Watch Your Step! Are Your Women Leaders Heading Off A Glass Cliff?

Watch Your Step! Are Your Women Leaders Heading Off A Glass Cliff?



By Corinne Williams, Senior Vice President, Organisation Solutions

Love her or hate her, there’s no denying Theresa May has a tough job right now. As the architect of Brexit Britain, she is desperately trying to salvage success out of what is increasingly looking like a no-win outcome. But the question is: Was success ever possible, or is she the latest ‘fall-girl’ in another high-profile example of the Glass Cliff in action?


Companies that are underperforming or in crisis are more likely to hire or promote women into the top job. If the company is performing well, they are more likely to hire men. Research over the past 15 years has consistently shown this effect occurs not only in corporations, but across legal, political and public spheres as well. Examples include Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, Jill Abramson of The New York Times and Ellen Pao of Reddit.


Women placed in these crisis situations are at risk. Across all CEOs, 38% of female executives end up being fired for performance while only 27% of male executives end up being fired. The impact of the Glass Cliff can be devastating, as female CEOs are not only more likely to be forced out of office than men, but they also find it harder to get a second chance.


Why does this happen? Firstly, crisis encourages greater risk taking, organisations in dire straits are more likely to show a desire for change. This makes it more likely that a ‘new and different’ type of leader will be chosen. This helps explain why the Glass Cliff is not just a danger for women but extends to other minority groups.


However, other factors are at play such as the ‘type’ and ‘purpose’ of the leader chosen. In time of crisis, stereotypically ‘female’ leadership characteristics such as empathy, the ability to encourage others and building community are considered to be increasingly important. Women leaders are chosen, not to improve the situation, but as good people managers who can help maintain morale and engagement. However, research shows that an additional, more destructive motive emerges as they are also seen as figure heads who can take the blame if things do not change.


These factors are compounded by the fact that women are more willing than men to accept these high-risk roles, most probably as they have fewer opportunities for top jobs.


As ‘Glass Cliff’ roles can occur at all leadership levels throughout the organisation, what can we do to help leaders succeed? The good news is that a focused approach can help.


  1. Build networks and influence
  2. Women moving into crisis leadership roles are more likely to be starved of resources and backing. It is vital to enhance opportunities for the new leader to get out and build their networks. Connecting with others in similar situations inside and outside the organisation can provide insights, ideas and emotional support. It can feel lonely and stressful out there on the ledge. Alliances throughout the organisation are critical, so shore up alliances at all levels. Spend time to create and review stakeholder maps and think carefully about where to invest additional time into building key relationships at all levels.

  3. Focus development on critical capabilities for success
  4. In addition to relationships, quickly building critical leadership capabilities can help new leaders succeed and manage downside risk. In our experience coaching very senior female executives, common development themes emerge which are critical to success in potential ‘Glass Cliff’ roles. These include articulating inspiring visions, acting with political savvy, self-confidence and maintaining external focus. Focusing on building these capabilities is a great way to improve the probability of success. Working with an experienced executive coach can provide insight, guidance and courage, especially during the transition into the new role.

  5. Keep an eye on the future
  6. Be thoughtful about what happens next. If there is an increased possibility that success may be mixed, keep future options open. Building sponsorship at senior levels and having advocates willing to provide visible support is crucial. At the same time, leaders need to make time for wellbeing and maintain resilience.


Finally, line managers and HR need to be honest and up front about the risks in a role. Forewarned is forearmed, knowing the role comes with a risk might not change a leader’s decision to accept it. However, it will help improve her chances of beating the odds and making the Glass Cliff shrink down to a more manageable Glass Speed Bump.


Corinne Williams is Senior Vice President, Leader Services at Organisation Solutions. She has extensive experience in building organisational capability in global companies. Corinne has deep expertise in leadership development, culture change, and a special focus on executive coaching and assessment. She previously held senior roles at Standard Chartered Bank and Shell. Contact Corinne




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