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Governor Kathy Hochul and the all-too-familiar glass cliff

New York’s first-ever female governor has been given a massive challenge. It’s a common story for many women leaders who only get their big break during times of crisis.

Governor Kathy Hochul and the all-too-familiar glass cliff
[Photo: NY Senate Photo/Wikimedia Commons]
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New York’s first-ever female governor, Kathy Hochul, was sworn in on Tuesday in the wake of a disgraced outgoing governor. She is tasked with a number of significant public health, education, and economic challenges. It’s a story that parallels what so many professional women face when rising to the top—and it’s playing out in the highest level of state politics.

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The term glass cliff—a derivative of the term glass ceiling, the common metaphor for the unspoken limit to how high women and people of color can rise in an organization—was coined to indicate how women are frequently promoted when an organization is in crisis mode. Often a last-ditch effort—”what could be worse?”—they “put the girl in.” The company gets to look progressive and feels free to promote a man afterward if the female executive fails. 

Sadly, this is often the way women make it to the top. Many men would turn down a similar potentially lethal career move, not wanting a blemish of failure on a carefully cultivated track record (or image) of success. But sometimes, it’s the only chance women get.

Women need to take the limited shots they are given and create agreements that reward them for these higher risk assignments. Moreover, they need to lean into what makes so many women strong and successful leaders: competence, aligning people with purpose, empathy, coaching and mentoring, collaboration, and humility.

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Whether they are entering a toxic work environment, like the one created by Governor Hochul’s predecessor, or are taking over an organization stumbling from a product failure, the path to success is similar: They must earn the confidence of employees, shareholders, or constituents, by leaning into their business competence, calmly demonstrating mastery of operations and finances. To do this, they should listen to expert colleagues and clearly communicate decisions and the rationale for making them.

People are motivated by knowing their work has meaning and relevance to the overarching goals of the organization. Having a well-defined strategy and clearly articulated plan sets the course for turning around the business. Aligning people—leaders and teams—with the expertise to tackle the plan is the first step to implementing change.

Empathy and understanding for employee concerns during a crisis or organizational change allows employees to feel heard. Open lines of communication not only relieve the stress and anxiety of upheaval, they also engage employees in the clean-up process, and allow innovative solutions to bubble up throughout the organization. If we learned nothing else from working remotely for the past 18 months, we learned that great ideas occur at every level of an organization, and it pays to listen. Something many women excel at.

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Developing high-performance teams is common behavior among women leaders. Research suggests that women often invest time in coaching colleagues and mentoring junior folks on the rise. These qualities build loyalty, which can be crucial when a team needs to dig a bit deeper, work a bit harder, for the greater good of the organization. Similarly, women leaders are usually more open to hiring people with greater expertise than their own—mission critical when faced with quickly assembling a team equipped to address the challenges of an organization in transition or crisis. 

“Together Everyone Achieves More,” or TEAM, is a common rallying cry to promote the benefits of teamwork. Many years ago, the tech world discovered the benefits of parallel processing—divvying up complex tasks so that elements could run simultaneously on multiple central processing units to shorten the time to complete the task. Teamwork and collaboration are the human equivalent. Women leaders facing organizational upheaval benefit from assembling teams to work on components of the turnaround plan. Taking a page out of the agile playbook, the plan can be broken down into epics and sprints to work toward milestones. Frequent huddles ensure everyone is on track and provide an opportunity for teams to share progress and brainstorm solutions to thorny issues. As a bonus, huddles help to drive employee engagement and keep people aligned with the purpose.

Mistakes will happen. No leader is perfect. After all, the premise of the glass cliff is that women are more likely to be promoted to senior leader roles during a crisis or downturn, and the organization got there under the previous regime. What’s important is to acknowledge mistakes when they happen, learn from the experience, and listen to the strong team assembled to stem the slide. Again, communication is key to ensuring that the organization understands any setbacks or refinements to the plan.

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For any woman leader who finds herself in a situation rife with culture and/or business challenges that have to be reversed, she needs to remember that she earned the opportunity based on her competence and past success. She needs to lean into her strengths, quickly assemble an expert team, move forward decisively, and communicate.


Elaine Varelas is managing partner, Keystone Partners where she spearheads all sales and marketing activities. She also currently serves as treasurer of Career Partners International, LLC, after serving as Chairman of the Board.

Brett C McCarty is Senior Vice President of Marketing at Keystone Partners. She is also founder of the Boston- and San Francisco-based Big Rocks A Marketing Cooperative, serving as a marketing consultant to multiple firms including Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, TIAA, and EastWest Marketing Group where she served as interim CMO.

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