Did you just get promoted? Hired for a new job? Before you pop the champagne, read this.
For a long time, I thought the glass cliff was a C-suite problem. The term “glass cliff” usually refers to women in upper management roles who are promoted during chaotic corporate crises. (Think International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde.) I was aware of the painfully slow progress toward gender parity. But after talking with my friends and colleagues, I was surprised to realize that most professional women have a glass cliff story.
Mercer’s 2020 analysis laid bare the stark reality for women in U.S. leadership roles: While women occupied 37% of managerial positions, they made up just 29% of senior managers and 23% of the C-suite. And it’s worse for women of color. In 2020, Latina, Black, and Asian women represented less than 10% of total managerial roles across the country.
This is the typical glass cliff story: You work hard and finally rise to the top. After you celebrate your success, you recognize that you’ve been set up for failure. This is due to commonly held stereotypes: Women are more centered, empathetic, and helpful under pressure. Plus, women are “better” at cleaning up messes. What makes these positions so precarious is that marginalized groups are given less time to fix things and are more likely to be let go.
The glass cliff is a double-edged sword. The sense of victory you feel after landing a promotion or new job compounds your misery when you realize you’re fighting an uphill battle. Understandably, you feel like the inevitable fall means you failed. You begin to question your abilities, and it affects your performance, resulting in further damage to your career.
If you find yourself in a similar position as you read these words, don’t despair. While it’s not an easy process, these three steps can help you navigate the glass cliff:
1. LEARN THE RULES OF THE GAME
Clarity is everything. If you think you’re standing on a glass cliff, study up. Learn about the ways in which women are expected to play by different rules than the culture of power (usually white, cisgender, heterosexual men). Before you can create your unique playbook for success, you need to understand the obstacles in your way.
You may find that you have fewer resources at your disposal or less time to turn things around. Define these limitations to yourself and take a deep breath. What constitutes “acceptable” leadership behavior may also differ for you. It’s well-documented that high-achieving women are often called “bossy” or “abrasive” when their male counterparts are deemed “confident.” (Bias is magnified for women of color.)
To change the rules of the game, you don’t need to change who you are. You just need to find your support network and possibly a mentor. These should be experienced women you can trust to have your best interests at heart. They can help you develop and leverage the right skills for your situation.
When seeking a mentor, start within your own company. As a woman in a leadership role, I understand the reluctance to ask for help, but women in senior roles are often “lonely at the top” and eager to share their wisdom. If you’re an underrepresented person in your workplace, you might need to explore external resources. Organizations like the American Business Women’s Association, ColorComm, and the Ellevate have programs dedicated to helping women advance in the workplace. You can also check with your local chamber of commerce chapter or economic development office.
2. BE BOLD AND ASK FOR OBJECTIVE FEEDBACK ON YOUR PERFORMANCE
Trust your gut because a glass-cliff promotion is eerily similar to being gaslighted. You’re surrounded by encouraging false narratives. If you share your anxiety with the wrong people, you’re likely to hear, “You’re on top! You should feel great!” But you don’t feel great. You feel like you’re going to fail because the deck is stacked against you.
You need to know what’s expected in terms of specific outcomes. Request a meeting with your company board or boss. These conversations can be hard if you feel insecure, but they’re necessary for success. Regardless of what happens, you’ll learn critical communication skills for your career. Prepare by creating a well-researched list of questions and concerns. Don’t leave until you know the KPIs by which your performance will be judged.
Once you know what’s expected, connect with someone who can offer objective feedback about your performance and goals. Find an executive coach with experience coaching high-achieving women — or reach out to your mentor. Be clear about your goals as you reach out to them; what you need to validate is your perspective on your situation. Then, seek their advice on how to move forward.
3. FIND AN INTERNAL CHAMPION
It’s extremely difficult to broach the topic of the glass cliff with a superior. Many women are afraid of being perceived as whiny or uncooperative. But you may find someone within your organization who’s willing to go out on a limb to support you.
Sometimes, you may have to go above your boss to get additional support or resources. This can work as long as you’re clear about what you want and come armed with data about your past performance and the resources at your disposal. Stick to the facts, keeping your requests reasonable. Sometimes, you just need more time or a few more resources to succeed.
The glass cliff can be a major barrier to your happiness; you might resist opportunities for advancement or stay quiet about your anxieties. Empower yourself with the truth as soon as you can. Learn about systemic impacts so that you can depersonalize your experience with the glass cliff and become a transformational leader. You can win the long game by finding a supportive community, evaluating your strengths and limitations, and refusing to fail.