through discussion? If so, there’s space for an adjustment to be made and to model skills such as emotional intelligence and collaboration, and to proactively recognize their importance.

By creating a culture that recognizes and rewards these skills, you’re cultivating a broader (and more diverse) pool of potential leaders and leadership styles. You are also shifting the perception of what skills contribute to the success of a company.

You might already be doing all of this. Or, you might be a woman who suspects that there’s a narrow ledge on the other side of the glass ceiling she just broke through.

Where do we go from here?

The key is to create scaffolding that can offer crucial support, and to think about support in a holistic way. For example, if you are the first woman to hold a leadership role within your team or company, it’s imperative that you not only consider salary increase and your new title, but what resources and support will be available to ensure success in your role.

For many women who have advanced to leadership in male-dominated environments, the drive to have “a seat at the table” helped motivate them to push through obstacles along the way. Likewise, after making it that far, they often notice that they are the only woman in the room. This might sound obvious, but if your company has never had a woman in executive leadership, it’s very unlikely that the first woman CEO has the same types of precedents and mentors she can look to that a man promoted to the same position does. While it’s true that anyone can be an effective mentor, women in leadership need a network of peers and mentors comparable to the ones that have been available to men for decades. Even in the case where you have a woman mentor within your workplace, there’s immense value in building a broad community of support.

On the other side of the glass cliff are noble intentions and ambitions. We want to cultivate strong, effective leaders. We want to break barriers. We want to unlock potential. However, we have to be wise enough to know that we can’t do it alone. This is where The Disruptive Element excels. Contact us today to learn how we can help.


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