Glass-Cliff Roles: Go for It

So-called "glass cliff" jobs carry big risks, but Korn Ferry’s Evelyn Orr sees important opportunities for women and minorities who take them.

In this regular column, Evelyn Orr, vice president and chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute, shares her thoughts on the intersection of career, relationships, and gender.

My son and I recently popped into a board shop to see whether he would like a skateboard for his birthday. The store owner, who has been in the business for more than 20 years, expertly oriented us to the importance of “trucks” (the hardware that connects the board deck to the wheels). Low-quality trucks limit a skater’s ability to skate, creating an invisible barrier to excelling at the sport.

“Kids hit a glass ceiling if they have low-quality trucks,” she told us.

She explained that a kid in that situation doesn’t know why it feels hard, or why they aren’t able to master some of the moves. Instead, they assume that there’s something wrong with them because they don’t see what is holding them back, misplacing the blame for their low performance. And then, they give up.

The concept of the glass ceiling, an unofficially acknowledged barrier to professional advancement that especially affects women and minorities, has been covered extensively in media and research.

The glass cliff, a newer phenomenon, refers to leadership roles during periods of crisis or downturn that are offered to women and people of color more readily. When the chance of failure is highest, opportunities open up to people who may not be seriously considered under other circumstances due to bias. Like the glass ceiling, the risk is that failure could be attributed to the individual and not the situation, a misattribution that can impact career opportunities.

Some glass cliff appointments, like Theresa May, who became prime minister of the United Kingdom and inherited the impossible task of negotiating the terms after the 2016 Brexit referendum, are doomed to failure.

But failure doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Cheryl Bachelder left her role as senior vice president of marketing and product development at Domino’s Pizza, where she introduced the now ubiquitous stay-hot delivery packets. She was tapped to reinvigorate the international restaurant chain KFC (part of Yum! Brands). After two short years of what she describes, in her book Dare to Serve, as “mediocre performance,” she was fired from her role as president and assumed that her career was over.

Bachelder, one of the participants in Korn Ferry’s Women CEOs Speak study, demonstrates many of the traits we observed in that group of leaders. She is humble, has incredibly high standards for herself, and loves a challenge. After some deep reflection, two other qualities kicked in: her sense of purpose and her courage. These were all in play in 2007 when she took on the CEO role at Popeyes, a flailing restaurant chain that had burned through four CEOs in seven years and saw its stock price plummet from $34 per share to $13 in five years.

With little to lose, Cheryl viewed the post as an experiment and with a collaborative approach that engaged all stakeholders—especially franchise owners. She established an innovation discipline that more than quadrupled the company’s share price during her 10-year tenure.

Christine Lagarde, the newly appointed president of the European Central Bank, is another glass cliff story to watch. The stakes are high, the current climate is tenuous, and governance is set up in a way that could hem her in, making it difficult to have an impact.

When a person sees the glass cliff clearly and still chooses to take on the challenge, they set their sights beyond the glass. Resolve is fueled by courage, driven by purpose and the assurance that falling off the cliff isn’t the end of the story. Many glass cliff appointments get tapped to lead again based on the lessons, experience, and wisdom from their first turnaround—whether it was a success or a failure.

Think of all the situations where the likelihood of failure repels many qualified candidates. We need leaders who see beyond the glass cliff, who will “run toward the fire,” focus on problem-solving, and risk failure because, as the leaders in our study said over and over again.

“What’s the worst that can happen?”