Being Set Up To Fail

You don’t have to be in senior leadership position in your organization to experience the barriers that prohibit you from obtaining a certain level or achieving a particular organizational role if you are a woman or minority, often referred to as the glass ceiling. Also you don’t have to be that senior woman or minority executive that once you have “broken through”, the position that the organization is asking you to take is in reality a glass cliff assignment. A job described as one in which you are only given a key leadership role during an organization’s time of crisis with the expectation of fixing whatever the issue is. The person that the organization is expecting to see turn around that broken function; ensure that the organization recovers from a catastrophe; or fix a huge business issue that teams of people already can’t solve for, however has become that woman or minority’s job and responsibility to do so. And beyond a miracle occurring, a fix won’t happen. Then the failed outcome becomes less about the organization and more (if not solely) about the individual resulting in their career and future being negatively impacted or deemed a failure. Such scenarios occur and are real irrespective of an individual’s organizational level or position.


We can all think of people by name that this has happened to at the very top, middle as well the bottom of our own organizations. We have personally witnessed many incidences. Many of us can even throw ourselves into the mix especially if we are a woman or minority. However within the lower levels of a company neither the glass ceiling nor glass cliff issues make the news. The names of those impacted will never be a discussion in any business case study nor a part of any huge yearlong research. That publicity and exposure is reserved at the CEO, CFO and GM level.


No one appears to be asking what can be done to mitigate this before an organization’s female or minority talent reaches a senior level in their company where the stakes are even higher and there is little room for any career recovery. Or are there factors to be taken into consideration irrespective of an individual’s organizational level to prepare them. Or are there things that such talent should already have in their arsenal when given that challenging assignment that can enable their success further.


A study was conducted by Alison Cook and Christy Glass from Utah State University in which they looked at leaders. The study revealed that not only are underrepresented groups being placed in key leadership roles during an organization’s time of crisis and/or decline but there are also factors that can play into their failure. One such factor being not having a network during a time in which an individual’s chance of failure can be at its highest.


The same above scenario can hold true and be applied to individuals more junior within an organization. Having a network can serve to assist a person no matter what position or level they hold or whatever stage they are in their career.


The same thought process is applicable to the glass ceiling in which extensive research has been conducted by individuals such as by Rob Cross related to organizational networks. Individuals with robust organizational networks tend to receive the promotions, increased pay and are better known within their companies. This further supports the need for all individuals within an organization to develop and maintain their professional network.


So what does this truly mean not only for the individual but the organization? This means that there is shared accountability and responsibility on both sides to pay attention early on not just when someone becomes a senior leader.


Organizations have the responsibility to help their talent build those connections or create an infrastructure that allows them to know who they should be engaging with and why. So when that cliff-type role is taken, the organization’s responsibility is not only to provide the right financial or people resources, but the right sponsorship and navigational support.


As for the individual, whether trying to break the “glass ceiling” or being asked to take that “glass cliff” assignment, working on establishing a professional network is essential. Being clear on who will support or provide guidance is important.


The individual asking and understanding what such an assignment means to one’s career is critical. Many times we are so excited about an opportunity and to learn that our organization believes in our ability (or we think so) that we forget to do our due diligence. Going into any job with one’s eyes wide open and knowing who the advocates are is critical. We’ve all been asked who will stand up for us or “pound on the table” on our behalf. This is not only important to hear such reassurance from your boss, but others throughout the company.


It takes both the company and the individual. Neither party can be successful alone. More importantly the employee should never leave this for the organization to take care of for them or have faith that the organization will help them figure this out regardless of any level. Ensure your organization is doing its part as well as you to help you break barriers that exist as well having the right type of support when that tough assignment is presented.


Flickr Photo: AustinPixels


I am Francine Parham. My focus is professional and leadership development. I help individuals in the development of the critical skills they need in their careers to be successful in achieving their professional goals. I speak publicly about the value of professional networks and networking as well as navigating through corporate cultures. I am also the creator of “Maximizing Your Network!”™, which instructs you on how to build, interact with and maintain your professional network. . Please connect with me at or attend one of my upcoming speaking events.