How to Stay Off the 'Glass Cliff'

By damian ghigliotty

Female professionals may face an unforeseen risk as they excel in their careers: winding up on the "glass cliff," a high-level position almost guaranteed to lead to failure.

Two U.K. professors, Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam, who teach at the University of Exeter in England, coined the phrase in 2004. They say it's just as prevalent in 2012.

"A lot of the research we've done shows that women often get appointed to these high-level roles in times of poor company performance or when things are going badly," Ryan says.

Gender often plays a major role in those kinds of appointment decisions, the professors say, largely due to stereotypes about what men and women bring to the workplace.

"Part of it is 'think crisis, think female,' since women are generally viewed as more compassionate and empathetic," Ryan says. "In other cases women are set up for failure simply to reinforce the idea that it's a man's job."

Ryan and Haslam, who focused their research on the top 100 companies on the London Stock Exchange, believe women can avoid the glass cliff by following some simple rules.

Don't climb the organizational ladder too fast

If you are heading toward a glass cliff in your career, you are more likely to meet its end if you are racing toward it. To avoid doing so, carefully learn the ins and outs of your organization, establish your footing as you move into higher roles and kept a certain amount of skepticism, Haslam says.

"It's a good idea to plan your ascent," he says. "Be somewhat circumspect when you are invited to take on leadership positions and make sure to avoid rushing into one."

A good way to pace yourself as you look to move up is by setting "realistic deadlines for your accomplishments," Ryan says. Looking for a quick fix to any circumstance or setting expectations for instant solutions is a recipe for failure, she says.

Seek support from those around you as you move up

Garnering support from colleagues is paramount in any situation where a crisis may arise, Ryan says. Female executives who have held on to top positions, such as PepsiCo Chief Executive Indra Nooyi, have typically surrounded themselves with colleagues they trust, Ryan says.

Support from others can make frantic moments more manageable, Haslam says. "The stresses of leadership are harder to deal with if you have to tough them out alone," he says. "While this is true for everyone, women are more likely to find themselves alone at the top than men."

In some cases, women look to appoint other women into these kinds of precarious positions, Ryan says. "There are situations where women in high places will protect themselves and their friends, but have no problem throwing another woman to the wolves," she says, and that adds to the incentive of befriending your colleagues as a woman moving up in an organization.

Analyze and document the details of your situation, as well as the performance of your company

Fully understanding the circumstances tied to an open position will allow you to make a more informed decision about whether you're the right person for the job, Ryan says.

"If it's an important high-level role, don't hesitate to investigate how long it's been open, what happened to the last person who took on the position and why you are seen as the right fit," she says.

There two main sources for finding that kind of information, Ryan adds. One of is through public channels, such as annual reports and media coverage. The other is through colleagues and outsiders who have gained your trust.

"If you think there are high risks, make sure they are documented," Haslam says. "Also make sure you plan for the worst when drawing up your contract."

Foster awareness about your predicament

Once you have done your research, find a tactful way to make it known to the people around you.

"It's a good idea to ask yourself and other people, 'Why am I being offered this position?'" Haslam explains. "Be particularly wary if people say things like, 'We're in a spot of bother, and we think you are the person to turn things around,' or 'We're in a spot of bother, and we think this is the ideal opportunity for you to prove yourself.'"

If you do accept a position that seems precarious, make sure that your colleagues are aware of the circumstances in which you took it, he adds.

"The worst thing you can do is ignore a potential glass cliff scenario or, just as bad, keep it to yourself," Ryan says.

If a position has "glass cliff" written all over it, find a way to decline or make sure you have an exit plan

If you can sense that you may be inevitably heading toward a glass cliff, find a way to pump the brakes or start securing your parachute.

"The first thing is to be prepared to resist any pressure to take on toxic leadership positions 'for the good of the group'," Haslam says.

However, saying "no" to a higher position often isn't an option, Ryan says. "While it might be preferable to avoid glass cliff positions, in some cases those are the only opportunities for many women to take on board leadership positions."

In those cases, tread carefully, garner support from the people around you and make sure you have a contingency plan, Ryan says. That could be another job elsewhere or a contract that ensures a certain amount of protection.

Write to Damian Ghigliotty at

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