We’ve all heard about the "glass ceiling"—that unseen, unbreakable barrier that tends to keep women and minorities from reaching top corporate jobs. It turns out there’s also a "glass cliff." In 2013, Utah State University researchers Alison Cook and Christy Glass found that corporate boards are more likely to promote women and minorities to top leadership roles at times of crisis, then replace them with more "traditional" leaders when things improve.
If things don’t improve, poor firm performance justifies companies pushing out so-called "risky" hires. Cook and Glass call this process the "savior effect" since, in the majority of cases, companies replace women and minorities with white men. In fact, women succeeded other women or minority CEOs in only four of the 608 transitions over a 15-year period, according to the researchers.
This tells us that not only do women and minorities have a disproportionately harder time moving up the talent pipeline in the first place, they also get riskier leadership opportunities when they get there. So how do you avoid the glass cliff in an otherwise great promotion offer? By staying vigilant, even when you’ve reached the top. Here’s how.
Self-awareness can go a long way before and after you say yes. Ask yourself why you, and not someone else, are being picked for this promotion.
Every successful leader needs to know not just their own strengths and weaknesses, but also how others perceive them. Yes, you’re hardworking, intelligent, and charismatic, but organizations promote people for more reasons than just those. Furthermore, research shows that we are poor self-evaluators: The average correlation between our sense of self at work and objective assessments is pretty low. We’re likely to both overrate and underrate key skills.
Women and minorities have been found to underrate their performance as leaders at higher rates than others. Yet studies have also shown that the most effective and successful leaders have more accurate self-perceptions than others. To understand why you’re being selected for a top job, you need to reflect on your capabilities as objectively as possible.
Julia Pierson was the first woman to be appointed director of the Secret Service, in 2013, with explicit instructions to clean up the agency in the wake of a prostitution scandal. Pierson’s appointment came after her predecessor’s seven-year tenure, a job he kept even after revelations that two civilians had crept past multiple layers of security to crash a state dinner at the White House. Moreover, prior to Pierson’s arrival, the Secret Service was known to be understaffed and underfunded—its problems may have stemmed from poor leadership, but they also came from scarce resources.
Whether or not Pierson took this into account, the glass cliff phenomenon was clear: The organization had hit a rough patch and recruited a qualified woman to shake things up. Yet, unlike her predecessor, Pierson was asked to resign amid heavy criticism after an intruder entered the White House.
Each organization has a history, and you should know it. To avoid being caught off guard, learn the ins and outs of your company, establish your footing as you advance in your career, and keep a certain amount of skepticism about top jobs. You should always be well aware of your company’s performance as evaluated by key stakeholders—consumers, employees, the board, and the public.
You may be thought to have qualities that make you a better leader in a crisis, like being empathic or fair, but the higher chances of failure that you’re likely to face might override those. The more you know, the better you can negotiate an arrangement that doesn’t leave you absorbing unmerited blame in the end.
When Irene Rosenfeld was hired in 2006 as CEO of Kraft (now Mondelez), her job was to "effect company turnaround." Reflecting in Forbes three years later, Rosenfeld says her biggest achievement was "rewiring the organization."
In her first year, she "changed over half of the top levels of management," ensured that "key leaders are well-aligned on the objective of changing Kraft’s trajectory," and placed "the right people in key jobs to essentially support and execute against that agenda." To do all this, Rosenfeld had to connect across all stakeholders, including actively engaging difficult investors. She calls this "servant leadership," a way to "engage the hearts and minds" of followers.
The key to her success, in other words, was influence. Contrary to Rosenfeld’s case, women are forced out of top jobs at higher rates than men, according to a 2013 Strategy& report. Researchers in that study say one reason is because women are often recruited from outside the company—35% of women compared to 22% of men.
That makes those women more vulnerable—as external hires, they’re more likely to lack the institutional knowledge needed to diagnose problems quickly. "That women CEOs are more often outsiders may be an indication that companies have not been able to cultivate enough female executives in house," one of the report's authors writes.
What’s the best way to combat this? According to Geri Denterlien, the owner of a communications firm who has 30 years of experience coaching executives, women who stay at the top know how to "travel outside of the C-suite." As she explains, "Women are often hired after the organization has faced an ethical problem, precisely because they are perceived as ethical leaders. The most effective women who take these posts also have the ability to conduct ‘retail politics'."
That’s a powerful lesson. These leaders, Denterlien says, "don’t insulate themselves with the corporate message; they connect across all levels of the company to win people over. This is hard to do in tough times, but necessary to be influential." Building that influence may not rely on the leadership skills you feel the company has in mind when offering you a leadership role, but if you fear there may be a glass cliff on the other side of the offer, it’s smart to start getting people in your corner.
And as Rosenfeld’s experience makes clear, this isn’t just about self-preservation. Call it "servant leadership," "retail politics," or whatever you like, but without first getting as many people in your corner as you can, you’ll have a hard time getting done what you were brought in to do. What's worse for a leader than being cornered in at the top is when the ground falls out from underneath.