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Glass Cliff or Golden Opportunity?

Glass Cliff or Golden Opportunity?

Posted October 12th, 2015 in Career Advancement.

Marianne Cooper – Author, Sociologist and Lead Researcher for Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg – recently posted a piece to LinkedIn about the glass cliff, a situation often faced by women leaders.

The glass cliff, a term coined in 2004 by British professors, Michelle K. Ryan and Alex Haslam of the University of Exeter, describes the phenomenon of women leaders being likelier than men to be promoted into those roles during periods of crisis or downturn, when the chance of failure is highest.

Some people question whether the glass cliff is a real thing. Maybe GM’s Mary Barra or Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer will weigh in on this topic. And if Volkswagen hires a female CEO to stanch the hemorrhaging from its recent, spectacular self-inflicted wounds, we may have our answer. Whether people choose to believe it’s a thing or not is immaterial, though, because a decade’s worth of research strongly supports the phenomenon’s existence across numerous business sectors. For the believers, the oft repeated question is: “why do women keep ending up precariously out on this ledge?”

To answer that question, we could take the cynical view. One that suggests when a company is going through tough times and needs to chart a new course, it only promotes a woman into leadership because doing so looks “forward-thinking”. And if the woman leader doesn’t succeed, well, she makes for a relatively easy scapegoat and it didn’t hurt the company for having given a woman a shot. But that feels a bit intellectually lazy.

Personally, I find that the positive reasons Cooper cites for promoting women into leadership during crisis periods ring true and are far more compelling. Here’s what she says:

First…the selection of a woman can signal a change in direction, especially when a company has a history of having all male leaders…selecting a woman can show that they are implementing the kind of change that is sorely needed.

Second, research indicates that we believe men possess qualities that are more of a fit with running successful companies, while women possess qualities that can make them more suitable in difficult situations.

These kinds of findings have led some to conclude that … In times of crisis, more stereotypical feminine qualities like being collaborative or good with people are often seen as particularly important.  Thus, it may be that women are thought to be more suitable in certain types of crisis situations, since they are believed to possess these kinds of social qualities more so than do men.

What interests me (and WE) most here is figuring out how women can own our professional trajectories and best use these opportunities to our advantage. I’m convinced it’s essential that we make our successes in these situations more visible, even if the overall outcome involves some measure of failure. Effectively marketing the skills we gained in a glass cliff situation is crucial for moving into the next opportunity.

So, I say take the challenges on and make them work for you! In the process, I hope you create an “old girls’ network” full of allies and strong female mentors who’ve been there before and can advise you on whether you should take on a risky opportunity, and how to navigate it like a boss. Doing so just might transform the glass cliff from a scary ledge into a rich training ground preparing you for your next big opportunity.