A struggling organization hires a female leader, and she inherits a company in crisis. She can’t quickly generate the momentum needed to fix the problems. The Board of Directors replaces her with a seasoned, white male. This is what Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam, of the University of Exeter, call the “glass cliff,” the theory that women are more frequently hired into precarious roles, not positioned to succeed, and eventually replaced with men.
Ryan and Haslam also argue that a woman’s typically more inclusive, collaborative qualities are the reason she was hired in the first place. Companies in crisis are looking for leaders who can bring the whole team along. But when a quick turnaround is unsuccessful and she gets “pushed off the cliff,” the episode can perpetuate the false notion that women leaders are less capable than men.
Women from Jill Abramson at The New York Times to Sallie Krawcheck, former head of Merrill Lynch and Smith Barney, have fallen into this pattern. Some speculate that Mary Barra at General Motors or Marissa Mayer at Yahoo could be the next victims of this dynamic.
As a female leader in the predominantly male enterprise software industry, I have developed techniques over the years to manage my own career and to advise younger women to avoid the most common pitfalls. Below are highlights of my process before jumping into a new role and top tips for being a woman in a mostly male environment.
Before Taking That Role: Do Your Homework.
An executive leadership role at a company with huge potential for growth is a valuable opportunity. But even if the company has a respectable brand and a reputable past, it’s your job to be “buyer beware” before you say “yes.” Gain a firm understanding of what you’re inheriting. Hold the organization under a magnifying glass and scrutinize the opportunity. Ask yourself the following questions:
Who are you replacing? Did the previous person leave of their own free will or were they let go? Get an idea of their experience, successes, and failures within the organization.
Do you believe in the team that’s in place? Are they the kind of people you want to work with? Make sure you spend enough time with the team to get a feel for their strengths and weaknesses, and ensure that you have enough buy-in with them to hit the ground running.
What are the organization’s short- and long-term goals? Before entering a role, it’s important to understand expectations. What does the organization need to accomplish in the next few months or years? Do you feel like you’d have the resources and support to meet those expectations and goals? Did you feel like you were fully aligned with the board and senior management on the goals during the interview process? Are you passionate about what you are going to take on? The job will be challenging, so early alignment is essential for everything you’ll build upon.
What’s the financial state of the company? You should have working knowledge of past financial performance and an idea of quarterly projections for the upcoming year. Since financial goals are commonly aligned with organizational goals, expectations for the role could likely hinge on financial performance metrics. Ask yourself if this is something you’d like to invest in.
Once on Board: Don’t Be Your Gender, Be a High-Ranking Executive.
Acknowledge differences, and get to work. While gender differences exist, they don’t have to dominate your thoughts or behavior, or the way you view yourself or others. Instead of identifying as a person confined to or defined by your gender role, think of yourself as a human being in a high-ranking role.
Recognize that universal business skills are gender neutral. Whether you were hired to “save” the company or to keep it on track, you are incredibly accomplished and qualified in your work. Trust your expertise and confidently lead your team. Once you’ve made a decision, stick to your guns. Know when to take responsibility. Be open to advice from your team and employee feedback. Ignore the expectation of failure and focus on job you do best. Have some fun. Be yourself. Be a woman. And if you have family, remember they come first: not because you are a woman, but because they are your family.
Don’t sweat the haters. Everywhere you go, you’ll encounter some people who will try to throw you off your game with nasty remarks, inappropriate comments or other insidious behavior. My technique has always been to wear blinders. Ignore the small stuff. We’re in a changing society, and the only way to drive change is to hold ourselves to a higher standard. You can’t control others; the only person you can control is yourself.
Use differences to your advantage. Don’t be afraid to dress like yourself; be as feminine as you’re comfortable being. I like the fact that now I can wear heels and a skirt to the office. Learn to be comfortable around men: go to the cigar bars, and tolerate conversations about sports. Try to assert yourself by offering a different perspective: a joke, or an observation about opera.
Most of all, stay positive! Stick to your guns. Keep your eye on the ball. Ignore obstacles. Try your best. It’s up to us to break the barriers, and there are more barriers breaking now than ever.