Women Are Often More Effective Leaders — Why Do We Push Them Off the Glass Cliff?

Two of the most iconic names in American retail — Gap Inc. and J.Crew — finally have female CEOs, but it may be no coincidence that the news comes at a time when both chains are struggling.

Researchers have called it the “glass cliff”: the phenomenon of women only being promoted to positions of power once an organization is in distress, leaving them to navigate precarious turnarounds. Examples abound not only in retail, but also in politics, sports, nonprofits and throughout the corporate sector.

The glass cliff applies to non-white male leaders in general, according to research by Alison Cook and Christy Glass of Utah State University. Looking at Fortune 500 companies over a period of 15 years, white women as well as men and women of color were more likely than white men to be chosen to lead weakly performing firms.

These promotions are risky by nature, but they also represent opportunities for leaders that might have been previously overlooked.

On the one hand, the fact that women are often brought in to clean up the toughest messes may be a reflection of the strength of their leadership skills: a 2019 Harvard Business Review analysis found that women outscored men in almost every leadership quality the study measured, including resilience, taking initiative and a drive for results. On the other, this then begs the question: Why aren’t more companies bringing women in sooner, when they might be better positioned to succeed?

Among Fortune 500 companies, only 36 are helmed by women, two of whom are leaving their posts in the spring. On March 23, however, Old Navy chief Sonia Syngal will become no. 37 when she takes the reins of parent Gap Inc., an appointment the company announced Thursday.

During her tenure at Old Navy, annual sales rose from about $7 billion to $8 billion, and the brand became a force to be reckoned with in e-commerce. Syngal also looked poised to steer Old Navy through an IPO until Gap pulled the plug on the planned spinoff in January. Its own stock price has fallen by more than half since 2018.

In her new role, she’ll be tasked not only with renewing the momentum at the budget-friendly brand and keeping growth on track at Athleta, Gap’s popular athletic label, but also turning around years of sales and traffic declines at the company’s flagship brand and Banana Republic.

J.Crew Group’s recent history may be even more tumultuous, with dozens of store closures, layoffs and significant losses. Last year, it signaled plans to spin off its fast-growing Madewell brand to help pay down its hefty debt load, but these have since been delayed.

In November, the company hired former Victoria’s Secret and Spanx chief Jan Singer for the top post, which her predecessor — retail veteran Jim Brett — held for just 16 months following the 2017 departure of longtime CEO Mickey Drexler. Singer has what some have called a “herculean” job ahead of her, and the pressure is on to see if she can muscle the flagship brand back to its former glory.

Whatever the result, she’s far from the only executive in the industry attempting such a feat: beleaguered department store JCPenney hired its first female CEO, Jill Soltau, in 2018, while H&M, which has struggled in recent years in the face of growing competition, appointed Helena Helmersson to the top position in January, the first time a woman has held the role.

It makes sense, then, that the “glass cliff” phenomenon applies particularly to leadership positions previously filled by men. A study by University of Exeter researchers Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam, who coined the term “glass cliff” in 2005, asked participants to read about a fictional male-led company and choose between two equally qualified candidates for his successor. When they were told the business was doing well, 62% chose the male candidate, but when the business was in crisis, 69% selected the female candidate. When it was a female CEO already at the helm, this discrepancy didn’t exist.

Given the current demographic makeup of the C-suite, most women and people of color who join these ranks at a company are likely to be in the minority. This doesn’t have to be the obstacle it often is, said Sara Jones, CEO of InclusionPro, a firm that provides diversity and inclusion consulting and training, but it’s up to companies to make sure incoming leaders are set up to succeed. One key step, she said, is having open conversations at the executive level and treating a lack of experience working with (or reporting to) people of different genders, races and ethnicities as a leadership skills gap.

“The exercise of being able to acknowledge ‘Wow, I really haven’t had this type of professional experience… how do I put myself in spaces where I can build my network and engage with people that are different and just start building that skill set?’ [That] shouldn’t happen when a woman becomes CEO,” explained Jones. “It shouldn’t happen when a black person becomes CEO. It should be happening way ahead of that.”

If women and people of color are going to be brought in during times of turmoil, they shouldn’t also have to navigate blind spots and biases among their teams.

With the right support, taking on a “glass cliff” position can be an opportunity to succeed where others may not even try.

“You have to be open and willing to take that risk to say, ‘It might not work,'” said Toni Pergolin, president CEO of the nonprofit organization Bancroft and author of “Too Important to Fail,” a book about how she brought the company back from the brink.

When she arrived, she continued, the cash flow situation was way direr than she had realized, but that at least left room for quick wins. “I could begin to build confidence in the people on the board that I was able to make a difference,” she said. “And once you start building that trust around you, more and more people want to get in it with you and lean in and help you get through it.”

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