Right the ship or go down with it. What to do with a glass cliff opportunity?

Summer is starting and it feels like things are ripe for change. The impacts of AI are rippling through industries, inflation is still high, and running a company feels like being in perpetual crisis management mode. It’s usually at these times that we look for new faces to rise to the challenge and lead teams and organisations through the storm. 

Crises put organisations in “war mode”, a state where it feels like survival is the goal and any option to achieve it is on the table. Ben Horowitz coined the expression Peacetime CEO / Wartime CEO and stated that a wartime CEO “violates protocol in order to win”. Wartimes therefore allow for people who don’t normally look like CEOs to step up and do what needs to be done. Enter… the glass cliff.

The glass cliff assumes that women will be put into leadership positions when the organisation is facing a major crisis. They are essentially given the role, but also an impossible task: right the ship or go down with it. In this article we’ll examine why the glass cliff occurs, and how it shifts perceptions of women or minority leaders. We’ll also discuss how to approach it.

Before proceeding, it’s worth noting that any manager, at any level, can be set up to fail. But a glass cliff isn’t just a tough management role. A leader who can get a similar job in a few months does not face a glass cliff. The effect applies to women and minority leaders because they face a unique combination of risks: the opportunities are rarer, riskier, and the reputation cost of failure is higher. Let’s delve into how this can be changed, by leaders, and the organisations supporting them.

Is the glass cliff real? 

The OG poster girl for the glass cliff was Marissa Mayer, who took over as Yahoo!’s first female CEO when the company was struggling. More recently, Peggy Johnson was put in charge of getting Magic Leap back on track. There’s a big profile case like this every couple of years but are they just memorable exceptions or the norm? Until recently, academic opinion was split on the topic, which is especially hard to measure. But more research and a unifying theory has emerged* and confirmed that the glass cliff is real. Crisis status leads to more women being appointed to top management positions. But why?

Companies in crisis situations need to urgently show that they are changing their practices. Trying entirely new things, appointing new types of leaders. That’s why, the fewer women there are in the management team to start with, the more likely it is that women will be appointed to management positions during a crisis. This way, the company signals to watchers, for instance press, or shareholders, that it is willing to change its ways. 

It’s been speculated that women are chosen in these moments due to their improved ability to communicate and manage complex social dynamics. For instance, during the Covid19 pandemic, women leaders such as Jacinda Arden, the prime minister of New Zealand, were celebrated for their response. This is a plausible argument, but signaling the company is changing also plays a key role.

Therefore, the aim of these decisions is to restore a sense of optimism and order, not to set up women or minority leaders for failure. But unfortunately, a result of this crisis-minded decision making is the glass cliff effect, and the ultimate consequence is long term damage to the credibility of underrepresented leaders. If they are only put in charge when the ship is going down, stereotypes will form over time that when they are at the helm companies fail.

This perception further constricts opportunities, and also reduces the motivation for individuals in those groups to aim for leadership in the first place.

Why do leaders accept glass cliff opportunities? 

Why do leaders accept these opportunities if they are set up for failure? Since most companies struggle quietly, it may be that the candidate is not even fully informed about the context during their hiring process. The role could be presented as a chance to lead a stable, well functioning unit. The person accepts and a few months later realizes that they are tasked with turning a dumpster fire into a rocket ship. 

Other times the person may understand the situation, yet still accept because for women and minority leaders these opportunities are scarce. In my case, when I was first offered a CEO role, I distinctly felt it was a singular chance. I was a 30 yo Eastern European woman in London, offered the possibility to run a leading high-tech SaaS company. I wasn’t the founder, I hadn’t studied computer science at an ivy league school, I didn’t code in my spare time, I didn’t have a big name entourage. I was just someone who was great at their job and I knew that very often that was not enough. 

What to do with a glass cliff opportunity? 

When these opportunities are taken, the costs are very high and multiple scenarios can play out. If the situation is not presented accurately, or if the leader is not given enough power, autonomy, or resources to succeed, a good outcome might simply not be possible. If that’s the case, the ship is going down regardless, and the focus is more on mitigating harm to people’s livelihoods and shareholder value. As the leader, this can still feel like a personal failure, so it’s necessary to get coaching, and find perspective. 

It’s extremely important to avoid the all-or-nothing mindset, i.e. you either fix everything or fail at everything. Consider the remaining steps and evaluate if it is worth spending your time and energy on the role. Are the compensation, the learnings, and the satisfaction of saving what’s possible enough? Will this be a net positive for your reputation or a negative? Are there other opportunity costs, for instance, are you missing out on the opportunity to start your own company? Decisions are not irreversible, and you can find value and meaning in either keeping or leaving the role. 

When the company can recover, turnarounds still amount to years of deprioritizing personal goals, including physical and mental health, for the leader at the helm. Burnout is a real risk, as you are signing up to be in the eye of the storm. Does a top client need attention to prevent revenue loss? Is a high performer about to leave? Is a top cost saving opportunity coming up? Everything is the leader’s problem until the crisis is solved, and the feeling of being “lonely at the top” can take hold. Boundaries, a topic we’ve covered here, become especially important in this scenario. 

How to improve your outlook when facing a glass cliff?

If you’re considering a role and you think it might be leading to a glass cliff, here are some ways to assess the situation. Management turnover in a team is a potential indicator of struggle. Check LinkedIn to see if the people you’re interviewing with are all new-ish in their roles and ask questions to understand why the team has changed. Reaching out informally to leavers to ask about their experience and checking GlassDoor are also important knowledge sources. 

Additionally, ask hard hitting questions about expected growth. Is there a solid product or business pipeline in place, what are the biggest blockers to growth, etc. It’s also a good idea to ask to speak with key individuals handling these areas, to further validate their views and understand how the next 6-12 months are likely to play out. This diligence is expected from leaders, just as the company is vetting you, you should be vetting them. 

If the risks are high, are these opportunities worth it? It depends what your goals are. For one, being in a leadership role should not be a goal in itself. If you feel like it’s “now or never”, perhaps it’s worth considering, so what if it’s in five years, ten years, or even never. Leadership is very challenging, and not particularly well compensated given the time, expertise, and emotional load required. Being an individual contributor for instance is increasingly highly respected, can allow you to achieve a great degree of mastery, and still influence others and your organisation. 

If you are an employer looking to hire a leader to right the ship, consider how to help them succeed. Document the risks they will face with as much transparency as possible. Discuss them openly before the leader starts so they can start considering solutions, and work together to prepare support for tackling them. Set clear goals for the first 3-6 months to reduce the risk of firefighting. Also, put in place an onboarding and coaching plan for the leader and their immediate coworkers & reports. It will help reduce initial friction and miscommunication. 

Looking forward

The glass cliff is real today, but we can reduce its frequency and improve the outcomes. For one, a great way to subvert the glass cliff is to be aware of it, and hire diverse leaders when the organisation is doing well. If a large pool of candidates is not  available, the best alternative is to have a strong internal career planning system, which enables early career employees to grow into leaders over time. Succession planning plays a key part here, and also communicates to team members that they have a bright future in the organisation. 

At the same time, as an individual faced with a glass cliff, be prepared to advocate for yourself, ask for the authority and resources needed to succeed. But if a turnaround is not possible, then consider all your available options. Even if the organisation does not survive, your career will.

Additional resource* Shine Bright Like a Diamond: When Signalling Creates Glass Cliffs for Female Executives

Article written by our guest author Ioana Hreninciuc

Photo by Alwi Alaydrus on Unsplash

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