Developing Leaders: Avoiding the Glass Cliff

Businesswoman takes a leap of faith on Clifftop.Promotions tend to be a good thing – especially when the elevation takes one’s career path to the C-suite or to other senior leadership opportunities. But the context in which the appointment is made may be relevant to achieving true diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

In a time of uncertainty, could a leadership opportunity, in fact, be a scapegoating opportunity?


Welcome, Please Watch Your Step

Researchers at the University of Exeter have identified and studied the concept of a “glass cliff,” which describes “the phenomenon whereby individuals belonging to particular groups are more likely to be found in leadership positions that are associated with a greater risk of failure and criticism.” Some researchers have stated the issue succinctly as “think crisis – think female.”

Under this theory, an employer may consider a female employee for a leadership opportunity, but only for one that brings with it a higher level of risk and a lower probability of reward than one offered to a male employee. In extreme cases, the glass cliff theory details the absence of rewards – the experience is so negative that it may damage the candidate’s reputation and earning ability both in the short-term and long- term.

When this occurs, there’s no payoff for breaking through a glass ceiling – there’s only a glass cliff to avoid.

Examples of women who may have fallen off the glass cliff include:

  • Marissa Mayer, the embattled CEO (for now) of Yahoo and former Google superstar;
  • Sallie Krawcheck, formerly of Smith Barney, hired in 2002 after various financial scandals, and replaced after six years; and
  • Ellen Pao, Reddit Interim CEO (the glass cliff scenario may be inferred when the position, by its very nature, is “interim”).

According to a PwC study, 38% of women have been “forced out” from leadership positions, compared to 27% of men.

The glass cliff clearly references the glass ceiling and the advancement of women in business (and politics, as displayed in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s historic nomination). However, glass cliff studies have involved not just women but other protected classes, such as those with disabilities or diverse ethnicities.

In addition, while the glass cliff is an important concept to consider in business, this may occur during times of transition in other areas such as academia, police departments, diplomacy, law and government.

The Business Landscape and Opportunities

According to a Catalyst report, women currently hold 22, or just 4.4%, of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies. These include:

  • Meg Whitman, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise;
  • Mary T. Barra, GM;
  • Barbara Rentler, Ross Stores; and
  • Irene Rosenfeld, Mondelez International.

Female CEOs are also more prevalent in certain industries than others. For instance, a Pew Research poll shows that respondents may be able to envision a female in certain industries, such as retail or food manufacturing or distribution, while in others, such as finance or technology, it may be more difficult.

Wage disparities have also been studied in this context, focusing on executive remuneration and the different compensation packages available to male and female executives. Another factor is the amount of support that a candidate will have once an executive position has been accepted. Specifically, is the appointment viewed as a placeholder, or will the incumbent have the necessary support to effect real change?

Reinventing Leaders

But what of those who did not receive adequate support during their tenures?

Results vary as to the ability of women to heal from falling off a glass cliff.

While Marissa Mayer’s next move is still to come, Ursula Burns, outgoing CEO of Xerox and the first African-American woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company, has appeared on lists of CEOs with the worst reputations.

Likewise, Carly Fiorina’s tenure at Hewlett Packard was tumultuous. When she was first appointed as CEO in 1999, after rising through the ranks of AT&T and Lucent Technologies, she became the first woman to lead a Fortune 20 company. Her appointment occurred not at a time of change or crisis, but at the height of the tech bubble. However, the bubble would burst quickly. She was eventually ousted and has been derided as one of the worst CEOs during her bid for another leadership position – her failed campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

As for Sallie Krawcheck, formerly of Citigroup (Smith Barney) and Bank of America, she has turned her business focus toward a specific segment of the population, co-founding a digital investment advisor tailored specifically for women.

Options for Avoiding the Cliff

As with any strategic hire, the decision to bring on board a candidate must be based on what is best for the organization. If an individual is being motivated – even subconsciously – by potentially discriminatory motives such as “think crisis, think female,” then the organization’s full potential may not be realized.

Perhaps having a clear succession plan would resolve some of these concerns. By engaging in effective succession planning, an employer may identify high potentials. Prepared candidates would then be selected based on a validated plan with a consistent approach.

However, this planning becomes more subject to deviation during a time of crisis or change. For example, some may view a fresh perspective from an outsider, rather than a groomed insider, as more critical to filling a leadership gap than other considerations.

But what if a fresh perspective is accompanied by more troublesome aspects, such as a lack of leadership training, institutional memory or communications skills that may be crucial for the job? What if a candidate has not had the benefit of a mentor or a support system because of a board’s emphasis on a “fresh” perspective?

Making any conclusions on these eventualities may be very subjective, and the data to support the existence of a glass cliff cannot be validated – at least with such a small sample size. Yet because of the reality of the small sample size (only 22 current CEOs are women), employers must take a long, hard look at their particular organizational culture and practices to ensure that the right leaders are chosen – and for the right reasons.

Is your organization ready to fully embrace diversity, at the highest levels, during a positive business cycle as well as a negative one? Or do you include safety training on avoiding the glass cliff in the new executive’s onboarding program? Let us know!



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