Some statistics suggest that the glass ceiling and barriers to diverse professionals’ advancement (sometimes called bamboo or concrete ceilings) may be weakening. A 2021 report indicates that the proportion of women in senior management roles globally grew to an unprecedented 31%, while 90% of companies worldwide have at least one woman in a senior management role.
But the proportion of diverse employees in the workforce continues to dwindle as we look up the corporate ladder. Researchers from McKinsey and Lean In found that in 2022, only 26% of C-suite roles were held by women and only a tiny fraction — 5% — by women of color.
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Why are companies failing to retain and advance occupational minorities — in this case, women and people of color? While there are many causes, one unique hurdle facing aspiring diverse candidates is the glass cliff phenomenon, in which women and other minorities are preferentially selected for leadership positions in times of crisis, placing them at increased risk for failure.1 This phenomenon occurs across industries and geographies and for women and ethnic minorities alike.2 Poorly performing Fortune 500 companies were found to be more likely to appoint a female CEO than those performing well.3 Another study found that boards were more likely to recruit female directors following decreased stock performance.4
In times of crisis, leaders — no matter who they are — tend to be seen as ineffective and part of the problem. When the leader is an occupational minority, any failure or lack of improvement tends to be blamed on their personal failings rather than on the situation. In a phenomenon called the savior effect, the minority leader is then replaced by a more demographically typical leader who “saves the day.” This both perpetuates leadership stereotypes in the organization and constricts diverse candidates’ future opportunities.5
Behind the Glass Cliff
Researchers point to three common reasons why occupational minorities are more frequently offered glass cliff assignments. First, these leaders may be chosen in part because they are atypical choices, demographically unlike their predecessors. Particularly in organizations with little diversity in their ranks, these hires signal that the organization is taking definitive action to correct the situation.
The second reason similarly centers on the candidate’s identity. Women and some ethnic minorities are likely choices when solving for crises of morale or engagement, as these leaders are believed to have the stereotypical “feminine touch,” characterized by participative leadership, understanding, intuition, helpfulness, and social and emotional intelligence. In contrast, when the crisis requires a so-called masculine attribute like decisiveness, or when it concerns stereotypically male domains such as finance or IT, male ethnic minority candidates are favored.6
The third reason is that women and other minorities may be selected because these positions are precarious, and the failure and subsequent departure of the candidate is highly likely. In such cases, these individuals may be seen as necessary but acceptable casualties of the crisis if things continue to go wrong.
Warning: Glass Cliff Ahead
Deciding how to navigate a glass cliff begins with recognizing you are facing one. Glass cliff assignments tend to emerge within organizations that are in crisis. Whether the crisis is due to a natural disaster, an industrial accident, product failure, negative public perception, a management scandal, financial underperformance, or another cause, the defining criterion is that key organizational goals are under threat and a quick response is needed. If people like you are significantly underrepresented in leadership positions and if you are demographically unlike your predecessor, it is possible that you are being offered up as a symbol of change — or, at worst, a sacrificial lamb.
The allure of a very challenging assignment can be intoxicating, especially if you are a diverse candidate and feel you have limited opportunities to rise in the organization. While you can use this assignment to establish yourself as an exceptional leader and turnaround expert, you must resist the urge to simply accept the assignment and jump in.
Deciding how to navigate a glass cliff begins with recognizing you are facing one.
Why? Because exceptional leaders hit their performance targets and do so under budget and on schedule. This opportunity has become a glass cliff assignment precisely because no one in the organization has the capacity or sufficient information to do that yet. While the assignment is neither intended to be impossible nor a setup for failure, you do need to take specific steps to mitigate your risk and position yourself for success. This begins with asking the right questions — a lot of them, and before you accept the assignment. If you wait to discover risks and problems as you go, you’re likely to find yourself out of time and over budget. If you realize the problems only after the dust settles, you may even have difficulty recovering professionally at the organization.
Exploring the Cliff
The common feature across all glass cliff problems is that they are challenging for anyone to solve: No one person or team has the answers or a plan for solving them. While this means it’s unlikely that you are maliciously being set up to fail, the downside is that the hiring manager and others in the organization might have trouble helping you explore this cliff and deciding the right course of action.
To have a chance of achieving your performance goals on time and within budget, you must take the initiative and invest time in fully exploring the cliff — usually, you will be allowed two to four weeks to evaluate the opportunity. Begin by asking the hiring manager to outline the expected performance targets, deadlines, and budget. Next, identify all of the additional parties surrounding the problem, such as executive sponsors, individual contributors and their managers, collaborating internal business units, and strategic partners. You may also consult trusted advisers within your network who can provide a customer or supplier perspective related to the problem at hand. Then schedule conversations with the hiring manager and each stakeholder group to help you carefully consider the situation relative to its past, present, and future.
You must understand what happened in the past if you are to improve upon what your predecessor did. You also need to gauge whether the new performance goals are realistic and what obstacles threaten their achievement. Finally, you need to soberly assess whether success is possible given the resources and stakeholder commitments available to you in the present.
The common feature across all glass cliff problems is that they are challenging for anyone to solve.
There are no right or wrong answers to the questions you ask the various stakeholders. (See “Questions for Stakeholders.”) Each stakeholder will have different perspectives, and some might not be able to answer all of them. Your aim through these conversations is to uncover the patterns of responses across the stakeholders so that you can begin to detect the core issues that resulted in the glass cliff, such as problems with organizational processes, structures, or culture.
Once the core issues underlying the problem have been identified, you’ll be far better equipped to comprehend the parameters of the opportunity being offered to you. For example, if you discover that the organization’s culture is unintentionally hampering achievement of the goal, you need to identify the existing practices and processes that are obstructing success. Once you have identified them, determine what you need from the organization to support change, such as vocal executive sponsorship, revisions to organizational and reporting structures, or additional incentives and rewards.
Making a Plan, and Deciding Whether to Jump
Based on the information you gained from your exploration, create a detailed plan for the assignment, including your short-, medium-, and long-term goals; the mentors, sponsors, and allies you will call upon for support and guidance; and your plans for knowledge and skill building, if needed. At the same time, be ready to justify your requests, and realize that you are not going to get everything you ask for. You must also distinguish your must-haves from your nice-to-haves; identify workarounds for must-haves; and outline your plans for negotiating for and securing additional time, resources, and head count, if needed.
After creating the plan, seek feedback from trusted advisers. Helpful questions to ask during their review include “What am I not asking? What am I not negotiating for that I need to? Is my plan realistic?” Their perspectives and guidance can be vital to your success. At the same time, don’t be dissuaded if they respond with “This will never work” or “We tried this before”; they are subject to biases and assumptions, as is anyone. Instead, test their responses further by asking additional questions, such as “What did you try? Why didn’t it work? What is the business climate now, and would it work now given current business conditions?”
Taking the Plunge — or Deciding Not to Jump
If you have carefully conducted your due diligence and crafted a plan that your trusted advisers agree is credible, and the organization has agreed to the plan, you might decide to proceed with the opportunity. Implement your plan and celebrate your early wins to build momentum. Monitor and ensure that the organization provides the support you negotiated for by involving your sponsors as needed. Throughout implementation, seek guidance from your mentors to optimize your chance of success.
On the other hand, if you discover through your due diligence that you are not the right fit for the opportunity or cannot devise a realistic plan for the situation, or the organization does not agree to the plan you have outlined, the chance for success may be too low to warrant risking your career. In these cases, it may be wiser to decline the position and watch for the next opportunity.
If you are a diverse candidate with leadership aspirations, you may be offered more than one glass cliff opportunity over the course of your career. Don’t avoid them — they can be exciting and fun. But don’t allow yourself to unwittingly walk into a no-win situation, either. Through careful evaluation and negotiation, you can position yourself for success.
1. M.K. Ryan and S.A. Haslam, “The Glass Cliff: Evidence That Women Are Over-Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions,” British Journal of Management 16, no. 2 (June 2005): 81-90.
2. T. Morgenroth, T.A. Kirby, M.K. Ryan, et al., “The Who, When, and Why of the Glass Cliff Phenomenon: A Meta-Analysis of Appointments to Precarious Leadership Positions,” Psychological Bulletin 146, no. 9 (September 2020): 797-829.
3. A. Cook and C. Glass, “Above the Glass Ceiling: When Are Women and Racial/Ethnic Minorities Promoted to CEO?” Strategic Management Journal 35, no. 7 (July 2014): 1080-1089.
4. S.A. Haslam, M.K. Ryan, C. Kulich, et al., “Investing With Prejudice: The Relationship Between Women’s Presence on Company Boards and Objective and Subjective Measures of Company Performance,” British Journal of Management 21, no. 2 (June 2010): 484-497.
5. A.D. Galinsky, E.V. Hall, and A.J.C. Cuddy, “Gendered Races: Implications for Interracial Marriage, Leadership Selection, and Athletic Participation,” Psychological Science 24, no. 4 (April 2013): 498-506.
6. C. Kulich, L. Gartzia, M. Komarraju, et al., “Contextualizing the Think Crisis-Think Female Stereotype in Explaining the Glass Cliff: Gendered Traits, Gender, and Type of Crisis,” PLoS ONE 16, no. 3 (March 2021): 1-27.