With the recent publication of Fortune magazine’s annual ranking of Most Powerful Women (MPW), the obvious question is: what are these leaders doing right? There are 27 CEOs on the 2015 list who in aggregate control $1 trillion in stock market value. A quick scan through the list reveals one thing that many of the most successful women in business have in common: they were brought into the top spot when their organizations were in major flux or crisis.
Let’s look at two examples heading the list: this year’s number-one MPW, Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, took on her current role just one year ago in the midst of the auto manufacturer’s ignition-switch recall. While 2014 profits dropped 26 percent in the wake of the recalls, this year Barra has led the company beyond the crisis with climbing sales of trucks and SUVs despite weak international markets.
In the number-three MPW spot, IBM’s CEO Ginni Rometty was brought in to head up Big Blue in 2012, when the company was firmly immersed in the struggles that led to its ongoing decline. A series of cost-cutting measures prior to Rometty’s tenure—including slashing jobs and off-shoring services—hastened the company’s revenue slide. Rometty is launching her own strategy for IBM and is determined to transform this mammoth organization into a differentiating, world-class IT company for the 21st century.
Another classic example of a woman named to CEO in times of trouble is Anne Mulcahy, former chairman and CEO of Xerox Corporation. Anne appeared as number two on Fortune’s MPW list back in 2006, heralded in that feature as “the turnaround magician” for finding a way to drive steady growth at the then-$15.7 billion company. Prior to her taking the helm, Xerox had been at the brink of Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In a 2004 interview with Stanford Graduate School of Business, Mulcahy cited cost cutting and “not taking a dollar out of the research and development budget” as part of the key for corporate recovery. But the single largest component of her strategy, she said, was honest and thoughtful communication with customers and employees. “I feel like my title should be Chief Communication Officer, because that’s really what I do,” she said in the interview.
The observation that women are frequently brought into top leadership spots in times of corporate crisis has been validated by ample research. Back in 2005, Michelle K. Ryan and S. Alexander Haslam coined the term “glass cliff” in the British Journal of Management, providing evidence that “women are over-represented in precarious research positions.”
The study examined FTSE 100 companies pre- and post-appointment of male and female board members, revealing that during a period of overall stock-market decline, organizations that placed women on their boards were more likely to have experienced ongoing poor performance in the five months prior than companies that appointed men.
Clearly, such results suggest that the glass cliff is another barrier that’s largely invisible—alongside the glass ceiling and Sticky Floor—that women must overcome in the workplace. On one hand, the glass cliff presents an in-road for female leadership at the C-level. But it also increases the odds of failure for women CEOs who take the reigns during difficult times, as they must try to undo difficult corporate declines that are not of their own creation.
Why does the glass cliff phenomenon exist in the first place? In some ways, it makes sense that women are summoned under difficult circumstances, as we do lead differently than men, and have been shown to have exceptional strengths in certain areas of leadership that can help in crisis situations. In my most recent book, Make Room For Her: Why Companies Need an Integrated Leadership Model to Achieve Extraordinary Results, I wrote about how research into brain science supports an Integrated Leadership model. Specifically, I called out the differences in the male and female brain—differences that help to explain the unique leadership styles of each gender, and how men and women show up differently in a number of situations in the workplace. Women’s brain structure provides strengths in the areas of collaboration, intuition, empathy, and future vision. Men’s brain structure, on the other hand, tends to make male leaders more competitive, evidence-based, results-oriented, and focused on the present.
Research from McKinsey and Company supports these gender differences as well, with the report Women Leaders, a Competitive Edge in and After the Crisis, McKinsey found that “certain leadership behaviors more frequently adopted by women are critical to navigate through the crisis safely and to perform well in the post-crisis world.” These types of behavior include people development, providing clear expectations and rewards, serving as a role model, providing inspiration, and participative decision-making.
During complex, difficult times, it’s clear that each of the traits above would become more coveted—as would a future-focused approach to leadership. When a company is on shaky ground, the cautious, consultative thinking process that many female leaders favor can certainly be more appropriate than the rapid-fire decision-making preferred by many male leaders.
While more female CEOs and board members are certainly what we’re looking for, Corporate America needs to work toward considering women for the top job in cases other than crisis situations. While Fortune’s Most Powerful Women are examples of exceptional leadership against difficult odds, more women should be given a chance to take the reigns during good times as well as bad, to lessen their chances of falling off the glass cliff.